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Prohibition

Prohibition

The Roaring Twenties were a time of great hope and prosperity in America after a downturn during the First World War and the Spanish Flu of 1918-19. People flocked to cinemas and became exposed to jazz music. Movements in art and literature, such as the Harlem Renaissance, flourished during this period.

New fads and fashions were consumed and enjoyed. The flapper girl reigned supreme in her black bob haircut, fringed dresses, and elongated cigarette filter. Decadence was the order of the day. However, the government cracked down on the consumption of alcohol, which they believed fed this sort of immoral behavior. People gathered in "speakeasies" to consume illegal booze and listen to jazz music.

Prohibition Liquor bottles StudySmarterBottles of Liquor, Pixabay.

So, what was Prohibition? How did it come about? What were some of the immediate effects, and why was it a colossal failure? We'll find out the answers in this explanation.

Prohibition Definition

Obviously, the verb to prohibit something means to explicitly forbid it–prohibition being the noun form of the word. But in historical terms, what do we mean when we talk about Prohibition?

Prohibition

A period of American history in the 1920s when the production, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages was banned entirely.

Now, let's look at some of the causes of Prohibition.

Causes of Prohibition

The twenties have a reputation for being a time of wild parties, reckless abandon, and great freedom. But it wasn't all flappers and jazz. These phenomena were confined mainly to urban areas. An equally strong movement served as a conservative backlash to such behavior.

In rural America, it was a different story. Significant swaths of the American South were still living under repressive conditions. Lest one forget that the KKK was formed in the 1920s and desired to stamp out any mixing of races.

The "Noble Experiment"

Known as the "Noble Experiment", Prohibition always had a vital moral component. It was seemingly caused by a concern about the excess and violence that supposedly came with alcohol consumption. Some historians argue that Prohibition was caused by xenophobia instilled in Protestants of the era.

Xenophobia

A fear of people from other countries.

Conservative religious groups such as the Carrie Nation, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Women's Christian Temperance League lobbied for the ban. This was done under the claim of concern for women. As saloons only admitted men, many wives were forced to suffer at the hands of their husbands' drunken whims, and domestic violence had a clear culprit in the bottle. Such groups thought that enactment of a ban would:

  1. Strengthen families
  2. Improve the country's character
  3. Lower crime

Prohibition carrie Nation StudySmarterCarrie Nation. Public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons

These God-fearing folk may have wanted to cleanse the country of the evils associated with liquor, but there was a lot of bias towards how immigrants chose to celebrate in their leisure time. Many of the folks supporting the ban had agendas other than simple sobriety:

Five distinct, if occasionally overlapping, components made up this unspoken coalition: racists, progressives, suffragists, populists (whose ranks included a small socialist auxiliary), and nativists. Adherents of each group may have been opposed to alcohol for its own sake, but used the Prohibition impulse to advance ideologies and causes that had little to do with it.1

This "unspoken coalition" had worked for two decades leading up to the passing of the Prohibition Act, during an era of such vital legislation as women's suffrage and the introduction of the income tax. It was the latter that finally removed all obstructions to passing the bill. The new tax offset the government's fear of losing valuable tax revenues gained from the sales of alcohol.

Prohibition Amendment

The Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, was drafted in October 1919 and outlined the terms of the ban. The states had seven years to ratify it, with the federal ban going into force at the beginning of 1920 with the passing of the 18th Amendment.

Section 1

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2

The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.2

- from the 18th Amendment: Prohibition of Liquor

Prohibition Era

The Prohibition era began in earnest in October 1919, when Andrew Volstead, a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives, introduced the Prohibition Act of 1919. Firmly with the coalition, Volstead believed that the "saloon culture" that had overtaken Americans' leisure habits was leading to the moral downfall of a nation.

Prohibition Andrew Volstead StudySmarterAndrew Volstead. Source: Wikimedia Commons

President Woodrow Wilson at first vetoed the Prohibition Act, but Congress and the Senate overrode the President's veto. Once passed, the Prohibition Act lasted for a total of 14 years. The Prohibition era ended in 1933 with the passing of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. However, the period had long-lasting effects on American culture and lifestyle.

21st Amendment

The 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution halted years of failed and fruitless Prohibition. It reads as follows:

Amendment XXI

Section 1.

The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2.

The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.2

- from the 21st Amendment: Repeal of the 18th Amendment

Prohibition Alcohol: Facts

  • Note that the constitutional ban mentions only the manufacture, sales, and transport of liquor–not its consumption. Of course, consuming something meant it had been bought and sold, so it was de facto illegal.

  • Some liquor was exempt from the ban, such as that used for religious or medical purposes.

