American History / Abstinance Makes The Drink Get Stronger: A Look At The Failed Experiment Of Prohibition

Abstinance Makes The Drink Get Stronger: A Look At The Failed Experiment Of Prohibition

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Autor:  kirasnick  27 May 2011
Tags:  prohibition,  1920s,  20s,  American history,  organized crime
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"Prohibition" of alcohol became the law of the United States in 1920 via the 18th Amendment of the Constitution. The amendment restricted the sale, export, import and transport of any alcoholic beverage. In fact, it essentially banned everything but the possession and consumption of alcohol. By the time the amendment was repealed in 1933, 75% of voters supported reform and repeal ( The goal of Prohibition was to decrease consumption of alcohol leading to an increase in "public virtue" in the United States. Instead, Prohibition increased the consumption of alcohol and other drugs while fostering: public hostility toward the government; an environment that encouraged normally law-abiding citizens to break the law; the growth and influence of organized crime with the resultant increases in levels of corruption and violent crime; the sacrifice of public health through substance abuse, addiction and actual poisoning; and, the degradation of the American family.

The Temperance Movement was part of and the result of a long series of reform movements. These included: the Second Great Awakening (1820s – 1830s), a religious revival that argued against pre-destination saying instead that it was the duty of people to obtain salvation through their own efforts and "spiritual purity" (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey); the Abolitionist Movement (1830s – 1870), calling for the end of slavery, also contributed to the development of prohibitionist fervor; mental health treatment reform; and the very beginning of what would become the Women's Suffrage Movement (Travel & History). Women were outspoken proponents of the Temperance Movement. Alcohol was deemed poisonous to families and marriages as men would spend time and money in saloons leaving women with no financial or parental support to raise their children (Baughman). Brothels were often attached to saloons, and the men who visited these brothels would often contract syphilis and other venereal diseases, bringing them home to their wives. Thus inflamed by the injustice known as "Syphilis of the Innocent" (Okrent), women came together to fight even harder to end what seemed to be the source of, if not all, then at least the vast majority of all their woes. The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826 to convince people to abstain from drinking followed by the Women's Christian Temperance Union in 1874, which pledged not only to ban alcohol and drugs, but to improve public morals. The anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Led by the ax-wielding, larger-than-life, Carrie A. Nation, it eventually became a powerful political force in passing prohibition legislation (Okrent). Progressive reformers also took to Prohibition, for they saw it as a continuation of their efforts to improve society in general. Temperance societies and Progressives argued for more governmental control and involvement in citizens' lives. Together, they were successful in passing a series of local laws that prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey). The Women's Suffrage Movement in the early 20th century contributed significantly to the passage of the 18th Amendment. In a reciprocal manner, the Prohibitionists voices were crucial in the passage of the 19th Amendment that granted women suffrage (McWilliams).

The 18th Amendment was sent out to the states for ratification beginning in early 1918. Only Connecticut and Rhode Island rejected the amendment (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey). The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919 and went into effect the following year, restricting all but the possession and consumption of alcohol.

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

To define the language used in the Amendment, Congress enacted enabling legislation called the National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act, on October 28, 1919 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). President Wilson vetoed the bill, but the House voted to override the veto and the Senate voted similarly the next day ( The Volstead Act set the date for nationwide prohibition on January 17, 1920 (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

The Volstead Act was the enacting legislation associated with the Amendment, however, the Act was riddled with loopholes "big enough to drive a beer truck through" (Okrent) beginning with permitting individuals to "manufacture, sell, purchase, transport, or prescribe any liquor" after "obtaining a permit from the commissioner so to do" (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). These loopholes were to significantly contribute to the chaos that ensued.

The thirteen years of Prohibition are amongst the most "colorful" in US history. Much of our language has been influenced by terms and phrases that emerged during this period. "Temperance" refers to the responsible use of alcohol while "prohibition" advocated total abstinence (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Enforcement of the Volstead Act led to the closure of the public "saloon" and the rise of the "speakeasy." The term "speakeasy" comes from the practice of a potential "guest" who would attempt to "speakeasy" to the doormen of the private or "underground" establishments that were still serving liquor. The doorman would decide who would be allowed in and who would not. This would include keeping police from entering because they were not permitted to force their entry (Baughman). The phrase, "going on the wagon," refers to parades led by temperance advocates who would lead parades through small towns in a wagon carrying a barrel of water. Community members were invited to climb aboard the wagon as a demonstration of their commitment to drinking water rather than alcohol (Travel & History).

