Created on October 30, 2020
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Prohibition refers to the period in United States history when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcohol. However, Prohibition was difficult to enforce and actually led to more crime, and in 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified, ending Prohibition.
1920 - 1933
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Woodrow Wilson put a temporary end to the manufacture of alcohol in order to save grain for the war effort. There were also, of course, the religious and moral reasons why some people wished to restrict alcohol. The anti-drinking movements took advantage of this to encourage the government to make Prohibition a permanent law. Congress submitted the 18th Amendment in 1917 for state ratification. The amendment received the support it needed - three quarters of the states in 11 months. Prohibition was ratified on January 16th, 1919. The National Prohibition Act was passed by Congress in October 1919, and this act provided guidelines for federal enforcement of Prohibition. Since it was led by Andrew Volstead of Minnesota, this is often known as the Volstead Act. The 18th Amendment went into effect a year after it was ratified on January 17th, 1920. However, Prohibition was difficult to enforce.
Prohibition was difficult for local and federal government to enforce. Public demand for illegal alcohol surged, and there were simply not enough prohibition agents to enforce the law. In general, it was enforced more strongly in rural areas and small towns where the population was sympathetic to the law, but it was enforced more loosely in cities. Despite a decline in arrests for drunkenness, the law simply inspired bootleggers (people who made illegal alcohol) to become more inventive in making and selling liquor. They would make homemade alcohol and smuggle it into cities and bars. “Speakeasies” (secret clubs selling alcohol) became more common. One group that owned many speakeasies and profited from Prohibition were organized crime groups. Gangster Al Capone is said to have made $60 million annually from speakeasies and bootlegging.
Preserved speakeasy at the Green Door Tavern in Chicago.
The National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement reported that Prohibition was failing. Many Americans never wanted the law in the first place, Prohibition agents were too few and too easy to bribe, and it was evident that crime had risen, not decreased, since Prohibition began. Furthermore, the country was in the Great Depression. When Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for election in 1932 and called for repealing Prohibition, he won easily. With the economy suffering so severely, there was a great appeal to creating jobs and revenue by reopening the alcohol industry. In 1933, Congress proposed a 21st Amendment which would repeal the 18th Amendment. The 21st Amendment was submitted to the states, and it was ratified on December 5th, 1933.
Chicago gangsters Capone and Moran battled for control over bootlegging and speakeasy trade. This resulted in gang violence and a crime wave across America. Between 1927 and 1930, there were hundreds of gang murders. The most famous incident of gang violence was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago in 1929 in which Capone’s men, dressed as policemen, shot and killed several members of Moran’s gang with machine guns. The murders were never officially linked to Capone, but Capone was later brought down by a Prohibition agent for violating Prohibition law and tax evasion.
Al Capone's mugshot.
The growing temperance movement in 19th century and the Anti-Saloon League argued that drinking alcohol damaged American society by destroying families and creating corruption Around the beginning of the 20th century, temperance societies were common in communities across the U.S. Since alcohol was seen as a destructive force for marriage and families, many women played a strong role in the temperance movement. In 1906, the Anti-Saloon League led a wave of attacks on the sale of alcohol. This was driven by urban growth, as well as the increase in evangelical Protestantism, which viewed saloon culture as “ungodly.” Factory owners also supported prohibition because they wanted to prevent accidents and increase the efficiency of workers.
Woman's Christian Temperance Union of South Australia, 1900
History.com Editors. “Prohibition.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 29 Oct. 2009,