Prohibition in the United States aimed to achieve alcohol abstinence through legal means. The term is also used to denote the era of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the years 1920 to 1933, during which alcohol sale, manufacture and transportation were constitutionally banned throughout the United States. Prohibition can also encompass the antecedent religious and political temperance movements calling for sumptuary laws to end or encumber alcohol use.



In May 1657 the General Court of Massachusetts made illegal the sale of strong liquor "whether known by the name of rumme, strong water, wine, brandy, etc., etc."[1]

In general, informal social controls in the home and community helped maintain the expectation that the abuse of alcohol was unacceptable. There was a clear consensus that while alcohol was a gift from God, its abuse was from the Devil. "Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was a personal indiscretion."[2] When informal controls failed, there were always legal ones.

While infractions did occur, the general sobriety of the colonists suggests the effectiveness of their system of informal and formal controls in a population that averaged about three and a half gallons (about 13 litres) of absolute alcohol per year per person.[citation needed] That rate was dramatically higher than the present rate of consumption, estimated at 4.2 litres per adult worldwide and 8.6 litres per adult in the United States.[3]

Explanation was sought by medical men. One suggestion had come from one of the foremost physicians of the late 18th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush. In 1784, he argued that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to physical and psychological health (he believed in moderation rather than prohibition). Apparently influenced by Rush's widely discussed belief, about 200 farmers in a Connecticut community formed a temperance association in 1789. Similar associations were formed in Virginia in 1800 and New York in 1808. Within the next decade, other temperance organizations were formed in eight states, some being statewide organizations.

19th century

The prohibition or "dry" movement began in the 1840s, spearheaded by pietistic religious denominations, especially the Methodists. The late 1800s saw the temperance movement broaden its focus from abstinence to all behavior and institutions related to alcohol consumption. Preachers, such as Reverend Mark A. Matthews linked liquor-dispensing saloons with prostitution.

Some successes were registered in the 1850s, including Maine's total ban on the manufacture and sale of liquor, adopted in 1851. However, the movement soon lost strength, and prohibition was not a major political issue during the American Civil War (1861-1865). It revived in the 1880s, with the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party.

After the war, the Women's Christian Temperance Union was founded in 1873. The organization did not promote moderation or temperance but rather prohibition. One of its methods to achieve that goal was education. It was believed that if it could "get to the children" it could create a dry sentiment leading to prohibition. Although certainly not exclusively a women's issue, prohibition became associated with women's rights, and one of the long-standing arguments against woman suffrage was that women would use their vote to enact prohibition. As it turned out, nationwide Prohibition was enacted (by the 18th Amendment) before nationwide woman suffrage was (by the 19th Amendment).

"Who does not love wine, wife and song, will be a fool for his lifelong!" — a vigorous 1873 assertion of cultural values of German-American immigrants

In 1881, Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcoholic beverages in its Constitution, with Carrie Nation gaining notoriety for enforcing the provision herself by walking into saloons, scolding customers, and using her hatchet to destroy bottles of liquor. Other activists enforced the cause by entering saloons, singing, praying, and urging saloon keepers to stop selling alcohol.[4] Many other states, especially in the South, also enacted prohibition, along with many individual counties. Hostility to saloons and their political influence was characteristic of the Progressive Era. Supported by the anti-German mood of World War I, the Anti-Saloon League, through intense lobbying, pushed the Constitutional amendment through Congress and the states, taking effect in 1920.

Prohibition was an important force in state and local politics from the 1840s through the 1930s. The political forces involved were ethnoreligious in character, as demonstrated by numerous historical studies.[5] Prohibition was demanded by the "dries" -- primarily pietistic Protestant denominations, especially the Methodists, Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Scandinavian Lutherans. They identified saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin. They were opposed by the "wets" -- primarily liturgical Protestants (Episcopalians, German Lutherans) and Roman Catholics, who denounced the idea that the government should define morality.[6] Even in the wet stronghold of New York City there was an active prohibition movement, led by Norwegian church groups and African-American labor activists who believed that Prohibition would benefit workers, especially African-Americans. Tea merchants and soda fountain manufacturers generally supported Prohibition, thinking a ban on alcohol would increase sales of their products.[7]

National Prohibition

Main article: Volstead Act

Main article: Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution

National Prohibition was accomplished by means of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (ratified January 29, 1919) and the Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919). Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. Federal Prohibition agents (police) were given the task of enforcing the law. Principal impetus for the accomplishment of Prohibition were members of the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, and the Prohibition Party. It was truly a cooperative effort with "progressives" making up a substantial portion of both major political parties. The main force for prohibition came from pietistic Protestants, who comprised majorities in the Republican party in the North, and the Democratic party in the South. Catholics and German-Americans were prohibition's main detractors; however, German-Americans were discredited by World War I, and their protests were ignored.

The 65th Congress met in 1917, and the Democratic dries outnumbered the wets by 140 to 64, while Republican dries outnumbered the wets 138 to 62. In the 1916 presidential election, both Democratic incumbent Woodrow Wilson and Republican candidate Charles Evans Hughes ignored the Prohibition issue, as was the case with both party's political platforms. Both Democrats and Republicans had strong wet and dry factions, and the election was expected to be close, with neither candidate wanting to alienate any part of their political base.

