The term Prohibition can refer to the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to the approximate historical era during which the Prohibition Amendment was in force, or to the political conditions, extant in this time period, in which the manufacture, distribution, and importation of alcohol were illegal. Constitutional prohibition of alcohol was in place for about 13 years. After ratification on January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect one year later, on January 16, 1920. With ratification on December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution repealed the Prohibition Amendment.
By the time that the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, 33 states had already enacted legislation prohibiting alcohol within their borders. In fact, the Twenty-First Amendment stipulated that states, territories, and possessions of the United States that chose to continue to prohibit alcohol were free to do so when Prohibition ended.
The Volstead Act (passed October 28, 1919), referred to in its own text as the War Prohibition Act, specified the method of enforcement of alcohol prohibition that was to remain in place “until the conclusion of the present war [World War I] and thereafter until the termination of demobilization, the date of which shall be determined and proclaimed by the President of the United States.”
In giving the Volstead Act the title “War Prohibition Act” and linking its duration to the end of the war and the subsequent demobilization, Congress framed the prohibition of alcohol as a part of the war effort. Other social forces were at work, however, that contributed to its creation. In the mid-1800s, many temperance organizations began to move away from the ideal of moderation toward the more extreme idea that the only way to moderate alcohol consumption effectively was to prohibit the consumption of alcohol altogether; in 1867 the Prohibition Party was founded on this platform. There was also a movement to bring consumptive goods under legal control. The Federal Food and Drug Act of 1906 (the Wiley Act) targeted “adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors.”
An anti-ethnic bias against the Irish and Germans was another important factor. Most U.S. breweries were German owned and operated, and German beer gardens, where the entire family would gather, scandalized pious Christians. Irish saloons, viewed as bastions of political corruption, and stereotypes about Irish heavy drinking also evoked condemnation from the “dries.”
Prohibition policies were by no means universally accepted. Demand for alcohol remained high, and organized methods of manufacturing and distributing alcohol arose to supply that demand. Met with forcible opposition from U.S. Treasury agents enforcing Prohibition laws, these distributors began to employ more violent and aggressive measures, giving rise to Al Capone and the infamous organized bootlegging syndicates. Thus Prohibition generated the social problem of racketeering; when Prohibition ended, these syndicates turned to organizing other illegal pursuits, such as narcotics.
- Gusfield, Joseph R. 1986. Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
- Yablon, Marcia. 2006. “The Prohibition Hangover: Why We Are Still Feeling the Effects of Prohibition.” Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 31:552.
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