Prohibition in the USA

Prohibition is the term given to the banning, or prohibiting, of alchohol in the United States. Prohibition was introduced by Congress in 1918. This made it illegal to buy, sell or consume alcoholic drinks. The law was regularly ignored, leading to the rise of “Speakeasy” bars and the rise of a number of gangs.

Origins of Prohibition

Source A: Bad Effects of Drink

The prohibition movement in the United States began in the 1800’s and by 1850 several states had passed laws that restricted or banned people from drinking alcohol. By the end of the 19th Century, two powerful pressure groups the ‘Anti – Saloon League’ and ‘Women’s Temperance Union’ had been set up. The main arguments for the banning of alcohol are summarised in Source A:

Source B: a painting by the artist Ben Shahn

These pressure groups had the support of rich and powerful men like Henry Ford who gave them money to put adverts in magazines and pamphlets to attack bars and saloons. At election times these groups would ask politicians to state whether they were ‘dry’ (against alcohol) or ‘wet’ (drank alcohol). The Anti – Saloon League, had a lot of support, particularly amongst women voters, so if a politician was ‘dry’ they could expect a lot of extra votes. By the time the USA went to war in 1917, eighteen states had already banned alcohol.

(Temperance = not drinking alcohol) alcohol.

The First World War helped the Anti-Saloon League to win its fight to make the USA ‘dry’ and ban alcohol. Many American brewers were German immigrants, so the League claimed that people who drank beer were traitors to their country. Congress agreed with this view and in 1918 amended, or changed, the Constitution to prohibit (stop) Americans from making, selling or moving alcoholic drinks. It was now illegal to have or drink.

Key Points:

Pressure groups for prohibition supported politicians who were ‘dry’

By 1917 eighteen states had gone ‘dry’.

The League claimed that people who drank beer were traitors.

In 1918, Congress changed the Constitution and made it illegal to drink.

Prohibition Comes In

In January 1920, the Prohibition movement finally persuaded Congress to pass a law banning the sale of alcohol. In order to make their changes legal, Congress had to change the Constitution of the USA. The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution stated that ‘the manufacture, sale or transport of intoxicating liquors within … the United States … is hereby prohibited’. A separate law called the Volstead Act defined ‘intoxicating liquor’ as any liquid containing more than half a percent of alcohol.

Speakeasy Bar
Speakeasy Bar

However, these laws did not stop people from drinking. Secret saloon bars called ‘speakeasies’ opened up in cellars and back rooms. Drinkers had to use special passwords or a special knock at the door to be let in. These speakeasies sold ‘bootleg’ alcohol. Smugglers, called ‘bootleggers’, smuggled it into America from abroad in the boots of their cars. They also sold ‘moonshine’, a spirit made secretly in-home made stills. Drinkers could also buy ‘near-beer’, an alcohol-free beer allowed by the Volstead Act. Others brewed their own drink. This became a family pastime.

In 1929, the government estimated that 700 million gallons of home-brewed beer were produced in the USA. This is backed up by the fact that government agents seized 35, 200 illegal stills in 1928. By 1933 there were 200,000 speakeasies in America. In New York alone there were 32,000 speakeasies, whereas before prohibition there had been only 15,000 saloons. With this massive increase in the amount of alcohol being drank, drink related crimes also went up.

Why did Prohibition fail?

There were two main reasons why prohibition failed. First, there were not enough officials to enforce it. America has a border 30,000 km long and a population of over 100 million. But there were only 4500 Prohibition agents to stop smugglers and to raid speakeasies.

Prohibition also failed because gangs of criminals moved into the bootleg business. They made so much money they could bribe the authorities – police, judges and state officials – to cooperate with them or just turn a blind eye.

The most powerful of these gangs was based in Chicago and was led by Al Capone who made $60 million a year from bootlegging. His gang was like a private army. He had 700 men under his command armed with sawn-off shotguns and submachine guns. One by one, Capone had rival gangs killed until he controlled all the illegal drink in Chicago. In four years he had 227 rival gangsters ‘rubbed out’. On a single day, 14 February 1929, Capone’s men dressed as policemen machine-gunned seven members of the Bugs Moran gang in the St Valentine Day’s Massacre.

Al Capone
Al Capone

Gangs were not only involved in bootlegging. They also made money out of rackets. Businessmen and shopkeepers had to pay ‘protection money’ to gangsters to prevent their shops from being smashed up by the gang’s ‘education committee’.
Capone was able to get away with crime because he had Chicago’s police and politicians in his pay. Over half the police force took bribes from him. Chicago in 1925, with a population of 3 million, had 16,000 more arrests for drunkenness than in England and Wales with a population of 40 million. By 1932, two thousand civilians, mainly gangsters and beer-runners, had been killed ‘in action’ as well as five hundred Prohibition agents.

Finally it was the federal government that dealt with Capone. In 1931 he was found guilty of tax evasion and sentenced to eleven years in prison.

Text by Mr Huggins.

Source Material

The country settled back with an air of “Well that’s settled”. There had been a liquor problem. But a law had been passed. Naturally, there was no longer a liquor problem. No prophet arose to foretell the awful things that were coming. … Nor did anyone imagine that the Amendment and its enabling legislation, the Volstead act, would be difficult to enforce. It was the law and most American people were law abiding. The Noble Experiment, 1950.

Popular Rhyme, circa 1925:

Mother’s in the kitchen
Washing out the jugs
Sister’s in the pantry
Bottling the suds
Father’s in the cellar
Mixing up the hops
Johnny’s on the front porch
Watching for the cops.

America in the 1920's
USA at the start of the 20th CenturyCauses of the Economic BoomImpact of Economic Growth in the 1920's
Agriculture in the 1920's"Roaring" TwentiesProhibition
Ku Klux Klan in the 20'sCauses of the Wall Street CrashConsequences of the Wall Street Crash
The Great DepressionThe New DealOpposition to the New Deal
Evaluation of the New Deal

Relevant Links:

Temperance and Prohibition. Illustrated articles about Temperance and Prohibition.

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