This is a research paper I wrote for my HIST 372 class in December of 2015. The class was over American history of the late 1800s to the early 1900s, and it focused heavily on the social, economic, and political reforms of the time. I chose to write a paper on the Prohibition era. It was good practice using Chicago Style, as well as learning to quote sources and doing research. If I’m remembering correctly, I got a high “B” for this paper:
The Prohibition Era
By Caleb Vierkant
HIST 372, Dr. Sarah Alpern
December 3, 2015
“On my honor, as an Aggie, I have neither given nor received unauthorized aid on this academic work.”
On January 16, 1919, the New York Times ran the following headline, “Nation Voted Dry; 38 States Adopt the Amendment.”
The article continued, “WASHINGTON, Jan. 16.- The American Nation was voted dry today by Constitutional Amendment, when the Legislature of Nebraska, the home of William Jennings Bryan, one of the foremost champions of prohibition, ratified the proposal.”[i]
With Nebraska’s vote, America began its thirteen-year experiment with sobriety. The eighteenth amendment, as well as the Volstead Act, made the manufacturing, importing, exporting, consumption, or sale of alcohol illegal, and gave federal agents the power to investigate and prosecute those violating the act.[ii] According to Andrew Sinclair, in his book Prohibition: The Era of Excess, the eighteenth amendment was the last stand of “Village America.”
He writes, “The questions which occupied the American people in the first three decades of this century were not the questions which occupied their Presidents. While the White House was concerned with trusts and taxation and tariffs and foreign affairs, the people worried over prohibition and Romanism and fundamentalism and immigration and the growing power of the cities of the United States. These worries lay under the surface of all political conflicts. For the old America of the villages and farms distrusted the new America of the urban masses. Prohibition was the final victory of the defenders of the American past. On the rock of the Eighteenth Amendment, village America made its last stand.”[iii]
A poetic sentiment, to be sure, but as Sinclair later writes, it did not last. “The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-first. The old order of the country gave way to the new order of the cities. Rural morality was replaced by urban morality, rural voices by urban voices… It was less of a farce than a tragedy, less of a mistake than a proof of changing times.”[iv]
This paper will examine this important era of prohibition, and try to briefly summarize the era’s history. It was a time of rumrunners, speakeasies, organized crime, “drys” and “wets,” and one of the most obvious wars between government-enforced morality and changing times seen in America’s history.
While most associated with the roaring twenties, Prohibition had its roots back in the nineteenth century. According to Lynn Dumenil, in her book titled Modern Temper, there was an early temperance movement back in the Jacksonian period. This temperance movement came during a period of a religious revival in America, and was aimed at spiritual and social growth. The early temperance movement wanted social stability, or more specifically, Protestant social stability. The temperance movement of the twentieth century had similar goals.[v]
The early twentieth century had been kind to reform movements. Women had gained the right to vote, and were making their way into the workplace. The Children’s Bureau was reforming the home and fighting child labor laws. Workers fought for more rights in their factories and workplaces. In short, the time was perfect for the prohibition movement. Organizations like the Christian Women’s Temperance union, and many other organizations on the “dry” side of the liquor debate, worked hard to get what they saw as a vital reform.
Dumenil further explains how the reform came about. “The reform climate, aided by the organizational techniques of the ‘drys,’ proved crucial to prohibition’s success, but it was WWI that finally put the movement over the top. During the war, Congress passed a wartime prohibition act as part of an efficiency and conservation drive. Meanwhile, the campaign for a national amendment was abetted by the nationalistic spirit that engulfed the nation… With this spirit, the amendment easily passed through Congress and was quickly ratified by the states. It became law on January 1920 through its enabling legislation, popularly called the Volstead Act.”[vi]
Through this new law, the government had the power to end the sale, transportation, and manufacturing of liquor. According to an article on History.com, the enforcement of this law was originally given to the International Revenue Service (IRS.) However, it was later assigned to the Justice Department. Initially, prohibition laws seemed to show some success. Drinking was reportedly down thirty percent, and arrests for public drunkenness was declining.[vii] However, not everyone was happy to go along with prohibition. Those who wanted to drink continued to find ways, throughout the decade. Bootlegging and rumrunning also became very profitable ventures, for those willing to break the law.