The "Speakeasy" was just a symptom of the greater problem that included an actual increase in the consumption of alcohol and other drugs by Americans (McWilliams). In 1925, the average American over 14 was drinking 32.2 gallons of alcohol a year (Evangel). By the late 1920s, 1 million gallons of bootleg liquor had been brought into the US. Arrests for Prohibition law violations increased by 102+% between 1920 and repeal in 1933. Arrests for public drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased by 41% and arrests for drunk driving increased by 81% (Meredith). In addition to increasing alcohol consumption, the illegality of alcohol led instead to the consumption of substitutes that were even worse, including; narcotics, hashish, tobacco, marijuana, and the abuse of patented medicines (Okrent).

Several theories are put forth to explain why Americans rebelled against the law. Many citizens, particularly veterans and youth, were angry and disillusioned after WWI. These turned to alcohol as a means of both "drowning" their sorrows and registering their discontent with the government. In addition, profound disillusionment over the aftermath of the war raised serious questions as to the wisdom of self-denial (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey). Many saw Prohibition as part of a government agenda against the people. As Britain considered its own prohibition law, Oscar Wilde noted in his book, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that, "The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the thing is has forbidden itself" (Page 38). It could also be explained another way; "[The ‘noble experiment' of Prohibition] didn't work. … It just made it all the more exciting for the young kids. They all had to do something like that. They probably wouldn't have bothered if it wasn't illegal. But, you know, it really made it exciting to do something you are not supposed to." As recalled by Clara Due during an interview with the StoryCorps project.

Discontent with the government was only to grow throughout the period of Prohibition. Many could argue that Prohibition did more damage to the government than almost any other policy. The sheer volume of money created through bootlegging and other organized "crime" led to what might be called organized "corruption", or a hierarchy of corruption, in every level of government. Gang leaders corrupted politics by running their candidate, stuffing the ballot box, and/or influencing the voters (through threats, bribery, or breaking a scandal about the opposing politician right before elections). They bought off law enforcement, the courts, and politicians or killed them to protect their profits (Meredith). Hypocritical, hip-flasked legislators spoke or voted dry while privately drinking wet. Honest police, judges, prosecutors, and others were unable to do their jobs due to the lack of time, personnel, and money to handle the goliath problem. State and federal agencies were under-staffed, and their snoopers, susceptible to bribery, were underpaid. If all this did not generate enough problems for the Federal government, the efforts of prohibition agents to stop the heavy flow of liquor streaming in from Canada resulted in strained diplomatic relations (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey).

The degradation of the government was only one part of the overall decay of "community." Corruption in government forced citizens to conclude that the government could not be trusted, and thus they did not need to follow government rules. Many ardent "wets" believed that the way to bring about repeal was to violate the law on a large enough scale to force the hand of the government (Evengl).

While the government struggled to contain corruption within its own ranks, general citizen distrust and anger, an even bigger problem loomed in the form of organized crime and the extreme violence that accompanied it (Meredith). Like our contemporary illegal drug trade, criminal groups organized around the steady source of income provided by the manufacture and distribution of illegal alcohol. And, like our contemporary illegal drug trade, violence followed (Heath). Gangsters became involved because they saw that it was profitable. Gangs resorted to real crime in defense of sales territories, brand names, and labor rivalries. These rivalries led to massive gang wars, which in turn resulted in death, damage, and injury of gang members and civilians alike (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Even though gangs were violent, the public was even more hostile towards the government for trying to control the gangs because of the gang's ability to supply illicit liquor. The romanticized, Robin Hood-like, view of gangsters like Al Capone added fuel to the fire of organized crime (Meredith). When the supply of bootlegging gangs began to outweigh the demand, profit-hungry mobsters moved on other equally illicit and profitable activities, including gambling, prostitution, and narcotics (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey).

