During the 1800’s and early 1900’s through out the United States there was
a movement for the end of alcohol. The sole aim and purpose of this body
was to stamp out the evils of alcohol. This movement, most commonly called
Prohibition, mixed the morals of Christianity and the politics of
government. Prohibition did succeed with the ratification of the 18th was,
however, a great mistake. This amendment made the common man a criminal,
lowered the confidence in the federal government, and started what we now
know as organized crime. The 18th amendment was a “noble experiment,” but
it was a horrible disaster.
Prohibition has been supported since the original colonize. Pious
Christians wanted to stamp out alcohol and to establish a better society.
However many of the colonists, even those who considered themselves devout
Christians, were heavy drinkers. “The Puritans who set sail for
Massachusetts, they had taken care to carry with them 42 tons of beer (in
contrast with 14 tons of water) and 10,000 gallons of wine” (Lee, 15). Many
of the early laws or prohibition dealt with the control of excessive
drinking. The regulation of liquor consumption was a matter of considerable
concern in certain colonies. Thus, for a time, Massachusetts went so far as
to prohibit the drinking of alcohol in 1638 (Lee, 19). This law was soon
abandoned. Although colonial laws made in clear that drunkards were
unwelcome, the diary of a colonial traveler, Sarah Kemble Knight, suggests
that such laws were unsuccessful:
I could ger no sleep, because of the Clamor of some of
the Town Tope-ers in the next room. . . . I heartily
fretted and wish’t ‘am tongue tyed. . . . They kept
calling for Tother Gill, Wch while they were
swallowing, was some Intermission, But presently, like
Oyle to fire, encreased the flame (Miller, Johnson,
Persons, such as Sarah Knight, were to become even more outspoken about
their concern for the use of spirits. Although the writings of these people
were fierce, the time for temperance had not yet arrived.
During the 1750’s the local ministers throughout the colonies began a
crusade against alcohol. On their heels came many pamphlets and a general
sentiment that liquor was not something that high society would involve
itself with. “John Adams noted in his diary on February 29, 1769 that the
taverns were ‘becoming the eternal haunt of loose disorderly people. . .'”
(Cherrington, 37). At the end of the 18th Century, the temperance movement
began to be noticed. In 1784, the Methodist Church took a staunch position
against the sale or drinking of alcohol.
Prohibition became more and more supported throughout the United States
throughout the early 1800’s. Eventually, prohibition forces gained enough
support to pass laws. In 1847, the first of these was enacted for the state
of Maine. A wave of prohibition statues followed. Delaware, on the heels of
Maine, passed it’s first prohibition law only to have it declared
unconstitutional the following year. Similar laws were enacted in Ohio,
Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania
and New York during the next few years. These laws met various fates,
including, veto by governors, repeal by the legislature and invalidation by
the state supreme courts. (nc2a.htm)
Eventually, all of these early prohibition laws were repealed. But
supporters took heart and began temperance societies. Many of these spread
throughout the United States, including the American Temperance Society,
later to become the American Temperance Union, which by 1835 had 8000 local
During the 1870 to the early 1900’s, several movements started such as
feminism, unionism, socialism, and progressivism. In 1874, with the forming
of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, feminism became involved in the
temperance movement. However, the WCTU was not carrying the burden of
reform alone. In 1869, the National Prohibition Party was born. Three years
later, the first party ticket was put forth in the presidential campaign of
1872, headed by John Black, who received 5,607 votes for President. Success
at the polls ultimately peaked in 1892 when John Dedwell, the Prohibition
presidential candidate, received a total of 270,710 votes. The next major
organization of the temperance movement was the Anti-Saloon League. The
League was to develop the art of lobbying or “political pressure” to it’s
most dramatic heights. Scarcely more than 10 years after organization, it
was described as “the most dangerous political movement that this country
has ever known” by the National Model License League. The League’s
indictments included not simply alcohol, but the saloon itself, as the
purveyor of spirits. A myriad of League publications denounced the saloon
for “annually sending thousands of our youths to destruction, for
corrupting politics, dissipating workmen’s wages, leading astray 60,000
girls each year into lives of immorality and banishing children from
school. (Odegard, 59) League posters appeard everywhere depicting the
saloon-keeper as a profiteer who feasted on demise.