As it turned out, many were. In Repealing National Prohibition, by David E. Kyvig, Americans found many creative ways to get around prohibition. Doctors could legally prescribe their patients “medicinal spirits.” Grape juice and concentrate could legally be sold, and the purchaser could “accidentally” allow it to ferment.
These were devious means of getting around the law, but they were technically legal. There were, however, many more illegal ways, as well. The trickle of liquor quickly became a waterfall.
“By 1930 illegal stills provided the main supply of liquor, generally a high quality product. The best liquor available was that smuggled in from Canada and from ships anchored on ‘Rum Row’ in the Atlantic beyond the twelve-mile limit of United States jurisdiction. By the late 1920s, one million gallons of Canadian liquor per year, eighty percent of the nation’s greatly expanded output, made its way into the Unites States.”[viii]
Due to its illegal nature, the price of liquor skyrocketed. Al Capone, the notorious Chicago gangster, reportedly made sixty million dollars a year from his bootlegging business.
Due to the high price of liquor, only the upper-middle class and the rich could afford it. This meant that prohibition laws seriously affected only the poor. Also, by the end of the 1920s more radical nativist forces had gained control of the temperance movement, which alienated more moderate supporters.[ix] In short, support for prohibition waned in the late ‘20s.
While rising crime rates and blatant discrepancies with whom the law affected chipped away at prohibition’s support, the Great Depression destroyed it. In 1929, the stock markets crashed, spiraling America into the Great Depression. Poverty became rampant, and many people lost their jobs. Work was scarce, and people demanded jobs. The liquor industry was a place where work could be found.
The 1932 presidential election was defined not only by the demand for the government to do something about the economy, but also of whether or not prohibition should stay. The Democratic party had taken on a stance in favor of repealing the eighteenth amendment. Due to the unpopularity of Republican Herbert Hoover, who was running for re-election, Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt won by a landslide. The Democratic party also won many seats in the House and Senate.[x]
The wheels of politics turned quickly after the 1932 victory. The twenty-first amendment to the constitution was proposed, which would repeal the eighteenth. State after state ratified, until it only came down to a few states trying to have the distinction of being the one that enacted the amendment.
“On December 5, 1933, state conventions in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Utah maneuvered to be the thirty-sixth state to ratify the new Twenty-first amendment. Utah won the honor by drawing out its proceedings until three hours after Pennsylvania and then Ohio completed action. A nationwide radio audience could hear the final roll call which ended at 3:32 p.m., mountain time. Only 288 days had passed since Congress had sent the proposed amendment to the states. President Roosevelt proclaimed the Eighteenth Amendment repealed and urged that temperance mark the return of legal liquor sales.”[xi]
Like that, the experiment was over. For thirteen years America had tried to enact Protestant morals with the eighteenth amendment, with varying degrees of success. While some respected the law of the land, there were many people who would do anything to get around it. There were also many people who took up the opportunity to make money. For every bootlegger caught, two more made it into the country. For every speakeasy shut down, another down the street stayed open for business. The Great Depression was simply the final nail in the coffin for prohibition, as the demand for money and work overpowered any desire for temperance. It was, in short, a fascinating period of American history.
[i] “Nation Voted Dry; 38 States Adopt the Amendment.” New York Times. Jan. 16, 1919.
[iii] Andrew Sinclair, “Prohibition: The Era of Excess.” (United States. Little, Brown & Company, 1962.) Pg. 4-5.
[iv] Sinclair. 5-6.
[v] Lynn Dumenil, “Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s.” (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995.) Pg. 226.
[vi] Dumenil. Pg. 230.
[viii] David E. Kyvig. “Repealing National Prohibition.” (Chicago and London. University of Chicago Press, 1979.) Pg. 21.
[ix] “Prohibition.” History.com.
[x] Kyvig. Pg. 160.
[xi] Kyvig. Pg. 182.
Dumenil, Lynn. The Modern Temper: American Culture and Society in the 1920s. New
York: Hill and Wang, 1995.
Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
“Nation Voted Dry; 38 States Adopt the Amendment.” New York Times, January 16,
“Prohibition.” History.com. 2009. Accessed December 3, 2015.
Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition, the Era of Excess With a Pref. by Richard Hofstadter.
Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.
“Volstead Act.” Volstead Act. Accessed December 3, 2015.