It would be tempting to place Prohibition in a nice little box marked "that time America lost its ever-loving mind." It's indelibly associated with the 1920s, and you're probably picturing a nattily dressed gangster pulling a tommy gun from a violin case, ranting about coppers. Or people whispering passwords into the door of a speakeasy.
Prohibition didn't come out of nowhere, though. People didn't wake up in 1919 and think to themselves, "Hey, let's make booze illegal. And what's with this noise they're calling jazz? Twenty-three skiddoo!" Nope, Prohibition was the outgrowth of religious and social movements that started a hundred years before.
There was more beer than water stored on the Mayflower when it set sail. One of Harvard College's first construction projects was a brewery so that students wouldn't have to go without copious quantities of beer. The early colonists made spirits out of just about anything they could get their hands on: carrots, dandelions, and beets, to name a few things (source). Rum was one of the colonies' biggest money-making export products
During the Revolutionary War, troops got a ration of four ounces of liquor a day, of which, George Washington noted, the "benefits arising from the moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies and are not to be disputed" (source). GW was a distiller and enthusiastic imbiber of the product himself, as were many of the founding folks. The Declaration of Independence was even drafted in a tavern. And you know those apple seeds planted by Johnny Appleseed? They weren't intended for fritters, but for hard cider.
How did a nation like this decide to shut down the party?
There had always been preachers, doctors, and social reformers who saw the effects of drunkenness on the families of their neighbors and called out for abstention from drinking, or at least moderation. In 1784, the famous physician, abolitionist, and Declaration-signer Benjamin Rush put out a pamphlet titled "An Enquiry into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society." Pretty self-explanatory, except that he prescribed whipping, blistering, and bleeding as possible "cures." He also believed that being Black was a result of a communicable disease called "n****idism," so there's that (source).
Regardless of whether people considered drunkenness a sin or a disease or a character defect, there wasn't exactly approval of it but there was an acceptance of it—there would always be the town drunks, and there wasn't much anyone could do about it.
Then came the Second Great Awakening (the First was during colonial times), a Protestant religious revival movement that swept the country in the early 19th century; it was a major element in the eventual passing of the 18th Amendment a century later. Itinerant preachers traveled the country holding tent revivals, encouraging a personal relationship with Jesus and an emotional spiritual awakening. The meetings were noisy, emotional, and open to everyone; they emphasized that everyone could be saved, as long as you opened your heart and loved God and your neighbor.
Here's a description of one famous revival meeting in Cane Ridge, Kentucky, in 1802, where around 20,000 people showed up:
The noise was like the roar of Niagara. The vast sea of human beings seemed to be agitated as if by a storm. I counted seven ministers, all preaching at one time, some on stumps, others on wagons. Some of the people were singing, others praying, some crying for mercy. A peculiarly strange sensation came over me. My heart beat tumultuously, my knees trembled, my lips quivered, and I felt as though I must fall to the ground. (Source)
Since you can't love Jesus without doing the kinds of things he asked you to do, this religious awakening resulted in calls for all kinds of social justice and reform. And what better for the public welfare than to do something about the disastrous effects of drunkenness on American families?
Temperance societies sprung up all over the country, often led by women who'd seen what alcoholism could do to them and their children. Since women didn't have many rights in the 1800s and didn't typically hold jobs, a husband who drank up his paycheck meant ruin for the family. "Temperance" meant "moderation," but many of the societies had total abstinence as their agenda. Now, we're guessing that Jesus didn't insist on abstinence (there's the whole "turning water into wine" thing, after all), but the temperance crusaders were a determined bunch.
By the mid-1830s, temperance societies were all the rage. And we mean that literally: many of the anti-alcohol crusaders were pretty radical in their tactics. In 1842, a young lawyer named Abraham Lincoln gave a talk to his local Temperance Society in which he warned against going overboard in berating and condemning those unfortunate enough to succumb to alcoholism. He recommended appeals to reason and gentle persuasion, and he told his surprised audiences that…
In my judgment, such of us as have never fallen victims, have been spared more by the absence of appetite, than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have. Indeed, I believe, if we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and their hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class. There seems ever to have been a proneness in the brilliant, and warm-blooded to fall into this vice. The demon of intemperance ever seems to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and of generosity. What one of us but can call to mind some dear relative, more promising in youth than all his fellows, who has fallen a sacrifice to his rapacity? (Source)
Awwww. Those lovable drunken poets.
But the temperance societies continued to gain influence over state legislatures. They were aided by a general spirit of reform in the 19th century that included pushes for the abolition of slavery, getting the vote for women, prison and mental health reform, and universal Amazon Prime membership. They saw drunkenness as the root of all of society's ills—poverty, insanity, crime, and domestic violence could all be traced to the drink. By the mid-1800s, there were thousands of the societies pushing absolute prohibition, and in 1851, Maine became the first state to go completely dry. Other states followed suit.
The Civil War temporarily derailed these reform efforts, as the country had worse stuff to deal with than people drinking too much. After the war ended, though, a liquor boom got people back to thinking about prohibition again. In 1869, a group of reformers started the Prohibition Party, and in 1873, 70 religious Ohio women founded the Women's Christian Temperance Union (source). The Anti-Saloon League (they were anti-saloon), which was probably the biggest force in enacting Prohibition, was founded in 1893.
