In 1920, the 18th Amendment was passed making the manufacture and sale of alcohol illegal. But many people in this time of ‘Prohibition’ continued to drink and gangsters made enormous amounts of money from supplying illegal liquor.
In early 1933, Congress adopted a resolution proposing a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. It was ratified by the end of that year, bringing the Prohibition era to a close.
What happened and why?
Why did Prohibition come about?
National mood – when America entered the war in 1917 the national mood also turned against drinking alcohol. The Anti-Saloon League argued that drinking alcohol was damaging American society.
Practical – a ban on alcohol would boost supplies of important grains such as barley.
Religious – the consumption of alcohol went against God’s will.
Moral – many agreed that it was wrong for some Americans to enjoy alcohol while the country’s young men were at war.
In 1929, however, the Wickersham Commission reported that Prohibition was not working.
Ohio State University has more:
The prohibition movement’s strength grew, especially after the formation of the Anti-Saloon League in 1893. The League, and other organizations that supported prohibition such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, soon began to succeed in enacting local prohibition laws. Eventually the prohibition campaign was a national effort.
During this time, the brewing industry was the most prosperous of the beverage alcohol industries. Because of the competitive nature of brewing, the brewers entered the retail business. Americans called retail businesses selling beer and whiskey by the glass saloons. To expand the sale of beer, brewers expanded the number of saloons. Saloons proliferated. It was not uncommon to find one saloon for every 150 or 200 Americans, including those who did not drink. Hard-pressed to earn profits, saloonkeepers sometimes introduced vices such as gambling and prostitution into their establishments in an attempt to earn profits. Many Americans considered saloons offensive, noxious institutions.
The prohibition leaders believed that once license to do business was removed from the liquor traffic, the churches and reform organizations would enjoy an opportunity to persuade Americans to give up drink. This opportunity would occur unchallenged by the drink businesses (“the liquor traffic”) in whose interests it was to urge more Americans to drink, and to drink more beverage alcohol. The blight of saloons would disappear from the landscape, and saloonkeepers no longer allowed to encourage people, including children, to drink beverage alcohol.
Some prohibition leaders looked forward to an educational campaign that would greatly expand once the drink businesses became illegal, and would eventually, in about thirty years, lead to a sober nation. Other prohibition leaders looked forward to vigorous enforcement of prohibition in order to eliminate supplies of beverage alcohol. After 1920, neither group of leaders was especially successful. The educators never received the support for the campaign that they dreamed about; and the law enforcers were never able to persuade government officials to mount a wholehearted enforcement campaign against illegal suppliers of beverage alcohol.
Ratified on January 29, 1919, the 18th Amendment went into effect a year later, by which time no fewer than 33 states had already enacted their own prohibition legislation. In October 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, which provided guidelines for the federal enforcement of Prohibition. Championed by Representative Andrew Volstead of Mississippi, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the legislation was more commonly known as the Volstead Act.
Both federal and local government struggled to enforce Prohibition over the course of the 1920s. Enforcement was initially assigned to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and was later transferred to the Justice Department. 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 have associated with Capone) shot and killed a group of men in an enemy gang.
Prohibition created an enormous public demand for illegal alcohol.
Gang leaders such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran battled for control of Chicago’s illegal drinking dens known as speakeasies.
Capone claimed that he was only a businessman, but between 1927 and 1930 more than 500 gangland murders took place.
The most infamous incident was the St Valentine’s Day massacre in 1929 when Capone’s men killed seven members of his rival Moran’s gang while Capone lay innocently on a beach in Florida.
Capone was imprisoned for income-tax evasion and died from syphilis in 1947.
It has been estimated that during Prohibition, $2,000 million worth of business was transferred from the brewing industry and bars to bootleggers and gangsters.
An industry died. The National Library of Medicine:
In 1916, there were 1300 breweries producing full-strength beer in the United States; 10 years later there were none. Over the same period, the number of distilleries was cut by 85%, and most of the survivors produced little but industrial alcohol. Legal production of near beer used less than one tenth the amount of malt, one twelfth the rice and hops, and one thirtieth the corn used to make full-strength beer before National Prohibition. The 318 wineries of 1914 became the 27 of 1925.27 The number of liquor wholesalers was cut by 96% and the number of legal retailers by 90%. From 1919 to 1929, federal tax revenues from distilled spirits dropped from $365 million to less than $13 million, and revenue from fermented liquors from $117 million to virtually nothing.28
The Coors Brewing Company turned to making near beer, porcelain products, and malted milk. Miller and Anheuser-Busch took a similar route.29 Most breweries, wineries, and distilleries, however, closed their doors forever. Historically, the federal government has played a key role in creating new industries, such as chemicals and aerospace, but very rarely has it acted decisively to shut down an industry.30 The closing of so many large commercial operations left liquor production, if it were to continue, in the hands of small-scale domestic producers, a dramatic reversal of the normal course of industrialization.