Enforcement

  • The United States Treasury was charged with enforcement of the Prohibition Act.
  • Speculation that Prohibition was partially motivated by racism significantly increased when the KKK stated that if the Feds wouldn't enforce Prohibition as the law of the land, their notorious racist organization would.

Prohibition in the 1920's

Though the designers of the Prohibition Act claimed that it would lead to a drop in crime, the reverse proved to be the case in the 1920s: a rise in violent crime, imprisonment, bribery, and disorderly conduct accompanied the ban. Mafia criminals like Al Capone benefitted from the sale of bootlegged liquor, building an illegal empire from the spoils of his crimes. This illegal booze was of lesser quality and often tainted, and around 1000 people died yearly from its consumption. Al Capone earned $60 million per year from its trade.

Prohibition Mafia StudySmarterMafia activity, Pixabay.

Effects of Prohibition

Enacting Prohibition was a practical way of morally controlling and surveilling the populace. It was a most unpopular ban with the general public, though, turning Volstead (said to be, hypocritically, a drinker himself) into persona non grata for its duration. Americans soon began to lose faith in the system that perpetuated what they saw as a bogus law that infringed on their personal rights and freedom of choice.

Persona Non Grata

A person who has lost favor and is not welcomed by the government or its people.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on a platform vowing to repeal the hugely unpopular Prohibition Act and the 18th Amendment. He is even said to have toasted its successful repeal with his favorite drink, a dry martini.

Prohibition Repeal Prohibition StudySmarterPresidential Proclamation to Repeal Prohibition. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The effects of Prohibition reverberate throughout American culture today. As women had recently gained the right to vote, they were now permitted to drink in bars with men. Before the ban, only men had been admitted to saloons. A few states remained "dry", or alcohol-free, on the books, and finally, the last state to have dry laws, Mississippi, abandoned them in 1966.

Today's culture of surveillance and moral panic, in which all of our buying habits are monitored via the internet, closed-circuit cameras abound, and immigrants becoming scapegoats for a nation's troubles, can all be attributed to the long-lasting effects of Prohibition.

Prohibition - Key Takeaways

  • Prohibition refers to a period of American history in the 1920s when the production, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages were banned entirely.
  • Conservative religious groups such as the Carrie Nation, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Women's Christian Temperance League lobbied for the ban.

  • The Prohibition era began in earnest in October 1919, when Andrew Volstead, a Republican member of the United States House of Representatives from Minnesota, introduced the Prohibition Act of 1919.

  • The Prohibition era ended in 1933 with the passing of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution.

References

  1. Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, 2010.
  2. National Constitution Center, 18th Amendment: Prohibition of Liquor. 2022

Frequently Asked Questions about Prohibition

The era of Prohibition was a 14-year period between 1919 and 1933 that forbid the manufacture, sale, and transport of most liquor.

The Prohibition Act was drafted in late 1919 and enacted in 1920.

Prohibition was caused by a moral panic engendered by a fear of the effects of Americans' drinking habits and a "saloon culture".

Most people did not approve of having their freedom of choice revoked. Countless federal funds were used up in the enforcement of the law. Tax revenues dropped and crime increased with the phenomenon of bootlegging.

Prohibition was not sustainable, as it was incredibly unpopular among the populace. It was difficult to enforce and led to financial losses for businesses and the government.

Final Prohibition Quiz

Question

This is the place where people gathered to consume illegal alcohol.

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Answer

Speakeasies

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Question

What was the flapper's signature haircut?

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Answer

The flapper bob.

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Question

Which group did not lobby for Prohibition?

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Answer

Ku Klux Klan

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Question

This means a fear of foreigners.

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Answer

xenophobia

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Question

Which state did Andrew Volstead hail from?

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Answer

Minnesota

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Question

Whose brainchild was the Prohibition Act?

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Answer

Senator Andrew Volstead

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Question

What were groups like Carrie Nation trying to protect women from?

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Answer

Domestic violence

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Question

What did pro-Prohibition groups hope the Act would do? (3 things)

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Answer

Strengthen families, improve the country's character, and lower crime.

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Question

How did the introduction of the income tax help kick-start Prohibition?

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Answer

It would help make up for government  losses on sales tax.

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Question

When was the Volstead Act first drafted?

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Answer

October 1919

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When did the ban take effect?

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Answer

1919

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Question

What does the 18th amendment prohibit?

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Answer

The sale and consumption of alcohol

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Question

Which constitutional amendment repealed Prohibition?

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Answer

21st

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Question

True or False: The US Treasury was tasked with enforcing Prohibition.

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Answer

True

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Question

What is the verb form of the word prohibition?

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Answer

to prohibit

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