The League geared up for political campaigns, but it was not alone. As the
Progressive spirit caught the national interest in the early 19th century,
the movement embraced the cause of temperance. Through the combination of
temperance and progressivism, it was believed that the Kingdom of God could
actually come to the United States.
Other movments were more ordinary. Scietist began accumulating evidence of
the effect of quantities of alcohol on the nervous system and general
physical condition. The myth that alcohol consumption improved muscular
power was discredited. The relationship between psychoses and alcohol was
documented, and thus did the condemnation of alcohol as a poison assume
Nevertheless, the Episcopal and Lutheran churches never aligned themselves
with the Anti-Saloon League, while Jewish and Catholic groups generally
opposed their objective. The conviction shared by Anti-Saloon Leaguers
expressed by Reverend Francis Ascott McBride was: “The League was born of
God” (Lee, 35). Thus one had to be for or against the movement, there was
no half-way commitment.
From the company’s point of view, the saloon was often responsible for
industrial injuries and absenteeism. Some believed that the drinking man
demanded higher wages than his sober counterparts. Furthermore, union
locals tended to congregate in saloon meeting halls maintained for that
purpose and, it was suspected, for the plottings of anarchistic
conspiracies. It was not long before industry moved from and indifferent
position to an active role in the temperance movement. Various methods were
adopted to encourage sobriety, including lectures, literature and job
preferences for drunks, Businessmen thought that sobriety expanded
productivity, increased bank deposits, improved collections and stimulated
the retail trade (Timberlake, 67-79)
Opinion was not unanimous, of course. Businessmen, including bankers, whose
interests were tied to the liquor industry could ill afford to be
charitable toward temperance. Others, including the DuPonts, Rockefellers,
Kresges, and Wananmakers spent freely to cover the League’s annual campaign
costs of #2.5 million (Odegard, 126)
All of this happened as the fist World War was nearing. Many people became
more distrustful of German-Americans. The United States Brewers Association
misread the prevailing remper and associated itself with the German-
American Alliabce to oppose the temperance advocates and defend German-
Americans. As the United States came closer to war, the opposition which
developed against the Centeral Powers in Europe was directed with equal
force against brewers in the United States (nc2a.htm)
The war gave the prohibition cause new ammunition. Literature depicted
brewers and licensed retailers as treacherously stabbing American soldiers
in the back. Raw materials and labor were being diverted from the war
effort to an industry which debilitated the nation’s capacity to defend
itself. It was urged that wartime prohibition would stop the waste of grain
and molasses and would remove the handicap on worker’s effciency.
In this atmosphere the Wartime Prohibition Act was passed in 1918. It
followed a series of federal laws such as the Wilson Original Packages Act
and the Webb-Keyon Act. The Wilson Original Packages Act was passed on
August 8, 1890, and provided that all intoxicating beverages shipped
interstate would be subject to the laws of the distination state upon
arrival. There was no help from the fedreal government to enforce this. The
Webb-Keyon Act, enacted on March 1, 1913, was intended to reinforce the
1890 Act by providing that it was a violation of federal law to ship an
intoxicating beverage interstate with the intent that it be used or sold in
any manner i violation of the laws of the distinationg state. The lack of
federal enforcement rendered the statute virtually meaningless. The Reed
Anendment, enacted four years later, provided a fine of $1,000 for
transporting liquor into a dry state. These new laws changed the federal
government’s stance on liqour taxs from a way to make revenuem but now
Congeress took notice of the role it could play in the regulation of
Congress had many chances to bring about national prohibition many times.
In 1876, Congressman Henry Blair of New Hampshire introduced a prohibition
ammendment to the Constitution for the first time. As a senator, he
introduced another such resolution in 1885, along with Senator Preston Plum
of Kansas. After consideration by the Senate Committee on Education, the
bill was reported out favorably and placed on the Senate Calendar in 1886.
Nevertheless, no cation resulted (Cherrington, 317).
In the meantime, state continued the struggle between the wets and the
drys, with great success for the temperance advocates. By 1913, nine states
were under stateside prohibition. In 31 other states, local option laws
were in effect. By reason of these and other vairants of regulatory
schemes, more than 50% of the United States population was then under
The Anti-Saloon League went on record at it’s 15th National Convention in
1913 in favor of immediate approval of a constitutional amendment. The
National Temperance Council, founded at the same time, coordinated the
activities of numerous temperance organizations with the same objective. In
1913, the demands if the League were formally presented to Congress.