Such industrial and economic devastation was unexpected before the introduction of the Volstead Act, which followed adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment. The amendment forbade the manufacture, transportation, sale, importation, and exportation of “intoxicating” beverages, but without defining the term. The Volstead Act defined “intoxicating” as containing 0.5% or more alcohol by volume, thereby prohibiting virtually all alcoholic drinks. The brewers, who had expected beer of moderate strength to remain legal, were stunned, but their efforts to overturn the definition were unavailing.31 The act also forbade possession of intoxicating beverages, but included a significant exemption for custody in one’s private dwelling for the sole use of the owner, his or her family, and guests. In addition to private consumption, sacramental wine and medicinal liquor were also permitted.
Was prohibtion a healthy opiuon? Cato notes:
One of the few bright spots for which the prohibitionists can present some supporting evidence is the decline in “alcohol-related deaths” during Prohibition. On closer examination, however, that success is an illusion. Prohibition did not improve health and hygiene in America as anticipated.
Cirrhosis of the liver has been found to pose a significant health risk, particularly in women who consume more than four drinks per day. However, deaths due to cirrhois and alcoholism are a small portion of the total number of deaths each year, and alcohol can be considered only a contributing cause of most of those deaths. Many people who do not drink develop cirrhosis, and the vast majority of heavy drinkers never develop it. Dr. Snell of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, reported in 1931 that “we know now that cirrhosis occurs in only 4 per cent of alcoholic individuals.” Even in the worst pre-Prohibition year, recorded deaths due to alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver amounted to less than 1.5 percent of total deaths.
An examination of death rates does reveal a dramatic drop in deaths due to alcoholism and cirrhosis, but the drop occurred during World War I, before enforcement of Prohibition. The death rate from alcoholism bottomed out just before the enforcement of Prohibition and then returned to pre-World War I levels. That was probably the result of increased consumption during Prohibition and the consumption of more potent and poisonous alcoholic beverages. The death rate from alcoholism and cirrhosis also declined rather dramatically in Denmark, Ireland, and Great Britain during World War I, but rates in those countries continued to fall during the 1920s (in the absence of prohibition) when rates in the United States were either rising or stable.
Prohibitionists such as Irving Fisher lamented that the drunkards must be forgotten in order to concentrate the benefits of Prohibition on the young. Prevent the young from drinking and let the older alcoholic generations die out. However, if that had happened, we could expect the average age of people dying from alcoholism and cirrhosis to have increased. But the average age of people dying from alcoholism fell by six months between 1916 and 1923, a period of otherwise general improvement in the health of young people.
There appear to have been no health benefits from Prohibition. On the contrary, the harmlessness and even health benefits of consumption of a moderate amount of alco- hol have been long established. As early as 1927 Clarence Darrow and Victor Yarros could cite several studies showing that moderate drinking does not shorten life or seriously affect health and that in general it may be beneficial. According to the eminent Harvard psychologist Hugo Månster berg, “there exists no scientifically sound fact which demonstrates evil effects from a temperate use of alcohol by normal adult men.”
Drug Library looks at the repeal.
It is difficult to assess the relative numbers of the wet and dry partisans during the last few years of national prohibition. In terms of strength, however, the wets surely had the edge which less than two decades before had belonged to the drys. The new wet strength showed up at the National Convention of the Democratic party held in Chicago in 1932, where Mayor Cermak of that city filled the galleries with his supporters. And, though Franklin D. Roosevelt had wooed the dry vote for some time, he now came forward on a platform which favored the outright repeal of the 18th Amendment. Accepting his nomination, he stated:
I congratulate this convention for having had the courage, fearlessly to write into its declaration of principles what an overwhelming majority here assembled really thinks about the 18th Amendment. This convention wants repeal. Your candidate wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal (Dobyns, 1940: 160).
While dry leaders looked on with disgust, Roosevelt was elected president and Congress turned a somersault. The repeal amendment was introduced February 14, 1933, by Sen. Blaine of Wisconsin and approved two days later by the Senate 63 to 23. The House followed four days later, voting 289 to 121 to send the amendment on to the States (Lee, 1963: 231). It required approval by 36 states. Michigan was the first state to ratify it; 39 states voted, on the amendment during 1933, with 37 approving its ratification and two-North and South Carolina-voting against its ratification. The final ratification was accomplished on November 7,1933, when Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Utah gave their approval.
Congress officially adopted the 21st Amendment to the Constitution on December 5, 1933.
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