The eighteenth amendment era in the 1920’s and 30’s was certainly a divisive time in America. On the 16th of January in 1920 the law prohibiting the production, transportation, and sales of alcohol was put into effect. Though this law was deemed to mark the end of what some people called the “devil’s drink”, it instead began an era of organized crime and all the violence and gangs that come with it. Of course it is easy to look back in retrospect and say that what lawmakers were doing was idiotic, especially given that America was founded on ideas of individual freedoms, but numerous people faithfully thought that getting rid of alcohol would produce many positive outcomes. Unfortunately, the complete opposite became reality and the negative effects of the eighteenth amendment would but a blemish on American society during the Prohibition era and continue for years afterward. Taking a quick look at why and how this happened is important in order to learn for the mistakes of the past so they won’t be repeated. Here is a brief history of the 18th Amendment and how it all went wrong.
Deep Rooted Origins
The 18th amendment was not something that happened overnight. Negative sentiments toward alcohol amongst certain people in America had been around long before the law itself was campaigned for. In fact, nearly a hundred years before the 18th amendment there were groups lobbying for a prohibition of alcohol.
One such group was called The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance and it was founded way back in 1826. This group then began to spawn other organizations and it was quite popular for outspoken American to be involved in some sort of anti-alcohol group. The core members of these groups were mostly deeply religious folks who thought the prohibition of alcohol would lead to a restoration of the godly virtues that the people of the United States had somehow lost in the fog of alcohol. The members of these social reform organizations were also stoically behind banning slavery and women’s rights as well. In fact a lot of the earliest and more outspoken advocates of banning alcohol were deeply religious middle-class women.
The reason for this is mainly due to the enormous influx of immigrants into the United States after the civil war. These immigrants would introduce new kinds of alcohol through their business ventures in shops and saloons. Now you’re probably wondering what this had to do with middle-class women becoming upset over alcohol. The answer is that these women were mainly homemakers and became increasingly disgusted with the gambling, fights, and debauchery that they would read about and witness on a daily basis. They then formed groups in order to protect their husbands and children from the dangers of alcohol. Most of these women came to America in order to be able to practice their religion freely and when drunkenness, violence, and prostitution invaded their neighborhoods they had to fight against it for the sake of their family and religious beliefs. You can see the connection between deeply religious women and the banning of alcohol through the very first state to initiate the process, Maine. The largely Protestant population of Maine allowed them to outlaw alcohol in 1851. Though the law was repealed five or so years later, the foundation was set for the movement to pick up steam, with many other states forming groups in order to ban alcohol across the county. Led by the Anti-Saloon League in 1906, this group petitioned across the country that through the banning of alcohol the country would experience much less violence and the number of people living in poverty would decrease.
By the time of the First World War almost half of the states in the union had enacted laws prohibiting alcohol. Many politicians and anti-alcohol groups used the war to promote the banning of alcohol through the lens of patriotism. By 1917 many people jumped on the Prohibition bandwagon simply because they disliked the German immigrants because America was at war with Germany. Also, many German immigrants were against Prohibition because they relied on their breweries and didn’t want to lose the money they were making selling their unique spirits.
The combination of religious fever, mixed with a terrible World War, gave both houses of Congress the support and votes needed to approve the 18th amendment and it was enacted into law.
Problems with the new amendment began almost immediately because many people were against Prohibition and neither Mexico to the south or Canada to the north wanted anything to do with making alcohol illegal. This made enforcing the law difficult, if not impossible. The problem wasn’t only the lack of support from citizens and neighboring countries, it was also simply because there were not enough federal agents around to enforce the law. Experts say that there were only around 1500 federal officers that were given the charge of enforcing Prohibition. This would have been rather less complicated if it were 1500 officers for each state, but that was not the case. Those 1500 officers were for the entire country and this was not even close to enough to adequately enforce the law. The lack of police along with breweries and distilleries located close to the border in both Canada and Mexico that had no intention of stopping their manufacturing began the many issues of Prohibition.
