The Great Failure of Prohibition

In 1919, the United States ratified the 18th Amendment, sanctioning the prohibition of alcohol. It became illegal to make, sell, transport, or import any alcohol beginning in 1920. And so began one of the most unsuccessful amendments to the Constitution.

Prohibition had been an immensely popular idea, with temperance movements dating to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The movements, often linked to Protestant denominations and women’s moral activism, stressed the negatives of alcohol consumption. These women focused mainly on the impact of alcohol on women and children, believing that it encouraged husbands and fathers to spend time away from the home in taverns and that it caused violence in the home. Over the course of a hundred years, temperance and prohibition movements became linked with nativist and anti-Catholic movements, due to the belief that immigrants and Catholics abused the consumption of alcohol. Contemporary science in the early twentieth century preached that alcohol was bad for one’s health, while social scientists argued that alcohol consumption weakened society. Corporate executives and labor leaders petitioned for Prohibition hoping that it would improve their workforce.

The amendment proved difficult to enforce due to understaffing and underfunding. Despite the belief that the immigrants and workers’ drunkenness threatened the moral character of the nation; these groups consumed the least alcohol during Prohibition. The middle and upper classes (just the groups that supported Prohibition) had the means to obtain illegal alcohol, and they did. Speakeasies were plentiful and moonshine provided alcohol to those in more rural areas. While the nation had mostly drunk beer in the years leading up to 1920, during Prohibition they drank hard liquor. Liquor brought much higher profits than wine and beer. Speakeasies welcomed women, who had been kept out of taverns.

Rather than reducing crime, Prohibition created a mob society, with criminals such as the infamous Al Capone, ruling the money and the urban landscape in the U.S. Capone and other criminal masterminds organized their organizations similar to the giant corporations of the early twentieth century. Photographs are bootleggers and dead gangsters plastered the covers of American newspapers.

In 1933, well into the Great Depression, the 21st Amendment repealed the failed Prohibition.

About Meg G.

I am a PhD candidate studying US History. I am interested in gender, children, and religious history in the 19th-century US. I love running. I have a pretty cool husband and family. View all posts by Meg G.

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