On This Day

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New York World-Telegram/LOC

On This Day: Prohibition Takes Effect in America

January 16, 2011 12:08 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Jan. 16, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution became law, banning the production, transportation and sale of alcohol.

“Dry Day” in America

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The 18th Amendment, prohibiting the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” was passed on Jan. 16, 1919. Exactly a year later, it took effect and the United States was officially a dry country.

Prohibition was advocated by several large, powerful temperance organizations, most notably the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. They argued that alcohol was a threat to families and morals, and that it caused crime, corruption and other social problems.

The reign of tears is over,” said evangelist the Rev. Billy Sunday soon after Prohibition went into effect. “The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

Background: The Temperance Movement

Early American history has several examples of Prohibition laws issued by colonies, states or local governments. For example, according to The New York Times, the colony of Maryland passed a law in 1642 “punishing drunkards by a fine of 100 pounds of tobacco,” while Virginia passed a law two years later banning ministers from excess drinking.

For the most part, however, colonies—and later states—saw alcohol as something that should be regulated; it was also an obvious source of tax revenue. That created a dilemma for politicians when it came to taking action to curb drinking.

The roots of Prohibition trace back to the early 19th century, when a temperance movement attracted Christian evangelicals across the nation. In 1826, the American Temperance Society was founded to advance the cause against alcohol.

In 1874, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was founded by women who believed that alcohol destroyed marriages and families. It was joined in 1893 by the Anti-Saloon League, which gained enormous political clout. In the early 20th century, the temperance movement was successful in persuading many state and local governments to pass prohibition laws.

The proposal of an amendment to ban alcohol was passed by both houses of Congress in December 1917, sending it to the states for ratification. The necessary three-fourths approval was achieved just 13 months later, on Jan. 16, when Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment.

The 18th Amendment was written to take effect a year after is passage. In the ensuing year, Congress passed the Volstead Act, establishing the laws required to enforce the amendment.

The Failure and Repeal of the 18th Amendment

Prohibitionists envisioned that the ban on alcohol would lower crime. “So convinced were they that alcohol was the cause of virtually all crime that, on the eve of Prohibition, some towns actually sold their jails,’ says the State University of New York, Potsdam.

However, crime increased because “neither federal nor local authorities would commit the resources necessary to enforce the Volstead Act,” according to the National Archives.

“Not only did the number of serious crimes increase,” says the University at Albany, “but crime became organized. Criminal groups organize around the steady source of income provided by laws against victimless crimes such as consuming alcohol or drugs, gambling and prostitution.”

Bootleggers and organized crime organizations were able to transport and sell alcohol with ease, and tens of thousands of speakeasy clubs—places where alcohol was sold illegally—were created, as Americans openly disregarded the rule of law.

“The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law,” said Albert Einstein in 1921. “For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”

In December 1932, an Amendment proposal to repeal the 18th Amendment was brought before Congress. Less than a year later, it had been passed and signed by President Franklin Roosevelt. What President Herbert Hoover called the “great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far reaching in purpose,” had ended.

Summarizing the failure of Prohibition, Mark Thornton of the Cato Institute writes, “Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became ‘organized;' the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant. No measurable gains were made in productivity or reduced absenteeism. Prohibition removed a significant source of tax revenue and greatly increased government spending.”
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