In order for any law to work it must be able to be enforced. This was not the case with the 18th amendment and people simply refused to give up on their booze. Especially people located in major cities who began to make money from illegal drinking spots, called a “speak easy”, Major cities like New York, Chicago, and Detroit would have thousands of these drinking spots that would be located in warehouses and other rather inconspicuous locations that would cater to the rich and powerful. This was notable documented in Detroit which was close enough to the Canadian border to easily smuggle booze into the city. Smugglers would use false floor boards in their cars and many other inventive ways of getting booze into the city. The people consuming the alcohol that was brought in from Canada were just regular citizens, but also people who held positions of power. In one rather humorous instance, when police raided an illegal bar in Detroit they found the mayor and police chief there enjoying a drink. Now if the people in charge of enforcing the law aren’t going to follow it, then why should anyone else.
Perhaps the most troubling effect anti-alcohol laws had in the United States was the growth of organized crime. Though organized criminal gangs had already begun to gain power through prostitution and gambling, the 18th amendment made it possible for those gangs to make even more money. This is especially true for major crime bosses in New York and Chicago. Irish and Italian mobsters exploited the law in these cities which led to increased crime rates. The most famous example is Al Capone in Chicago, who built an entire empire on the production, distribution and sale of alcohol, which led to a multitude of problems. He began to make so much money that he was able to bribe government officials in order to continue his illegal operations. This was made possible due to the fact that Capone was making millions of dollars off the sale of alcohol. He had no problem coughing over a few thousand dollars to a police chief of judge to simply look the other way. Though this certainly was not a good thing, it got progressively worse because now everybody wanted a piece of the pie. More and more politicians and government officials were now beginning to take bribes and it gave Capone and other high level mafia bosses an easy way into politics. They made alliances with high level people and parties in the government that would last longer than Prohibition and eventually lead into whole new avenues of crime.
Once organized crime was able to infiltrate and bribe government officials through the exploitation of the 18th amendment they were able to make countless sums of money and pretty much be able to buy off anyone who threatened their business. One of the more profitable ways they did this was through labor unions. It was rather easy for mob bosses to pay to have someone infiltrate various workers unions and begin to take over. They would threaten and bribe their way to leadership positions and then begin skimming off the top. Since these labor unions are fairly large they were able to take just a little bit from everyone in the union and make a lot of money. This problem would persist for years and years after prohibition and is still a problem to this day. Hindsight is certainly 20/20, but if Prohibition had not made it so easy for organized crime to make enormous sums of money these problems may not have been as widespread. By the time prohibition was repealed, organized crime had thoroughly invaded, carpenters unions, taxi unions, laundry unions, and many more.
The problems with organized crime went way beyond just bribery and coercion in the Prohibition era, as violent crime became more and more prevalent. With all of the money gang members were making from alcohol they needed to protect it from other gangs. They did this by purchasing lots of guns and using them on rival gangs. Murders were increasingly becoming more and more widespread between rival gangs and innocents were often hit in the cross fire. This is when public outcry for the repeal of the 18th amendment began to take shape. People were simply fed up with the violence and realized that the banning of alcohol allowed criminals to gain power and influence of their cities. When Al Capone viciously murdered seven people on Valentine’s Day in 1929, the people voiced their displeasure and determined that something had to be done. The government responded to these outcries and more police were hired to rout out these criminals. More and more organized crime members were arrested and thrown in jail, including Al Capone who was sentenced to eleven years in prison for tax evasion. The damage was already done however and as soon as the police were able to lock up one leader, another perhaps more ruthless leader was right there to take their place.
What amplified these problems with organized crime in the Prohibition era was the influx of Italian immigrants to the United States in the early 1920’s. During this time the fascist leader Benito Mussolini was in control of Italy and many Italians fled to the United States. These included many Sicilian mafia members, who then began setting up shop in New York City. It also didn’t help that these immigrants were poor and living in terrible conditions, which meant that some turned to a life of crime. The other problems was that there was only so much illegal alcohol money to go around and rival Jewish, Italian, and Irish gangs in New York began killing each other over this lucrative business. When all was said and done the Italians had routed out most of their rivals and were able to build a hierarchy of crime families that we know today as the American Mafia. One could certainly argue that the mafia would still have been around with or without Prohibition, but the money they made throughout the Prohibition era allowed them to garner close ties with politicians and labor unions that would last for years.
The Beginning of the End
Prohibition by the beginning of the 1930’s had begun to lose what little favor it had with people. Though it still had the support of some, most politicians agreed that something needed to be done. These feelings coupled with the Great Depression made repealing the law certainly something to think about. Supporters of the 18th amendment stood by their ideals and certain facts did back up their claim that Prohibition was working because overall alcohol consumption went down considerably and remained so for another decade. Supporters attributed the continued lower levels of alcohol consumption of the idea that prohibition fostered social change within the population of the United States. Whether or not this is accurate is up for debate, however as many experts conclude that this change in behavioral temperament was due to other factors, unrelated to alcohol consumption.
