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American Prohibition: well intentioned but doomed to fail

A wave of C19th religious revivalism swept the USA, leading to in­c­reased calls for temperance. In 1838 Massachusetts passed a temp­er­ance law; it failed but a num­ber of other states followed suit by the time the Civil War began in 1861. In all calls for temper­ance, the movement was driven by Methodists, progress­ives and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (1873).  Temp­er­ance appealed to women most; alcohol was seen as a destructive force in families and marriages. [I might have agreed with the women, except I drink a glass of wine each night].

Irish immigrants faced religious discrimination and xenophobia from the longer-settled Protestants. Protestant groups, who believed the Irish were constantly drunk, gravitated toward the Republican Party that sometimes promoted the prohibition of alcohol sales. In resp­onse, Catholic immigrants like the Irish felt targeted and blamed.

By the turn of the century, temperance societies popped up in com­munities across the USA. In 1906, a new wave of attacks began on the sale of liquor, led by the powerful Anti-Saloon League (1893) and driven by urban growth, the rise of evangelical Protestantism and the view of culture as ungodly. And many factory owners supported prohibition, to increase the effic­iency of their workers.

New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John Leach, right, 
watching agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid, 1921 

Police clearing private home of booze, 1930 
History Channel 

Home liquor still c1920 
to make alcohol for home consumption or to sell illegally.

Large beer breweries included Pabst Brewing Co. built by German im­migrants, as were Valentin Blatz, Joseph Schlitz, Miller and Weston, all in Milwaukee. In St Louis, a German immigrant Eberhard Anheuser purchased a brewery and joined with a brewery supplier, his son in law Adolphus Busch. Busch renamed it Anheuser-Busch which, with its Budweiser beer, went on to be the largest beer brand in the world. The successes of these “immigrant” companies bred resentment and xenophobia in Eng­lish speaking families, particularly once Germany became the enemy in 1914. How much did this xenophobia help bring about Prohibition?

In 1917, after the USA entered WWI, President Woodrow Wilson ins­tituted a temporary wartime prohibition in order to save grain for producing food. That same year, Congress submitted the 18th Amend­ment which banned the manufacture, transportation and sale of al­cohol, for state ratification. The amendment received the sup­port of the necessary 75% of US states in just 11 months! In Oct 1919, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act.

Governments struggled to enforce Prohibition throughout the 1920s, initially assigned to the Internal Revenue Service, and later tran­s­ferred to the Justice Department. In general, Prohibition was en­forced much more strongly in areas where symp­athetic rural popul­at­ions lived.

Those who wanted to keep drinking found very creative ways. The illegal mak­ing and sale of liquor/boot­legging increased, as did nightclubs selling alcohol/speakeasies, the smuggling of alcohol across state lines and the production of liquor/moonshine in homes.

A rise in gang violence led to waning support for Prohibition by the late 1920s. The Chicago gangster Al Capone (1899–1947) earned a staggering $60 million annually from bootleg operations and speak­­easies! Chicago’s St Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 saw several Capone men, dressed as policemen, shoot and kill an enemy gang.

The high price of bootleg liquor meant that the working classes were even more restricted during Prohibition than they usually were. Even before the Depres­sion hit. Given the dire ec­on­omic sit­uation brought on by the Great Depres­s­ion, by 1932 the fed­eral government could not afford to forego the gov­ernment tax rev­enues from the production and con­sumption of al­coh­olic drinks. Before Prohibition, many states relied heavily on excise taxes in liquor sales to fund their bud­gets. In New York, 75% of the state's revenue was derived from liquor taxes. With Pro­h­ibition in effect, that revenue went down and the cost of en­for­cing the law went up.

Now consider the Unintended Consequences of Prohibition. When the law went into effect, Prohibition's supporters expected sales of household goods/clothing to skyrocket. Real estate developers and landlords expected rents to rise, as saloons closed and neighbourhoods improved. Snack food companies and rest­aur­ants expected growth, but they failed. Theatre prod­ucers expect­ed new crowds but they also failed. The closing of breweries, dis­tilleries and saloons led to the elim­in­ation of thousands of jobs, and thousands more jobs were eliminated for barrel makers, waiters, truckies and other related trades.

And consider the loopholes in Prohibition legislation. While the 18th Am­endment prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation of in­toxicating beverages, it did not outlaw the drinking of al­co­hol. Furthermore pharm­acists were all­ow­ed to disp­ense whiskey by prescription for ail­ments ranging from anxiety to influenza. [The number of registered pharmacists in New York State tripled during the Prohibition era!] And because Americans were also allowed to obtain wine for rel­ig­ious purposes, enrolments rapidly rose at churches and synagogues.

Home stills were illegal, but Americans could purchase them at many hardware stor­es, while instructions for distilling were found in public lib­raries. The law that was meant to stop Am­ericans from drinking alcohol .. instead made them distilling experts.

Pub­lic health was damaged. As the trade in illegal alcohol became more lucrative, the quality of alcohol on the black market declined. On average 1000 Americans died every year during the Prohibition from drinking tainted liquor.

Anti-Saloon League paper American Issue, 1919 
Celebrating with the heading: US is voted dry 
Westerville Library Ohio

A legal medical script for whiskey during the Prohibition

For over a decade the law was meant to foster temperance, but it fostered int­emperance and illegality instead. So the final con­sequence was this: since Prohib­ition made crim­inals of mil­l­ions of ordinary Americ­ans, courts and gaols over­flowed. Many defendants in proh­ib­ition cases waited over a year, just to be brought to trial.

Only by re-legalising the liquor industry could they create jobs and imp­rove revenue. Calling for Prohibition’s repeal, Democrat Franklin D Roosevelt easily won victory over President Her­bert Hoover. FDR’s victory meant the end for Prohibition, and in Feb 1933 Congress proposed a 21st Amendment to the Constitution that would repeal the 18th. It was ratified by the end of that year and the amendment was submitted to the states. In Dec 1933 Utah provided the 36th and final necessary vote for ratification.

Prohibition was an excellent tv series produced by PBS in 2011.


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