The Prohibition Era began in 1920 when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, went into effect with the passage of the Volstead Act. Despite the new legislation, Prohibition was difficult to enforce. The increase of the illegal production and sale of liquor (known as “bootlegging”), the proliferation of speakeasies (illegal drinking spots) and the accompanying rise in gang violence and organized crime led to waning support for Prohibition by the end of the 1920s. In early 1933, Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. The 21st Amendment was ratified on December 5, 1933, ending Prohibition.
Origins of Prohibition
In the 1820s and ’30s, a wave of religious revivalism swept the United States, leading to increased calls for temperance, as well as other “perfectionist” movements such as the abolitionist movement to end slavery.
In 1838, the state of Massachusetts passed a temperance law banning the sale of spirits in less than 15-gallon quantities; though the law was repealed two years later, it set a precedent for such legislation. Maine passed the first state prohibition laws in 1846, followed by a stricter law in 1851. A number of other states had followed suit by the time the Civil War began in 1861.
By the turn of the century, temperance societies like the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) were a common fixture in communities across the United States. Women played a strong role in the temperance movement, as alcohol was seen as a destructive force in families and marriages.
In 1906, a new wave of attacks began on the sale of liquor, led by the Anti-Saloon League (established in 1893) and driven by a reaction to urban growth, as well as the rise of evangelical Protestantism and its view of saloon culture as corrupt and ungodly.
In addition, many factory owners during the Industrial Revolution supported prohibition in their desire to prevent accidents and increase the efficiency of their workers in an era of increased industrial production and extended working hours.
In 1917, after the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson instituted a temporary wartime prohibition in order to save grain for producing food. That same year, Congress submitted the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, for state ratification. Though Congress had stipulated a seven-year time limit for the process, the amendment received the support of the necessary three-quarters of U.S. states in just 11 months.
Ratified on January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment went into effect one year later, by which time no fewer than 33 states had already enacted their own prohibition legislation. In October 1919, Congress put forth the National Prohibition Act, which provided guidelines for the federal enforcement of Prohibition. Championed by Representative Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the legislation was more commonly known as the Volstead Act.
Enforcement of Prohibition
Both federal and local government struggled to enforce Prohibition—Hoover’s “noble experiment”—over the course of the 1920s. Enforcement was initially assigned to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and was later transferred to the Justice Department and the Bureau of Prohibition, or Prohibition Bureau.
In general, Prohibition was enforced much more strongly in areas where the population was sympathetic to the legislation–mainly rural areas and small towns–and much more loosely in urban areas. Despite very early signs of success, including a decline in arrests for drunkenness and a reported 30 percent drop in alcohol consumption, those who wanted to keep drinking found ever more inventive ways to do it.
The illegal manufacturing and sale of liquor (known as “bootlegging”) went on throughout the decade, along with the operation of “speakeasies” (stores or nightclubs selling alcohol), the smuggling of alcohol across state lines and the informal production of liquor (“moonshine” or “bathtub gin”) in private homes.
In addition, the Prohibition era encouraged the rise of criminal activity associated with bootlegging. The most notorious example was the Chicago gangster Al Capone, who earned a staggering $60 million annually from bootleg operations and speakeasies.
Such illegal operations fueled a corresponding rise in gang violence, including the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929, in which several men dressed as policemen (and believed to be associated with Capone) shot and killed a group of men in an enemy gang.
When Did Prohibition End?
The high price of bootleg liquor meant that the nation’s working class and poor were far more restricted during Prohibition than middle or upper-class Americans. Even as costs for law enforcement, jails and prisons spiraled upward, support for Prohibition was waning by the end of the Roaring Twenties. In addition, fundamentalist and nativist forces had gained more control over the temperance movement, alienating its more moderate members.
There were also many unintended consequences of Prohibition: Some cash-strapped restaurants shuttered their doors since they could no longer make a profit from liquor sales. Thousands of people died each year from drinking cheap moonshine tainted with toxins. And revenues shrank for many states that had previously relied on liquor taxes to fund roads, schools and other public benefits.
With the country mired in the Great Depression by 1932, creating jobs and revenue by legalizing the liquor industry had an undeniable appeal. Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president that year on a platform calling for Prohibition’s repeal, and easily won victory over the incumbent President Herbert Hoover.
FDR’s victory meant the end of Prohibition, and in February 1933 Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. The amendment was submitted to the states, and in December 1933 Utah provided the 36th and final necessary vote for ratification. Though a few states continued to prohibit alcohol after Prohibition’s end, all had abandoned the ban by 1966.
Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform. Library of Congress.
Unintended Consequences of Prohibition. PBS: Prohibition.
Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure. Cato Institute.