Causes And Effects Of Prohibition Essay, Research Paper
Causes and Effects Of the Prohibition
Since at least the turn of the century, reformers had been denouncing alcohol as a
danger to society as well as to the human body. The true feeling behind this thought was
that the use of alcohol was due to the influence of the city. The first American colonists
started out with the belief that city life was wicked and evil, whereas country and village
life were good (Sinclair 10). Later, during the war, the idea of prohibition was a way of
keeping the country patriotic, and thus strong. A common phrase was ?A drunk worker is
not a productive worker? (McDonnel 394). Throughout history, there were many reasons
to push a Prohibition amendment; however, though many of the causes for Prohibition
were honorable, most of the effects did more harm for America than good.
The first section of the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states,
?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.? What this meant was, it was illegal to make, transport, or sell
alcoholic beverages in the United States. Lasting almost fourteen years, the Eighteenth
Amendment was repealed in December of 1933, when the Twenty-First Amendment was
ratified under Franklin D. Roosevelt. In this short time, America underwent a great
transformation due to the new law.
There were many causes for the Prohibition movement. One main cause was
religious revivalism. Prohibition was a result of the Protestant communities action to
assert its dominant position in the nation?s culture. They believed that once this was
achieved, the whole nation would be under the sway of Protestant moral values. Social
reform was another reason Prohibition was supported. ?Prohibition was an attempt to
reassert what were considered traditional American values? in a time of high immigration
– to ?force newer members of the population into a life-style that they were unwilling to
accept? (Compton?s Living, ?Historical Background?). It was enacted because rural,
small town Americans, who were attempting to stop what they felt was the corrupting
influence of the growing cities, held the highest percentage of the population, and
therefore the balance of power in state legislatures and in Washington, DC. The original
intention of the reform was pure moderation; however, because there was no way to
enforce this, Prohibition resulted. Rural Americans and Protestants weren?t the only
supporters of the Prohibition. Other religious groups for the act included Baptists and
Methodists. There were also many Americans who viewed alcohol as dangerous and
destructive. ?Prohibitionists, who viewed alcohol as a dangerous drug that destroyed lives
and disrupted families and communities, argued that it was the government?s responsibility
to free citizens from the temptation of drink by barring its sale? (Kerr 1). Many woman
fought for the banning of alcohol to protect homes and families, for they believed an
alcoholic husband spent the family?s entire income on liquor and often abused their wives
or children, both sexually and physically. They founded the Women?s Christian
Temperance Union in 1874. This group alone caused 6 states to pass prohibition laws.
Other organizations fought for the passage of Prohibition laws. One was the National
Prohibition Party, a political group founded in 1869. Another was the Anti-Saloon
League. Founded in 1893, it was the strongest organization to fight prohibition. Instead
of putting candidates up for office as other groups did, the Anti-Saloon act worked for or
against candidates throughout campaigns based on their view on the movement.
Politically, opposition to Prohibition became synonymous with the Democratic Party.
Those for the amendment typically voted Republican. In 1928, Al Smith was nominated
by the Democrats because he opposed the movement to ban alcohol. The party lost the
election because of the large numbers of rural Americans voting against Smith. Ideas of
prohibition was finally beginning to take hold in American society.
Though there were many supporters of Prohibition, there were also many
opposers. People believed it was an infringement of their rights, and out of tune with the
times of wealth, automobiles, travel, radio, motion pictures, and good times. Soon there
was a great split in American society — the ?wets?, who believed the law an ineffective
and unnecessary restriction on personal choice, generally urban Americans, versus the
?drys?, rural Americans who supported the amendment. This split made enforcement
difficult. Federal agents, in desperate times, often spilled beer and liquor directly into the
gutters to prove to opposers that the law would be enforced. To begin enforcement, the
Volstead Act was passed. This act defined ?intoxicating liquor? as any beverage that
contained as much as .5% alcohol. President Coolidge signed legislation that amplified the
Prohibition Bureau in 1927. However, the Bureau was severely underfunded and
understaffed. There were only 1500-2300 agents and investigators for the whole country.
They were underpaid and their jobs were risky. ?Corruption was often too tempting to
ignore, for they had no training and no coverage by civil service regulations…one-twelfth
was dismissed for this cause? (McDonnel 396). Later, in 1929, Herbert Hoover created
the National Commission of Law Observance and Enforcement to investigate the
enforcement of Prohibition and other related problems. Though many of these attempts to
enforce the law seemed to fail, there were successful endeavors. In 1925, the US
Treasury Department used US Coast Guard vessels to wage a campaign against
rumrunners who had been increasing their scope of their activities along the Atlantic
Seaboard. There was, however, one mishap during this campaign. The Coast Guard sunk
a Canadian vessel, I?m Alone, 200 miles off the Florida Coast because the crew suspected
the ship was being used by rumrunners (Baughman 341). When arrests were finally made,
the judicial system seemed to fail. Courts could not keep up with heavily backlogged
prohibition cases. Therefore, they instituted ?bargain days?, when large groups of
defendants would plead guilty in exchange for small fines or short jail terms. Most
defendants opted for a jury trial, though, for juries were generally sympathetic to the
cause, and voted against the prosecution. Another roadblock for enforcement was that
there were too many exceptions to the law. For instance, the manufacture of industrial
alcohol was permitted if made undrinkable with additives. Also, under the Volstead Act,
the consumption of existing supplies of liquor for religious and medicinal purposes was
allowed. The greatest exception to the law was that it was never made illegal to buy
liquor, only to manufacture, transport, or sell it. Because of these problems in
enforcement, the effects were often harmful to the cause.