During this period: thefts and burglaries increased by 9%; homicides, assault, and battery increased by 13%; the number of Federal convicts increased by 561%; the federal prison population increased by 366%; and, total federal expenditures on penal institutions increased by 1000%. Police funding increased by $11.4 million (Meredith).

Meanwhile, the public was increasingly distressed as quick-triggered dry agents killed scores of people, including innocent bystanders. Honest merchants were forced to pay "protection money" to the organized thugs or risk smashed windows or physical harm (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey).

While the intent had been to improve public health, public health "institutions" such as doctors and pharmacies contributed to the problem rather than working to halt its growth and "cure" the citizens. Through gaping loopholes of the Volstead Act, medical alcohol remained completely legal (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Corruption "left the courts and entered doctors' offices" (Drehle) when "patients" began buying prescriptions for medicinal whiskey. Pharmacists and pharmaceutical companies joined in and began pumping out over-the-counter alcohol that could be sold at high prices (Okrent). In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan becomes even more suspicious of Jay Gatsby after Tom's wife, Daisy, mentions the fact that Gatsby runs a chain of drugstores. Even more suspicious is his friendship with the shady, and rather terrifying Meyer Wolfsheim (Page 282-290), who was based on Arnold Rothstein. Rothstein was a well-known, Jewish, "Mafioso" (American Jewish Historical Society).

Prohibition led to increased rates of alcoholism and other drug use as well as other health afflictions (McWilliams). During the 1920s, insurance companies charted the increase of alcoholism at more than 300+% (Blum). Rates of alcoholism increased because there was no way for it to be treated. After years of drinking lower proof drinks such as beer and wine, hard liquor, especially the cocktail, was consumed in staggering volume by both men and women. Largely because of the difficulties of transporting and concealing bottles, beverages of high alcoholic content were popular (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey). Homebrews like Moonshine, Rotgut, and Bathtub Gin came about when the poor became especially desperate for booze. The base that they used to make it, denatured industrial wood alcohol, contained the deadly toxin methanol that can cause blindness and liver and kidney failure (hint: the ancient Egyptians embalmed their dead in this stuff) (Okrent).

Frustrated that people continued to consume so much alcohol even after it was banned, federal officials had decided to try a different kind of enforcement. They ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols manufactured in the United States, products regularly stolen by bootleggers and resold as drinkable spirits. The idea was to scare people into giving up illicit drinking. Instead, by the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the federal poisoning program, by some estimates, had killed at least 10,000 people. "The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol," New York City medical examiner Charles Norris said at a hastily organized press conference. "[Y]et it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible." The general public, which was already mistrustful and hostile toward the government, was furious when they found out, and public-health officials, many of whom had supported Prohibition because of its health benefits, joined in the angry clamor for repeal (Blum).

While the intent of the law was to support "pro-social" activities, the opposite was fostered. Ultimately, many families were negatively impacted by Prohibition. Farmers, brewers, bottlers, and others who had relied on various aspects of the liquor business lost their livelihood, and were then forced to either continue their trade and serve as an arm of the illegal business, or go out of work (Drehle). The hard working poor, who argued that they needed it most, bemoaned the loss of cheap (and safe, unlike some water sources) beer while pointing out that the idle rich could buy all the illicit alcohol they wanted (Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey). Before Prohibition, men (especially poor men) drank in saloons. After it began, these men had to drink at home (as speakeasies were very expensive). Their families were thus exposed to the "evils" of alcohol, and domestic violence increased (Meredith). Mark Twain noted, "Prohibition only drives drunkenness behind doors and into dark places, and doesn't cure or even diminish it."

Public outcry for repeal grew. Groups that once supported banning alcohol now supported repeal. One example of this is the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform included over 1.5 million members by 1931. In 1932, the Democratic Party ran on a platform for the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Finally, in 1933, state legislatures ratified the 21st Amendment to the Constitution repealing the 18th Amendment. States would now determine alcohol laws. ( At the end of Prohibition, some supporters openly admitted its failure. A quote from a letter, written in 1932 by wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., states: "When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before" (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration). Some noted that the government lost over $11 billion dollars in tax revenues -- four times more than its income tax revenues --which could have balanced the nation's budget during the Great Depression. Instead, violent gangsters ended up with the $11 billion (Lee). Prohibition represents a failed policy. It did not increase "public virtue" and cost the nation: money in lost revenues and increased law enforcement expenditures; a loss of public confidence in the government and public health institutions; a rise in the organized crime and violence; increased alcohol and other drug use, abuse and addiction; and the decay of "family values."


