Prohibition or the ‘Noble Experiment’ as it was known, was the banning of the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. ‘Intoxicating liqour’ as it was known was defined by the Volstead Act of 1920 as any drink containing more than 0. 5% alcohol. This prohibited wines, beers and spirits. Until 1919 Prohibition had always been a state rather than a federal issue, the Eighteenth Amendment of that year changed that. Responsibility for enforcement was given to the Treasury. “The law… where it is not obeyed, will be enforced.
Liqour will not be hauled in anything on the surface of the earth or under the earth or in the air”. It was estimated that $5 million would be enough to fund the task. Instead only $2 million was allocated. Prohibition illustrates well the contradictions in American society and politics during this period. Supported by those who looked to the government for ‘moral regulation’ – leading the way to ensure that people led clean, wholesome lives – it involved a government interfering in private life to an unprecedented degree, in stark contrast to the concept of laissez-faire.
The reasons as to why prohibition was introduced can be illustrated through explanation of the two main influential groups who were involved in the campaign followed by more social and general reasons: The WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) vigorously lobbied for prohibition. The WCTU supported prohibition because intoxicating drink was seen as a threat to family life. Drink was seen as responsible for many crimes and acts of violence, especially from men. Forcing Kansas to become to first state to introduce prohibition in 1870, the membership of the WCTU was mainly middle-class.
Their ambition was to replace the saloons with coffee-houses. The writer Edward Behr believed that the WCTU was out-of-touch with the working class and also with the immigrants who sustained much of the demand for alcohol. The Anti Saloon League had leading figures from the Protestant Church, yet remained independent and therefore was not dominated. It exerted influence over the White House over many politicians and other people of influence. Its vision of America was emphasis on rural values, hard work and the strict observation of the Sabbath.
In addition, big business saw drunkenness as a lead to danger and inefficiency in the workplace and many religious groups believed alcohol was the work of the devil and was overwhelmingly responsible for sin and wrongdoing. Supporters tended to be overwhelmingly Protestant, live in small towns in the South and the West, and were mainly Republican. Although it seems incredible that the USA could even attempt to ban something as commonly available as alcohol, there was surprisingly little opposition. By 1917, 27 states had already passed prohibition laws and there were ‘dry’ counties in several others.
Two factors led to an increased popularity of prohibition at the time. During the First World War grain was needed for food. Therefore, many people found it patriotic to do without a drink. Many of the largest brewers were German and their businesses had helped to finance the National German-American Alliance that had supported German interests before the war. Many people believed sobriety would be part of the ‘brave new world’ created after the war. The forces against prohibition were not well organised. Beyond a march, a parade, and a rally, there was little organised protest.
Prohibition represented another victory for ‘nativist’ Americans against new immigrants, in line with the already widespread racism in America. For some people, whether they actually believed in it or not, prohibition represented a victory of the wants of the whites over the wants of the immigrants. It stamped white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant superiority over the immigrants. However, there was opposition to prohibition from a number of groups. A large wave of immigration in the 19TH Century brought huge numbers of Germans, Irish and Italians.
The cultures and customs included the consumption of beer, wine and whisky. Their consumption of alcohol was enough to make the brewing industry a very lucrative business. For them, prohibition was an attack on their cultures, they were being persecuted in the ‘land of the free’. No group provided more sustained opposition to prohibition than the breweries and distilleries of the United States Brewers Association, as their trade depended on the manufacture and sale of alcohol. They met for the first time in 1862. They began a series of expensive newspaper campaigns and saw the WCTU as their enemy.
Generally, opponents were likely to be urban, of non-northern European origin, Roman Catholic and vote Democrat. Prohibition led to a huge growth in crime and gangsterism. To them the manufacture and sale of alcohol was too profitable. To ensure lack of interference of federal and state authorities, gangsters bribed and intimidated officials and politicians. Gangsters created a vast network of associates, who could easily smuggle alcohol into America and sell it on at a huge profit. The most famous gangster was Al Capone, who simply saw himself as embodying the spirit of free competition and enterprise in the USA.
During Capone’s time there were a number of violent clashes, the most notorious being the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929 in Chicago. They could control politicians with ease. The Mayor of Chicago, for example, allowed organised crime to go on unmolested. When the Mayor was defeated in the election, the gangsters simply moved their headquarters elsewhere until their man was elected again. Even when Capone was arrested and jailed, it wasn’t for murder or bootlegging; but for tax evasion. ‘If people didn’t want beer and wouldn’t drink it, a fellow would be crazy for going around trying to sell it’.
