Alcohol: History notes

Last modified: Wednesday, 24. December 2008 - 4:04 am

Prohibition in the United States

By the late nineteenth century the campaign for temperance had shifted to a drive for Prohibition — or, as H. L. Mencken put it, anti-alcohol groups shifted from the “hair-shirt” to the “flaming sword.” Backed by the evangelical Protestant movement, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Anti-Saloon League, a constitutional amendment to prohibit intoxicating drink was proposed in 1913. On December 22, 1917, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment, which was declared ratified on January 29, 1919. Section one read: “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.” The Volstead Act, passed by Congress in September 1919 to codify the newly ratified constitutional amendment, defined “intoxicating liquor” as any beverage that contained as much as 0.5% alcohol (thus including beer as well as hard liquor in the forbidden category).

Alcohol consumption declined during Prohibition, but it was by no means eliminated. Creating and supplying bootleg liquor for Americans who would not relinquish lifelong drinking habits was a multimillion-dollar business. Because the business was illegal, the entrepreneurs who ran it were criminals. Thus, Prohibition had the unintended consequences of lining the pockets of organized crime and giving rise to notorious gangsters such as Al Capone, who made a fortune by providing illegal liquor to the hard-drinking city of Chicago and nearby areas. Crime associated with the underground liquor trade ballooned as federal, state, and local governments committed woefully inadequate resources to the enforcement of Prohibition.

On December 5, 1933, the “noble experiment” called Prohibition came to an end when the state of Utah became the thirty-sixth state to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution. The amendment, which had been passing feverishly through state legislatures across the country since April 10, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. That Prohibition would end was a foregone conclusion. The rapidity with which the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed only emphasized its unpopularity. Enforcement of the law was Prohibition’s greatest problem, and the federal war to support Prohibition had cost a lot of money and many law officers’ lives. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression that set in, repealing Prohibition became important to stimulate the economy. By the end of 1933 the noble experiment was over, a victim of economic and political forces, but also of simple public demand for the freedom to drink alcohol.


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