?Though meant to promote moral virtue, Prohibition led to the rise of illegal
saloons and an organized black market controlled largely by gangsters? (Kerr 1).
Organized crime existed before the 1920?s, but it wasn?t until the Prohibition that it
became hugely profitable, and with money came strength and influence. ?One of the worst
effects of Prohibition was the power that it gave to gangsters? (McDonnel 400). People
were often apathetic towards the violent tendencies of mobsters — what they didn?t realize
was that innocent victims were often caught in the violence between agents and
bootleggers. In ten years, 286 officers and citizens were killed (401). These crimes often
went unpunished, for enormous sums of money enabled mobsters to buy the cooperation
of police forces and politicians. ?In its practical effects, national prohibition transferred $2
billion a year from the hands of brewers, distillers, and shareholders to the hands of
murderers, crooks, and illiterates? (Sinclair ). Prohibition was dangerous to society in
other ways, as well. An average of 2,000 people died each year from poisoned liquor
made from industrial alcohol that didn?t have all of the additives removed (Baughman
234). During the 1920 New Year?s celebration, over 100 people were killed from
drinking wood alcohol, a highly toxic alcohol made for industrial uses (McDonnel 342).
The working class was most at risk. Because they couldn?t afford quality liquors, they
were more likely to fall victim to amateur moonshine, improperly made home brew, or
tainted industrial alcohol. There were other ways around the law, however. Many made
their own brews of alcohol. Those who didn?t frequented illegal saloons (called
speakeasies). Wealthy people bought up as much wine, beer, and spirits as they could
while it was still legal and stored it in cellars. A general disregard for the law soon
developed among Americans. This led to carefree attitudes about everything. Lower
morals swept the social scene. New music, new dances, new feminism, and a general
relaxation of standards were all social effects of the law. It seemed to be almost a sign of
social status to disregard the law. ?Bootleg liquor prices regularly appeared in the ?Talk
of the Town? section of The New Yorker? (Baughman 202). The social scene wasn?t all
fun and games for everyone, however. The lower class? social life depleted, instead of
blooming as in the upper class. ?Immigrants and workers lost more than the privilege to
drink. Prohibition closed the neighborhood saloon, a working-class meeting place and
haven? (203). They had to resort to cheaper forms of illegal saloons, called blind pigs.
Liquor here was cheap but dangerous. Patrons to these saloons risked blindness (hence
the name) or even death. This went generally unnoticed, though. People?s minds were
focused on the new times. New fashions developed as a result of the Prohibition. Young
men wore raccoon coats and baggy pants to conceal illegal flasks. Other popular hiding
places were the heels of shoes, folds of coats, or perfume bottles. Women?s fashions
changed as a result of the relaxion of standards. They wore shorter skirts, and flimsy
dresses. Meanwhile, they were unaware of the efforts of the government to stop the
Prohibition affected foreign countries as well as the United States. In 1926, the
Senate ratified a treaty with Mexico to prevent smuggling narcotics, liquor, and aliens
across the border. Smugglers were, after all, a major supply of alcohol. Two-thirds was
smuggled in from Canada, creating a boom in Canadian economy. The other third came
by sea from rumrunners in speed boats. The economy of the U.S. was affected as well.
There was a drastic increase in sales of coffee, tea, soft drinks, and ice cream sodas. The
affect on agriculture was not as profitable, however. Prohibition caused a drastic decline
in the market for barley and grapes, the main ingredients in beer and wine.
It is easy to see that the negative effects of the Prohibition greatly outweighed the
noble efforts of the ?drys?. It was considered, in fact, a basically ineffective law. ?The
general opinion was that, while drinking had decreased, especially among those who could
not afford it, those who did drink were consuming more hard liquor than before?
Baughman, Judith. American Decades: 1920-1929. Gale Research Inc., MI: 1996.
Compton?s Living Encyclopedia, ?Historical background of Prohibition?. America Online.
Kerr, K. Austin. Grolier?s, ?Prohibition?. America Online.
McDonnel, Janet. America in the 20th Century: 1920-1929. Marshall Cavenish, New