Al Capone’s comments illustrate the key concept that the simple reason as to why prohibition failed was because the majority of the American people didn’t support it. Morally speaking, Capone’s explanations seem to justify his actions – he was simply acting as supplier to overwhelming consumer demand. Capone was simply making the point that the law was wrong, and that the majority of people were not taking any notice of it. Either the law was wrong or the American people were wrong, and since laws are supposed to be made with the public interest in mind, one would have to conclude that it was the law was incorrect.
The New York World made the point that prohibition only served to increase vice and crime in the streets of America, rather than reducing it. One mocking poem metaphorically illustrated the weakness of the Wickersham Commission (the government-appointed commission which admitted that prohibition had failed, yet nonetheless maintained that it should continue) to not admit that prohibition was wrong and so therefore allowing its failure to become even more apparent. There are a number of reasons as to why national prohibition was such a failure.
The USA had thousands of miles of coastline and land border with countries that didn’t prohibit alcohol. Those waters just outside the national limits became known as a ‘rum row’. Smuggling was very successful. In 1925 it was estimated that only 5% of illegal alcohol had been intercepted. Chemists could still sell alcohol on doctors’ prescriptions; this was open to abuse. ‘Bootleggers’ went into business as producers and distributors of illegal alcohol. Industrial alcohol was easily diverted and re-distilled. This increased the chance of dangerous exotic cocktails being made available and in some instances people died from consumption.
At the most, 3,000 treasury agents were employed to enforce prohibition. With such low salaries, agents could make hundreds of thousands, even millions through corrupt practices. Between 1920 and 1930 about 10% of prohibition agents were fined for corruption. It is very likely that more escaped prosecution. In addition, the ‘dry’ lobby although well organised was ill equipped to help enforce it. The ASL was also bitterly divided between those who sought stricter enforcement laws, and those who emphasised education programmes to deter people from drinking in the first place.
Organised crime was to some way responsible for the failure of national prohibition. The networks that the gangsters created allowed the easy flow of alcohol to and from the ‘speakeasies’. Coupled with the power and influence that the gangsters exerted over politicians and officials, their exploits could often go unpunished. However, ultimately it was the social perspective of the time that encouraged the gangsters to enter such a profitable business. Weakening attitudes to prohibition throughout the 1920s ultimately gave the gangsters the opportunity to ‘supply’ the ‘demand’.
It should be noted that by the late 1920s, members of the formerly vehemently anti-prohibition WCTU began reversing their opinions and campaigning for the ban to be lifted! National prohibition also proved to be a failure because it worked to the detriment of the poor. It was the saloons that were often shut down not the ‘speakeasies’, which sold to a wealthier clientele. Historians have argued that Congress didn’t want to completely enforce prohibition because it didn’t want to alienate influential voters. The financial cost of prohibition also acted as a deterrent to its enforcement.
It failed because it attempted to force one moral view on all Americans. It also reduced respect for law and encouraged the involvement of organised crime in politics. National prohibition also proved to be a failure because it worked to the detriment of the poor. It was the saloons that were often shut down not the ‘speakeasies’, which sold to a wealthier clientele. Historians have argued that Congress didn’t want to completely enforce prohibition because it didn’t want to alienate influential voters. The financial cost of prohibition also acted as a deterrent to its enforcement.
It failed because it attempted to force one moral view on all Americans. It also reduced respect for law and encouraged the involvement of organised crime in politics. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed a new amendment of the Constitution, the Twenty-First, which reversed the Eighteenth Amendment. The Beer Act was passed which allowed the production of beer, which in turn created jobs. Roosevelt’s campaign song ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ welcomed the return of drinking. Since then, prohibition has been a state, not a federal matter. It was a classic case of a law being passed that was unenforceable.
Historians have cited prohibition as part of a last-ditch attempt by rural citizens to help keep the USA white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, harking back to the days of pre-20TH Century America. They feared immigrants would shift the racial balance, introduce foreign ideals such as Communism, and overthrow the existing social order. They feared change. However as with all mythologies, the period to which these people yearned to return had never existed. The USA had always been turbulent, violent and racist. However many of its problems came to be concealed by a veneer of optimism, excitement and unparalleled prosperity.