Disenchantment with Prohibition had been building almost from the moment it first took effect in 1920. Politicians continued drinking as everyday people were slapped with charges. Bootleggers were becoming rich on the profits of illegal alcohol sales and violence was on the rise. But it wasn’t until the Great Depression that the repeal movement truly gained steam.
“The Depression has a huge impact,” says Garrett Peck, author of The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet. “We got Prohibition because of an emergency, the emergency being World War I, and we lost Prohibition because of another emergency, the Depression.”
By arguing that the country needed the jobs and tax revenue that legalized alcohol would provide, anti-Prohibition activists succeeded in recruiting even noted teetotalers to their cause. As the economy crumbled and the Democratic Party gained power, the demise of Prohibition eventually became a fait accompli.
Alcohol consumption and alcohol-related diseases did decrease overall due in large part to the expense of procuring illicit booze. Still, just about anyone who wanted a beer could easily get one at the countless speakeasies that popped up around the country. (There may have been more than 30,000 in New York City alone.)
Even politicians who supported Prohibition in public continued imbibing it in private. President Warren G. Harding, for example, stocked the White House with whiskey for his infamous poker nights, while his Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover liked to stop for a drink at the Belgian Embassy—where U.S. law technically didn’t apply.
As for the legislative branch, one prominent bootlegger estimated that he supplied two-thirds of Congress with liquor. “There’s a lot of hypocrisy,” says Peck. “Everyone thinks that Prohibition is for someone else to obey.”
Though power brokers drank with impunity, enforcement could be strict for the masses, particularly once the Jones Act of 1929 increased penalties for liquor law infractions. The courts became backlogged with alcohol-related cases, and newspapers ran wild with stories of prosecutorial excesses, such as a Michigan mother of 10 who was sentenced to life in prison for small-time pedaling of moonshine. (Her conviction was later overturned.)
A steep rise in organized crime also garnered the nation’s ire. Gangsters like Al Capone grew rich from bootlegging and, as Peck explains, turned bribery of judges, police officers and other officials into a commonplace act. Violence broke out as they competed for territory, culminating in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929.
To make matters worse, an ill-advised government program to poison industrial alcohol, with the goal of stopping bootleggers from redistilling it into something drinkable, purportedly led to thousands of deaths.
Yet even as Prohibition’s unintended consequences became progressively harder to ignore, nobody anticipated its quick demise. “The very idea of repeal had been beyond the imagination of even the most ardent ‘wet,’” says Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, who points out that a constitutional amendment had never before been overturned.
In fact, temperance supporters thought they had won a great victory in the 1928 presidential election when the ostensibly “dry” Herbert Hoover—who called Prohibition “a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose”—defeated the “wet” Al Smith. “The pro-Prohibition people think, ‘Aha, the people have really embraced Prohibition,’” Okrent says. “Of course, they missed the story. The real reason [Hoover won] is the economy was doing very well at the time, and people didn’t want to vote for a Catholic, especially in the Southern states.”
As late as 1930, Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas, the so-called “Father of Prohibition,” declared: “There is as much chance of repealing [Prohibition] as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”
By that time, though, the Great Depression was in full swing, and the nation’s mood had changed. The 18th Amendment, which ushered in Prohibition, had forced an estimated 250,000 alcohol industry employees out of work. Now, with a quarter of the U.S. labor force jobless and people growing increasingly desperate, this seemed absurd.
What’s more, income tax collections had dropped precipitously (along with personal incomes), and the federal government was desperate for revenue, having forfeited an estimated $11 billion in alcohol-related taxes over the course of Prohibition.
Suddenly, anti-Prohibition activists had a powerful jobs and taxes argument at their disposal. Former drys such as Senator Hugo Black of Alabama and General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan began converting to the wet cause, as did lifelong teetotaler John D. Rockefeller Jr.
Prohibition truly began to teeter in 1932, when Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president. Though Roosevelt, a martini drinker, just like his opponent Hoover, had previously waffled on the issue of lawful booze, he embraced it during the campaign, saying the legalization of beer alone would “increase the federal revenue by several hundred million dollars a year.” The Democrats—perceived as the “wet party,” Peck explains—even inserted repeal of Prohibition into their party platform, which, no surprise, stressed economic relief above all else.
Roosevelt ended up trouncing the Republican Hoover with 57.4 percent of the popular vote. The Democrats likewise made enormous gains in both houses of Congress, which passed the 21st Amendment to repeal Prohibition even before FDR officially took office.
The amendment then went to the states, which ratified it in a rapid-fire fashion. In December 1933, Utah supplied the 36th and final vote needed to end Prohibition once and for all. “It’s one of those things where, once you’ve lost the Mormons (whose religion prohibits alcohol), it’s game over,” Peck says.
The repeal of Prohibition didn’t reverse the Depression, as some of the most optimistic wets predicted. But it did fund much of the New Deal, with alcohol and other excise taxes bringing in $1.35 billion, nearly half the federal government’s total revenue, in 1934. (Individual income taxes, by contrast, brought in only $420 million that year.)
Repeal likewise helped tame unemployment. “Before Prohibition, the distilling and brewing industries were the fifth or sixth largest employer in America,” Okrent says. “So bringing it back was an incredible, privately financed jobs program.”
Under the 21st Amendment, states and localities retained the power to ban alcohol. Some places remain dry to this day. Yet, as Peck points out, more fall into the wet camp with each economic downturn.