Prohibition Kicks In: Jan. 16, 1920
The long crusade against drinking in America hits its high water mark as the 18th Amendment banning the sale and manufacture of alcohol goes into effect. It had been ratified a year earlier, but the fight against booze actually had been going on a long time. Almost 70 years earlier, the state of Maine passed a law prohibiting alcohol sales, and by the time the new amendment kicks in, 33 of the 48 states are already dry.
But when Prohibition becomes federal law, it’s the only time—other than the amendment banning slavery—when the U.S. Constitution is changed to affect the actions of citizens rather than the government. It also marks the ultimate success of the first real single-issue pressure group in American politics—the Anti-Saloon League (ASL)—which was founded in Ohio in 1893 and had spent the past 25 years working against politicians who opposed Prohibition.
The ASL had also turned drinking into a public health issue, not just a moral one, claiming that alcohol killed 50,000 people a year and that it had such a powerful effect that just one taste could ruin a person for life.
It likewise managed to tap into the deeper social attitudes about drinking at the time—its association in the minds of many rural Protestant churchgoers with Catholic and Jewish immigrants living in cities, the belief that saloons were corrupting too many men and causing harm—economic and otherwise—to their families. That’s a big reason Prohibition became tied so closely with women’s suffrage—its supporters believed that giving women the right to vote would ensure its passage.
Antipathy toward drinkers reached the point that at the International Congress Against Alcoholism in 1920, two doctors actually proposed rounding them up, putting them in camps and sterilizing them. The Ku Klux Klan was a big supporter of Prohibition, too, believing that it was key to controlling blacks in the South.
Before long, however, it became apparent that Prohibition didn’t really stop drinking—and that it brought other problems. Organized crime groups that had largely made their money in gambling and theft quickly realized that bringing in bootleg whiskey from Canada or running rum from Jamaica was a very lucrative business. Gangsters like Al Capone used Prohibition to become enormously rich and powerful.
Plus, the law was expensive to enforce and a lot of police departments, particularly in large cities, didn’t try that hard to do so. By one estimate, there were almost 100,000 “illegal” speakeasies in New York alone. And, if anything, it created more whiskey and gin drinkers—since it was much harder to get beer, people turned to hard liquor when they wanted to drink…
It also became clear that Prohibition did not bring the economic boom that its supporters had predicted. The thinking was that people would spend the money they spent on alcohol to instead buy other things, and that would spur manufacturing growth. That never happened. And once Wall Street crashed in 1929 and the country spun into the Great Depression, state and local governments saw liquor taxes as a way to generate badly needed revenue.
When Franklin Roosevelt won his first presidential campaign in a landslide in 1932, one of the planks of his platform was to repeal Prohibition. Within a few months, in April, 1933, he signed legislation making 3.2 beer legal, That night, breweries in St. Louis and Milwaukee began shipping out millions of bottles of beer.
Later that year, on December 5, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified and for the first and only time, an amendment to the Constitution was repealed.
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