The measure was then introduced in the House by Congressman Thompson and in
the Senate by Senator Sheppard. The following year, the first joint
resolution failed to secure the necessaty two thirds majority for
submitting a constitutional amendment to the states. A second resolution
was submitted in 1915 and favorably considered by the Judiciary Committees
of both houses, but neither ever came to a vote. Ultimately, in 1917, the
resolution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, transportation or importation
of alcoholic beverages in the United States was approved by Congress and
sent to the states for ratification (Cherrington, 330). It took only one
yeat and eight days for the 18th amendment to sccure the necessary
ratification. On January 8, 1918, Mississippi proudly became the first
state to ratify, and on January 16, 1919, Nebraska completed the job as the
36th state. By the end of Fevruary 1919, there remained only three hold-
outs: New Jersym Connecticut, and Rhode Island (Lee, 42).
On October 28, 1919, Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act – more
often known as the Volstead Act – with the intent to give effect to the new
constitutional amendment. Officially, the liquor drought was to begin on
January 17, 1920.
The early experience of the Prohibition era gave the government a taste of
what was to come. In three months before the 18th amenedment became
effective, liquor worth half a million dollars was stolen from Government
warehouses. By midsummer of 1920, federal courts in Chicago were
overwhelmed with some 600 pending liquor violation trials. Within three
years, 20 prohibition agents were killed in service. By 1921, “95,933
illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized. In
1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282, 122 in 1930″ (Sinclair,
176-177). The law could not quell the continuing demand for alcoholic
products. Thus were legal enterprises could no longer supply the demand, an
illicit traffic developed, from the point of manufacture to consuption. The
institution of the speakeasy replaced the institution of the saloon.
Estimates of the number of speakeasies throughout the United States ranged
from 200,000 to 500,000.
Writers of this period point out that the law was circumvented by various
means. Although there may have been legitimate, medicinal purposes for
whiskey, the practice of obtaining a medical prescription fot the illegal
substance was abused. It is estimated that doctors earned $40 million in
1928 for writing prescriptions for whiskey.
The leagal system was equally evasive. The courts convicted about seven
percent of those charged with liquor violations. The exception for
sacramental wine from protection under the Volstead Act also invited abuse.
The failures of prohibition enforcement were spotlighted in the big citites
where the law was flagrantly defied and in the smaller towns, populated by
miners and industrial workers, where the law was simply ignored.
Notwithstanding the weak enforcement of the Volstead Act, some believe that
it was only the coming of the Depression with it’s demand for increased
employment and tax revenues which finally killed the experiment. Others
observe that Prohibition was a by-product of the stress and excesses of war
and could not have survived in the peacetime even under optimal economic
conditions. Finally, there are those who accues the selfishly modivated
businessmen of the United States for repeal which they allegedly brought
abouth through the same high-pressure tactics so successfully employed by
the partisans of temperance in the preceding decades (nc2a.htm).
I feel that prohibition was only a attempt by people who thought that an
alcohol-free society would be a perfect, utopian society, one free of
crime, complaints against employers and government and a society that
worked tword common goals. This society was of course a foolish and absurd
idea. It did not take into account that we are sinful human beings or that
morals cannot be legislated. This experiment should never be repeated with
any drug that is now legal, such as tobacco, and we should learn from the
past that prohibition does not work.
Cherrington, E. H. The Evolution of Prohibition In The
United States of America Westerville, Ohio: American Issue, 1920.
Lee, H. How Dry We Were: Prohibition Revisited EngleWood Cliffs: Prentice
McGrew, J. L. “History of Alcohol Prohibition” Online.
Internet. Available: http://www.calyx.net/~schafer/.
Miller, P. and Johnson, T. H. eds. The Puritans New York: American Book,
Murphy, P. L. The Constitution in Crisis Times: 1918-1969 New York: Harper
and Row, 1972.
Odegard, P. H. Pressure Politics-The Story of the Anti-
Saloon League New York: Columbia University, 1928.
Sinclair, A. The Era of Excess Boston: Little, Brownm 1962.
Timberlake, J. H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement Cambridge:
Harvard Press, 1963.
“The Frenzied Twenties.” Christian History Issue 55, Volume 16, Number 3,