Although it was highly controversial, Prohibition was widely supported by diverse groups. Progressives believed that it would improve society and the Ku Klux Klan strongly supported its strict enforcement [2] as generally did women, southerners, those living in rural areas, and African-Americans. There were a few exceptions such as the Woman’s Organization for Prohibition Reform who fought against it. Will Rogers would say this joke about the southern pro-prohibitionists through the decade: "The South is dry and will vote dry. That is, everybody sober enough to stagger to the polls." Supporters of the Amendment soon became quite confident that it would not be repealed, to the point that one of its creators, Senator Morris Sheppard, joked that "there is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."[8]

While the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol was illegal in the U.S., it was not illegal in surrounding countries. Distilleries and breweries in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flourished as their products were either consumed by visiting Americans or illegally imported to the U.S. Chicago became known notoriously as a haven for disobeying Prohibition during the time known as the Roaring Twenties. Many of Chicago's most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and his enemy Bugs Moran, made millions of dollars through illegal alcohol sales. By the end of the decade Capone controlled all 10,000 speakeasies in Chicago and ruled the bootlegging business from Canada to Florida. Numerous other crimes, including theft and murder, were directly linked to criminal activities in Chicago and elsewhere in violation of prohibition. Paradoxically, Capone's elder brother Vincenzo Capone worked as Revenuer in Nebraska.


Main article: Repeal of Prohibition

As Prohibition became increasingly unpopular, especially in the big cities, "Repeal" was eagerly anticipated. On March 23, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen-Harrison bill allowing the manufacture and sale of "3.2 beer" (3.2% alcohol by weight, approximately 4% alcohol by volume) and light wines.[9] The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed later in 1933 with ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, on December 5.

The Twenty-first Amendment explicitly gives states the right to restrict or ban the purchase or sale of alcohol; this has led to a patchwork of laws, in which alcohol may be legally sold in some but not all towns or counties within a particular state. After the repeal of the national constitutional amendment, some states continued to enforce prohibition laws. Mississippi, which had made alcohol illegal in 1907, was the last state to repeal prohibition, in 1966. Kansas did not allow sale of liquor "by the drink" (on-premises) until 1987. There are numerous "dry" counties or towns where no liquor is sold; even though liquor can be brought in for private consumption.

Many social problems have been attributed to the Prohibition era. A profitable, often violent, black market for alcohol flourished. Racketeering happened when powerful gangs corrupted law enforcement agencies. Stronger liquor surged in popularity because its potency made it more profitable to smuggle. The cost of enforcing prohibition was high, and the lack of tax revenues on alcohol (some $500 million annually nationwide) affected government coffers. When repeal of prohibition occurred in 1933, organized crime lost nearly all of its black market alcohol profits in most states (states still had the right to enforce their own laws concerning alcohol consumption), because of competition with low-priced alcohol sales at legal liquor stores.

Prohibition had a notable effect on the brewing industry in the United States. When Prohibition ended, only half the breweries that had previously existed reopened. The post-prohibition period saw the introduction of the American lager style of beer, which dominates today. Wine historians also note that Prohibition destroyed what was a fledgling wine industry in the United States. Productive wine quality grape vines were replaced by lower quality vines growing thicker skinned grapes that could be more easily transported. Much of the institutional knowledge was also lost as wine makers either emigrated to other wine producing countries or left the business altogether.[10]

Despite the efforts of Heber J. Grant and the LDS Church, a Utah convention helped ratify the 21st Amendment[11] While Utah can be considered the deciding 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment and make it law, the day Utah passed the Amendment, both Pennsylvania and Ohio passed it as well. All 38 states that decided to hold conventions passed the Amendment, while only 36 states were needed (three fourths of the 48 that existed). So, even if Utah had not passed it, it would have become law.

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 recognised. 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.

Portrayal in media




See also


  1. ^ Blue, Anthony Dias (2004). The Complete Book of Spirits : A Guide to Their History, Production, and Enjoyment. HarperCollins. pp. p. 73. ISBN 0-06-054218-7. ((cite book)): |pages= has extra text (help)
  2. ^ Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David. Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview. In: Moore, Mark H., and Gerstein, Dean R. (eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981. pp. 127-181.
  3. ^ "".
  4. ^ "".
  5. ^ Paul Kleppner, The Third Electoral System 1853�"1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures. (1979) pp 131-39; Paul Kleppner, Continuity and Change in Electoral Politics, 1893�"1928. (1987); Ballard Campbell, "Did Democracy Work? Prohibition in Late Nineteenth-century Iowa: a Test Case." Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1977) 8(1): 87-116; and Eileen McDonagh, "Representative Democracy and State Building in the Progressive Era." American Political Science Review 1992 86(4): 938-950.
  6. ^ Jensen (1971) ch 5.
  7. ^ Lerner (2007)
  8. ^ Kyvig, David E: "Women Against Prohibition." American Quarterly. 28, no. 4(Autumn, 1976), 465-482.
  9. ^ "Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago", Bob Skilnik, Baracade Books, 2006 and The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health, [1]
  10. ^ For a discussion of the long term effect of Prohibition on the US wine industry, see Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible, pp 630-631.
  11. ^ Reeve, W. Paul, "Prohibition Failed to Stop the Liquor Flow in Utah". Utah History to Go. (First published in History Blazer, February 1995)


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