Prohibition is the act of prohibiting something through legal enforcement.
The possibility of prohibition opens anytime people come together collectively and lobby against something they deem inappropriate. The fight against cigarettes in today’s society could, for example, wind up in the prohibition of cigarette manufacturing and has already resulted in smoking bans in public places. In most cases, however, it is argued that the act being prohibited is not actually unlawful.
Rather, it is an enjoyable act that causes no material crime. As such, prohibition is oftentimes unsuccessful and overturned, just like the prohibition of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933.
Prohibition in the United States began long before the laws were successfully passed to prohibit the manufacturing, distribution, and consumption of alcohol in the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. From the onset of the colonial migration to the new world, alcohol was considered a nemesis to the pure of heart. The General Court of Massachusetts deemed it illegal to sell any strong liquor in May of 1657. This was the beginning of a long battle over distilled beverages in the U.S.
Arguments surrounding alcohol and its negative effects on the body and mind furthered in the 18th century. In 1789, the first temperance organization was formed in Connecticut, with the purpose of encouraging less drinking. Organizations began to pop up throughout the states, all fueled by the words of Dr. Benjamin Rush, who wrote about the dangers of excessive alcohol usage to the body and mind. Rush called drunkenness a disease – perhaps a precursor to the modern-day understanding of alcoholism and addiction.
The movement toward prohibition continued throughout the 19th century, as women in the 1800s embraced the philosophy that, as mothers, they should never drink. Maine was the first state to ban alcohol in 1851. The ban was repealed; however, in 1856, and as the states entered into the Civil War, matters far more pressing than alcohol became the primary focus of U.S. citizens. Kansas resumed the fight against liquor after the war by banning alcoholic beverages in its state constitution.
The key argument behind all fights against alcohol, aside from the moral implications that religious groups held behind its consumption, was that alcohol was the fuel behind crime and misery. Two court cases arguing for prohibition, Mugler v. Kansas, 1887, and Crowley v. Christensen, 1890, both presented cases that drunkenness and the saloons that enabled it were a danger to the public’s morality, safety, and health, both mental and physical. Alcohol was bad news. The country was quickly on the road to banish it.
Congress took action in 1917 by drafting the language for the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for ratification by the states. It took two years for the amendment to be ratified, but on January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th out of the existing 48 states at the time to agree to alcohol’s prohibition. When all was said and done only two states rejected the amendment: Connecticut and Rhode Island. Perhaps these two states saw the writing on the wall, because when the amendment was put into law on January 17, 1920, the Roaring 20s began.
Once the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol became illegal in the United States, an underground was born to meet the demands of thirsty party-goers during the 1920s, one of the most carefree — and drunken — decades in the nation’s history. Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean were still producing alcohol; all that needed to happen was to get the booze into the country, and get it into the country organized crime did. Some of the most famous mafia bosses in U.S. history began to make a mint off of prohibition by illegally importing and selling alcohol to the speakeasy clubs that popped up all over the nation.
In fact, Al Capone and Bugs Moran, two notorious Chicago crime bosses, profited immensely off of the Detroit River by illegally trafficking alcohol from Canada. It is believed that by 1930, Al Capone violently ran over 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago and had control of a bootlegging business that ranged from Canada all the way to Florida.
Just like telling a child he can only have one cookie, prohibition brought about a craze to drink, and the thrill of doing so illegally in a speakeasy was more intoxicating than the alcohol itself.
Criminal activity wasn’t the only drawback of prohibition. Medicine during this period used alcohol to cure many ailments. Prohibition prevented medical doctors from prescribing their usual remedies. This brought lobbying from physicians to end prohibition practically before it ever began.
The Volstead Act, the Act approved by Congress to enforce the 18th Amendment, also allowed people the right to produce their own wine at home. U.S. residents could make 200 gallons of wine per year, but were barred from manufacturing beer.
Those who didn’t want to make their own wine simply stockpiled alcohol in 1919 before the law came into effect. Alcohol was flowing rather freely despite its illegal status.
Prohibition lost popularity very quickly for all of these reasons, particularly after the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre on February 14, 1929, when Al Capone ordered a successful hit on seven of Bugs Moran’s men. The violence over bootlegging was too much, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act on March 23, 1933.
The Cullen-Harrison Act revised the Volstead Act and allowed the manufacture and distribution of beer that was 4 percent alcohol by volume and what was termed “light wines.” America could drink again, just not the strong stuff; that is, until the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on December 5, 1933.
The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment in its entirety and removed the federal ban of alcohol in the United States. The amendment left control over the manufacturing, distribution, and sales of alcohol at the state level. Many states chose to stay dry long after the 21st Amendment was put into law, still feeling that alcohol encouraged immoral and illegal behavior. In fact, Mississippi stayed dry until 1966, and Kansas refused to allow public bars in the state until 1987.
Prohibition seemed like a good idea at the time, and there were plenty of court cases running through the system to support the inception of the laws against it. But, like any other moral decision, prohibition failed to take into consideration its greatest enemy: desire. Some people still wanted to drink, and prohibition brought about an illegal industry that supported some of the United States’ most dangerous criminals.
It boosted mafia activity exponentially, and produced home-distilled liquors that were dangerously high in total alcohol content. What was supposed to reduce crime actually increased it by 24 percent in prohibition’s first year alone.
Prohibition: How Dry We Ain`t – Life magazine’s unique slide show containing historical photos during prohibition.
The Volstead Act and Related Prohibition Documents – The National Archives page on teaching about prohibition with links to copies of several government documents including the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
U.S. Marshals Role During Prohibition – Learn about the U.S. Marshal’s role during the prohibition period directly from the U.S. Marshals website.
Famous Cases and Criminals: Al Capone – The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s profile of Al Capone.
Prohibition and its Effects on Chicagoans and Organized Crime – University of Michigan students dedicate several Web pages to their study of prohibition and its effect on Chicago-area organized crime.
Temperance and Prohibition Era Propaganda: A Study in Rhetoric – Brown University student Leah Rae Berk discusses the propaganda behind the eventual prohibition period.
It`s the Booze Talkin`: Prohibition and the Gangster Film – University of Virginia’s thorough accounting of the prohibition period and its impact on the depiction of the gangster in film.
Three Narratives of the Prohibition Period by James Ballowe – A historical accounting of the prohibition period relayed in three non-fictional narratives from Illinois Periodicals Online.
Temperance & Prohibition – Information on the prohibition including cartoons, the anti-saloon league, and arguments for and against prohibition.