The Decade That Roared

46b. The Fight Against "Demon Rum"

Prohibition Political Cartoon
Prohibition Political cartoons, both for and against, sprouted up during the 1920s

Saloons were closed, bottles were smashed, and kegs were split wide open. When the states ratified the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages was outlawed. Protestant ministers and progressive politicians rejoiced and proclaimed a holier and safer America. It was predicted that worker productivity would increase, families would grow closer, and urban slums would disappear. Yet for all its promise, prohibition was repealed fourteen years later, after being deemed a dismal failure.

Advantages to Prohibition

In fairness, there were advantages to prohibition. Social scientists are certain that actual consumption of alcohol actually decreased during the decade. Estimates indicate that during the first few years of prohibition, alcohol consumption declined to a mere third of its prewar level. Although no polls or surveys would be accurate, health records indicate a decrease in alcoholism and alcohol-related diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver. Family savings did increase during the decade, but it was difficult to determine whether the increase was due to decreased alcohol consumption or a robust economy.

Disadvantages to Prohibition

The minuses seemed to outweigh the pluses. First, federal allocation of funds to enforce prohibition were woefully inadequate. Gaping loopholes in the Volstead Act, the law implemented to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, encouraged abuse. Alcohol possession was permitted for medical purposes, and production of small amounts was permitted for home use. The manufacturing of near beer — regular beer without the alcohol — was also permitted. The problem was that to make near beer, it was first necessary to brew the real variety, so illegal breweries could insist their product was scheduled to have the alcohol removed. Soon a climate of lawlessness swept the nation, as Americans everywhere began to partake in illegal drink. Every city had countless speakeasies, which were not-so-secret bars hidden from public view.

While the number of drinkers may have decreased, the strength of the beverages increased. People drank as much as they could as fast as they could to avoid detection. Because alcoholic production was illegal, there could be no regulation. Desperate individuals and heartless profiteers distilled anything imaginable, often with disastrous results. Some alcohol sold on the black market caused nerve damage, blindness, and even death. While women of the previous generation campaigned to ban alcohol, the young women of the twenties consumed it with a passion.

Al Capone Jury
(CHS DN-97064)
The jury took nine hours to find Capone guilty on five counts of income tax evasion.

Organized Crime

The group that profited most from the illegal market was organized crime. City crime bosses such as Al Capone of Chicago sold their products to willing buyers and even intimidated unwilling customers to purchase their illicit wares. Crime involving turf wars among mobsters was epidemic. Soon the mobs forced legitimate businessmen to buy protection, tainting those who tried to make an honest living. Even city police took booze and cash from the likes of Al Capone. After several years of trying to connect Capone to bootlegging, federal prosecutors were able to convict him for income tax evasion.

The Eighteenth Amendment was different from all previous changes to the Constitution. It was the first experiment at social engineering. Critics pointed out that it was the only amendment to date that restricted rather than increased individual rights. Civil liberties advocates considered prohibition an abomination. In the end, economics doomed prohibition. The costs of ineffectively policing the nation were simply too high. At the deepest point of the Great Depression, government officials finally ratified the Twenty-First Amendment, repealing the practice once and for all.

On the Web
Anti-Saloon League, 1893 — 1933
Started in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1893, the Anti-Saloon League soon became a major force for temperance and prohibition. Its publishing company, American Issue, produced magazines, flyers, posters, sheet music, stories and cartoons—anything to get the anti-alcohol message to the public.
History of Alcohol Prohibition
This detailed report was prepared for the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse and examines alcohol usage in the United States from colonial times through the repeal of the 18th Amendment. The text is easy to scan and well documented.
Report on the Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States
Concerned that the 18th Amendment was not curbing the use of alcohol, but rather was leading to greater crime and corruption, the Federal government created a commission headed by George Wickersham to study the matter. This website offers the full report of the Wickersham Commission investigation.
The Prohibition Party
Promoting social reform since 1869, the Prohibitionist Party claims to be the oldest "third party." The party has put forward a candidate for President of the United States every election since 1872, however, no Prohibitionist candidate has won any office national or local since 1978. Check out their national party platform on this official website.
Woman's Christian Temperance Union
Established over 120 years ago, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union today claims to be the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian woman's organization in continuous existence in the world. Check the "History" link to learn how the Union grew out of the Women's Crusades of 1873 and, under the leadership of Frances Willard, became one of the most powerful lobbies for temperance and women's rights in the United States.
The income tax law is a lot of bunk. The government can't collect legal taxes from illegal money.
-Al Capone, notorious gangster convicted of income tax evasion.
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Put away your hankies. These tales of the evils of drink were designed to be sob stories, but so much melodrama is bound to bring laughter today.
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