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Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Prohibition – A Constitutional Flip Flop


The temperance movement in the United States began nearly as soon as the country was founded. Many citizens considered drinking beer, wine and liquor to be immoral. Many others believed that widespread imbibing of alcohol would threaten the young nation’s future.

From as early as 1800, these citizens wanted to prohibit their fellow citizens from making and/or drinking all forms of alcoholic beverages. Their efforts grew the movement, and in 1826 the American Christian Temperance Union was founded, initially with 222 local chapters. By 1835, there were approximately 8000 chapters.

Image via Wiki Media

According to historian Ken Burns, by 1930 the average American over the age of fifteen consumed nearly seven gallons of pure alcohol per year. This is about three times as much as Americans drink today. The abuse of alcohol, primarily by men, wreaked violence on women and children and created instability in families in a time when women had few legal rights. Most women were totally dependent on their husbands for support.

In America’s Protestant churches, many leaders and congregations, who wanted to rid America of evil, came to consider alcohol to be nearly as sinful as slavery. Thus, during the nineteenth century, efforts of the abolitionist and the temperance movements frequently overlapped. Many of the activists in both efforts were women, so it isn’t surprising that these movements became entwined with the fight for women’s rights, including women’s suffrage. The associations among these movements had both pros and cons for each of the individual endeavors. For example, the link between temperance and women’s suffrage threatened to sink ratification of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote, in the Tennessee legislature since most members of that body were not fans of prohibition.

By the turn of the twentieth century, communities across the country had local temperance societies. One of these organizations was the Anti-Saloon League which was formed in 1893 to lobby all levels of government to prohibit the manufacture and sale of beverages containing alcohol. Although much public-facing support came from evangelical Protestantism which considered saloons to be wicked, many factory owners also backed these measures, believing that having sober workers would result in increased production and fewer accidents. Throughout the early years of the new century, the fight for prohibition continued to grow.


18th Amendment - National Archives

When the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson established an order for temporary wartime prohibition to preserve grain for food production. Subsequent public pressure induced Congress to pass the 18th Amendment, banning manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors by the end of that same year—1917. Within eleven months, the amendment received approval by the necessary three quarters of the states. It was ratified on January 16, 1919 and was set to go into effect a year later. In the meantime, Congress passed the Volstead Act which laid out guidelines for federal enforcement.


Image from Library of Congress

While temperance societies rejoiced, much of the rest of the country did not. The sizable portion of the population who wanted to keep drinking alcohol found a myriad of ways to do so, ranging from bootlegging to development of speakeasies, spawning the culture of the ‘roaring 20s,’ Many times, the ‘bathtub gin’ or moonshine was produced in personal homes or on private land. Consequently, enforcement of prohibition was difficult at all levels of government. Not surprisingly, the law was applied more stringently in geographical areas where the population was supportive of temperance than those where the residents were not.

Outside the Krazy Kat Speakeasy in Washington, D.C.-1921 
Image from Library of Congress

Organized crime sprang up around bootlegged production, the operation of speakeasies and the transportation of illegal alcoholic beverages across state lines. This also led to increased violence, especially in cities where there were competing organized crime families. Attempts to bring this rise in lawlessness under control led to the transfer of federal responsibility for enforcement of prohibition from agency to agency. Desperate to bring the situation under control, the U.S. government ordered the poisoning of industrial alcohols, which were routinely stolen by bootleggers. At least 10,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of this federal mandate.

21st Amendment - National Archives

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for president on a platform that included calling for the repeal of prohibition. The country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and legalizing the liquor industry promised to create numerous jobs and needed revenue. Roosevelt was elected in a landslide. In February 1933, Congress passed the resolution proposing a 21st amendment to the constitution which would repeal the 18th Amendment and end prohibition. By December of that same year, the required 36 states had voted for ratification and the federal prohibition of beer, wine and liquor officially ended. A few states initially continued to ban alcohol, but by 1966 all had abandoned prohibition.

  Ann Markim




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  1. An emotive subject, well-explained, Ann. Also a great period in which to set stories, thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks, Lindsay. I agree that is is a great period for stories.

  2. A great oversight of a complex history.

    There were also temperance movements in the UK, but they never gained much traction beyond small local groups. Not all motives were pure. Some landowners refused pubs in villages as they thought it brought down crime and made people work harder for them, and the British class system made it very much a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do kind of hypocrisy. It always made me laugh that when the head of the English Temperance society died, he had the biggest wine cellar in London.

  3. I think there was also a lot of do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do hypocrisy in Washington, D.C., too. Interesting comparison. Thanks.

  4. Excellent overview of an interesting time in this country's history. Doris