The Great Depression was a driving factor in getting the law repealed, because the government needed all the tax revenue they could get in order to stabilize the economy which was in tatters. The lost tax revenue on alcoholic beverages would certainly help America get back on its feet and many people were just sick and tired on the incredible growth of urban crime during prohibition. The demoralizing increase in crime went against everything that the 18th amendment was supposed to fix and slowly but surely the 18th amendment began to lose more and more supporters.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected in 1932 he did so in part because he promised to get rid of the 18th amendment. His first step in doing so was to sign an amendment to the Volstead Act, which was known as the Cullen–Harrison Act. This allowed for the production and sale of beer and light wines with an alcohol percent of 3.2. This would also allow for millions in tax revenue to be generated and Roosevelt himself said after signing the bill that, “I think it would be a good time for a beer”. The Volstead Act had previously defined an alcoholic beverage as one with great than 0.5 percent alcohol. Though this was certainly a step in the right direction for those against Prohibition it would take another nine or so months for the 21st amendment to be signed and ratified, thus repealing the 18th amendment.
The ratification of the 21st amendment does not prevent states from restricting or banning alcohol in their respective states, rather it merely prohibits the banning of transportation or importation of alcohol in any state, territory, or possession of the United States. The wording then allows for state and local control of alcohol and there are still to this day plenty of dry counties and towns in the United States that restrict or prohibit liquor sales either outright or on Sundays. In fact, even after the ratification of the 21st amendment, eighteen states still prohibited alcohol sales, with the very last one being Mississippi who finally relented and allowed for alcohol sales in 1966.
It’s easy to say that the 18th amendment was a complete failure and most would agree. However, there were some good things that came from Prohibition though they are few and far between. One of the positives was mentioned earlier as consumption of alcohol was nearly cut in half both during and for a time after the law was repealed. Some experts maintain that alcohol consumption didn’t exceed pre-Prohibition levels until sometime after the 1960’s. Other studies have shown that the consumption of alcohol exceeded pre-Prohibition levels in just a year or two after the law was repealed. One fact that is not easily refuted is that alcohol related cirrhosis of the liver dropped by seventy-five percent during Prohibition.
With that being said it’s fairly certain that the negative effects of the 18th Amendment greatly outweigh the positives. In a study of thirty major U.S. cities during the Prohibition years of just 1920 and 1921, the number of crimes increased by 24%. Other increases that were noted were that burglaries and thefts increased by 9%, murders by 12%, battery and assaults increased by 13%, drug addiction by 44%, and police costs rose by 11%. Since these numbers are just from the first year of prohibition they certainly rose every year during the era. This is rather shocking and most is due to the rise of organized crime. Looking back at history it’s easily to correlate one with the other, but back then people had no idea that organized crime even existed, let alone on a great enough scale to raise these crime numbers that much.
Another terrible side-effect of prohibition was the many deaths and illnesses related to homemade and bootlegged liquor. The reason for this is that the manufactures and smugglers produced liquor than was very strong. This was often called “rotgut”, and for good reason. Thousands of people died from consuming “rotgut” and even more certainly developed some kind of alcohol related illness due to it.
Overall the 18th Amendment was a resounding failure. People were determined to get their booze one way or the other, and if there was money to be made in doing so there were always going to be a business for it. This would not be the last time the United States would enact laws banning the sale of certain substances they deem immoral or unhealthy. Most of these instances are absolutely legitimate and are backed by doctors and other medical professionals such as cocaine and heroin. Others such as marijuana continue to be a source of debate amongst politicians and American citizens. It’s important in these situations to learn from the past, if a law begins to become unenforceable and causes more problems than it creates, then perhaps it’s time to take another look at it. The amount of money spent trying to control the sale of alcohol during the Prohibition era and the amount of crime it eventually led to should certainly teach us something about the laws we live under currently. There are always lessons to be learned from studying the past and more often than not they can help move a country forward rather than backward. The banning of substances that people tend to enjoy is something that affects every citizen in America. The United States was founded on certain freedoms and it’s the duty of the citizens to stand up for their rights.