Derks, Scott. "Temperance: 1930-1939." Working Americans 1880-2006. 1st ed. Vol. VII: Social Movements. Millerton, NY: Grey House Publishing, Inc., 2006. Print.

p. 270-272 "Based upon a Lie and Cannot Endure," from an address by Dr. Stephen Leacock,

Professor of Economics, McGill University, Montreal. Reprinted from The Minute Man; 1932

Leacock succinctly uncovers the failings of prohibition in this first person address. In particular, he addresses the vices that were propagated specifically by Prohibition, and how each developed differently and had different effects on the different levels of the social hierarchy.

p. 266 "Repeal Clover Has Withered," by the Radio Evangel, The National Voice, March 10, 1938

Like Leacock, the author of this document talks about the specific effects of Prohibition. Unlike the previous document however, this radio address uses quantitative data as well as qualitative data to get the point across.

Okrent, Daniel. "Prohibition Life: Politics, Loopholes, And Bathtub Gin." Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air. NPR. WHYY, Philidelphia, Pennsylvania, 10 May 2010. Radio.

The interviewee, Daniel Okrent, just published a book on the subject Prohibition: Okrent covers the gangland explosion that Prohibition triggered—and rightly deromanticizes it—but he has a wider agenda that addresses the entire effect enforced temperance had on our social, political, and legal conventions. Above all, Okrent explores the politics of Prohibition; how the 18th Amendment, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages, was pushed through after one of the most sustained and brilliant pressure-group campaigns in our history; how the fight over booze served as a surrogate for many of the deeper social and ethnic antagonisms dividing the country, and how it all collapsed, almost overnight, essentially nullified by the people. It's everything I need to know for my paper, and the interview nicely summarizes all of it.

Baughman, Judith S. "Government and Politics." American Decades: 1920-1929. 1st ed. Vol. 3. New York: Gale Research, 1996. Print.

Unlike my other sources, which all possess varying levels of opinion, because this book is an encyclopedia, I can get just straight facts to supplement the not so superficial but highly swayed information.

McWilliams, Peter. "Part IV: Prohibition: A Lesson in the Futility (and Danger) of Prohibiting." Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do: the Absurdity of Consensual Crimes in Our Free Country. Allen Park, Mich.: Mary, 2000. Print.

Cohen, Lizabeth, and Thomas A. Bailey. "Chapter 31: American Life in the "Roaring Twenties," 1919-1929." American Pageant. By David M. Kennedy. 13th ed. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. 725-28. Print. Advanced Placement.

Meredith, William A. &quot;Prohibition: The Great Experiment.&quot; University at Albany - SUNY. 25 Apr. 2005. Web. 25 May 2010. <>.

Wilde, Oscar. &quot;Chapter 2.&quot; The Picture of Dorian Gray. Modern Library Edition ed. New York: Random House, 1992. 38. Print.

Cardinale, Krysta. &quot;The Alcohol Prohibition Era.&quot; EncycloMedia. Traffix, Inc., 2007. Web. 26 May 2010. <>.

Heath, Ph.D, Dwight B. &quot;Prohibition, Repeal, and Historical Cycles.&quot; The Brown University Digest of Addiction Theory and Application 28.3 (2005): 7-8. Wiley InterScience. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 18 Feb. 2009. Web. 26 May 2010. <>.

Von Drehle, David. &quot;The Demon Drink.&quot; TIME. Time, Inc., 24 May 2010. Web. 27 May 2010. <,9171,1989146,00.html>.

Blum, Deborah. &quot;The Little-told Story of How the U.S. Government Poisoned Alcohol during Prohibition with Deadly Consequences.&quot; Slate Magazine. The Washington Post Company, 19 Feb. 2010. Web. 25 May 2010. <>.

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