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 1919 with the ratification of 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 In 1933, widespread public disillusionment led Congress to ratify the 21st Amendment, which repealed Prohibition.

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 Though it was repealed two years later, Maine passed the first state prohibition law in 1846, and by the time the Civil War began, a number of other states had followed suit.

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."

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 16, 1919, the requisite number of states 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.

Unexpected Events

Under Prohibition, the illegal manufacture and sale of liquor–known as “bootlegging”–occurred on a large scale across the United States. In urban areas, where the majority of the population opposed Prohibition, enforcement was generally much weaker than in rural areas and smaller towns. Perhaps the most dramatic consequence of Prohibition was the effect it had on organized crime in the United States: as the production and sale of alcohol went further underground, it began to be controlled by the Mafia and other gangs, who transformed themselves into sophisticated criminal enterprises that reaped huge profits from the illicit liquor trade.

When it came to its booming bootleg business, the Mafia became skilled at bribing police and politicians to look the other way. Chicago’s Al Capone emerged as the most notorious example of this phenomenon, earning an estimated $60 million annually from the bootlegging and speakeasy operations he controlled. In addition to bootlegging, gambling and prostitution reached new heights during the 1920s as well. A growing number of Americans came to blame Prohibition for this widespread moral decay and disorder–despite the fact that the legislation had intended to do the opposite–and to condemn it as a dangerous infringement on the freedom of the individual.

Calls for Prohibition’s Repeal

If public sentiment had turned against Prohibition by the late 1920s, the advent of the Great Depression only hastened its demise, as some argued that the ban on alcohol denied jobs to the unemployed and much-needed revenue to the government. The efforts of the nonpartisan group Americans Against Prohibition Association (AAPA) added to public disillusionment. In 1932, the platform of Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt included a plank for repealing the 18th Amendment, and his victory that November marked a certain end to Prohibition.

In February 1933, Congress adopted a resolution proposing the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, which repealed both the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. The resolution required state conventions, rather than the state legislatures, to approve the amendment, effectively reducing the process to a one-state, one-vote referendum rather than a popular vote contest. That December, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, achieving the necessary majority for repeal. A few states continued statewide prohibition after 1933, but by 1966 all of them had abandoned it. Since then, liquor control in the United States has largely been determined at the local level.