By the late 1800s, prohibition movements had sprung up across the United States, driven by religious groups who considered alcohol, specifically drunkenness, a threat to the nation. The movement reached its apex in 1920 when Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors. Prohibition proved difficult to enforce and failed to have the intended effect of eliminating crime and other social problems--to the contrary, it led to a rise in organized crime, as the bootlegging of alcohol became an ever-more lucrative operation. In 1933, widespread public disillusionment led Congress to ratify the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition.
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Did You Know?
Prohibition was known as "the noble experiment." The phrase was coined by President Herbert Hoover, who wrote to an Idaho senator in 1928: "Our country has deliberately undertaken a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose."
Origins of Temperance Movement
A wave of intense religious revivalism that swept the U.S. during the 1820s and 30s led to the formation of a number of prohibition movements driven by religious groups who considered alcohol, specifically drunkenness, a "national curse." (This revivalism also helped inspire the movement to end slavery.) The first temperance legislation appeared in 1838, in the form of a Massachusetts law prohibiting the sale of spirits in less than 15-gallon quantities. Though it was repealed two years later, Maine passed the first state prohibition law in 1846, and by the time the Civil War began, a number of other states had followed suit.
As early as 1873, the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) of Ohio called for the abolition of the sale of alcohol. They were soon joined in the fight by the even more powerful Anti-Saloon League (ASL), founded in 1893 in Ohio but later expanded into a national organization that endorsed political candidates and lobbied for legislation against saloons. Beginning around 1906, the ASL led a renewed call for prohibition legislation at the state level. Through speeches, advertisements and public demonstrations at saloons and bars, prohibition advocates attempted to convince people that that eliminating alcohol from society would eliminate poverty and social vices, such as immoral behavior and physical violence. One prominent temperance advocate, Kentucky-born Carrie Amelia Moore Nation (she called herself "Carry A. Nation"), became known for particularly violent tactics against what she called "evil spirits." In addition to making protest speeches, Nation was known for breaking saloon windows and mirrors and destroying kegs of beer or whiskey with a hatchet. She was arrested numerous times, and became a household name across the country for her "saloon-smashing" campaign.
From State to Federal Prohibition Legislation
By 1916, 23 of 48 states had passed anti-saloon legislation. Many went further, prohibiting the manufacture of alcoholic beverages as well. After the congressional elections that year, "dry" members (as those who favored a national prohibition of alcohol became known) won a two-thirds majority over "wet" in the U.S. Congress. On January 29, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacturing, transportation and sale of alcohol within the United States; it would go into effect the following January.
Later in 1919, the National Prohibition Act--popularly known as the Volstead Act, after its legislative sponsor, Representative Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota--was enacted in order to provide the government with the means of enforcing Prohibition. Loopholes in this act--such as the fact that liquor used for medicinal, sacramental or industrial purposes remained legal, as did fruit or grape beverages prepared at home--as well as varying degrees of government support throughout the 1920s hampered the enforcement of Prohibition, and it would remain more of an ideal than a reality.
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