As the country transitioned to an industrial society, values like showing up sober to work became more important to factory and business owners, who thought that drunk workers weren't safe or productive.
Hard to argue with that.
The influential politician William Jennings Bryan became one of the first to advocate national prohibition, even though earlier in his career he opposed attempts to regulate personal habits, drinking or otherwise, through legislation. (Is it cynical of Shmoop to think it's because he wanted to run for president in 1900?)
Meanwhile, the ASL and the WCTU were successful beyond their wildest dreams in getting dry candidates elected to Congress. The ASL's indefatigable leader, Wayne Wheeler (see our "Key Figures" section for more on this guy), pretty much invented modern political lobbying. He managed to unite groups of strange bedfellows, each of which had their own reasons for supporting Prohibition. Women, the KKK, the International Workers of the World (Communists), social workers, evangelicals—Wheeler had a huge pro-Pro voting bloc he could throw behind any candidate he wanted (source).
In 1913, Christmas came early for the anti-alcohol coalition. In February of that year, the last of the necessary states ratified the 16th Amendment to the Constitution:
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
Yep, it's the income tax.
Up to that point, most of the fed's revenue came from tariffs and excise taxes. And guess what product produced the most revenue? Estimates put the tax haul on alcohol to be about 40% of the federal budget. With the 16th in place, there was no need to rely on alcohol taxes. Another anti-Prohibition argument had just gone down the drain.
War—what is it good for?
President Woodrow Wilson was not a major fan of a Prohibition Amendment. He pretty much ignored the issue during the 1916 election campaign, but he knew that the dry states were the ones that elected him. He signed the Sheppard Act, which made Washington, D.C., dry, but most historians think he did that because he needed Congress' support for defense spending on the eve of WWI and he didn't want to alienate them by vetoing the bill. The District of Columbia turned off the taps on November 1, 1917, and its breweries started making ice cream and apple drink.
Some of the apple drink "accidentally" fermented, we hear.
When the U.S. finally entered WWI in 1917, the country only had so much grain to go around, and it could either be used to feed the troops or to make liquor. President Wilson helped make that decision, and he chose the troops, because duh.
Another byproduct of the war was suspicion about German-Americans. After all, Germany got the U.S. into war by allowing unrestricted submarine warfare against all U.S. ships. And guess who owned some of the biggest, most successful breweries? Schlitz, Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Miller—all easily made scapegoats for anti-German sentiments. One magazine even accused German breweries of deliberately inebriating the men of America so they couldn't fight.
Like the men of America had to be coerced into drinking beer.
A rumor was even started that one German Maryland brewer had put a cannon on his farm and aimed it straight at Washington, D.C.
When the 65th Congress assembled in 1917, the drys outnumbered the wets, 278 to 126. National Prohibition started to look inevitable, and supporters were getting ambitious: not just a law against alcohol, but a Constitutional Amendment.
The 18th Amendment was submitted to The House of Representatives in April 1917 through the lobbying of the Anti-Saloon League. It zipped through the House and Senate, and by 1919, the necessary 36 states had ratified it, again thanks to heavy lobbying by the ASL and the WCTU.
Eight months later, Congress passed the Volstead Act, which spelled out how the 18th would be enforced and exactly what it meant by "intoxicating liquors." People thought the limits would be the same as Wilson's wartime prohibition, which allowed wine and light beer.
They thought wrong.
The Volstead Act set the alcohol limit at one-half of one percent. Definitely not intoxicating, and way stricter than Wilson's version. (Wilson had vetoed the bill, but Congress overruled him the same day.)
This isn't what a lot of Americans had bargained for when they supported the Amendment. They thought that they'd still be able to enjoy the occasional glass of wine or light beer. They almost broke the internet looking for recipes for home brewing.
Enforcement of the Volstead Act was given to the IRS, which was hated back then even more than today, if you can believe it. Later, the Justice Department had the task of keeping America dry. It was a disaster.
People found ways to smuggle, manufacture, and otherwise get their hands on alcohol. Criminal gangs stepped up their activity in this lucrative new enterprise. Representative Fiorello LaGuardia (of airport fame, later Mayor of New York) told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1926 that "It is impossible to tell whether Prohibition is a good thing or a bad thing. It has never been enforced in this country" (source). Thousands of illegal establishments called "speakeasies" sprung up all over the country and people who could afford to drink kept doing it.
The Volstead Act allowed people to drink stuff they'd bought when alcohol was legal, so plenty of folks stockpiled booze for the dry years. The Yale Club, a snooty private club in New York City, stashed away enough to last the entire 14 years Prohibition would be in effect. The Act allowed exceptions for the use of alcohol for medicinal and religious purposes. Suddenly, people got sick and got religion, and pharmacists and doctors made a fortune. Even rabbis and priests got involved in smuggling rings for "sacramental" wine (source).
In a burst of good old American ingenuity, vineyard owners produced packages of ultra-concentrated grape juice dubbed "wine bricks" that came with a "warning" that if you added water and left it in a cool cupboard for 21 days it might turn into wine (source).
Those wily winemakers.
Prohibition destroyed entire industries. Anheuser-Busch was reduced to making ice cream and root beer. Mmm, root beer floats. The American cruise ship industry took a huge hit because they couldn't serve alcohol, and if you've ever been on a cruise with your family, you know how much they make selling drinks. Many Americans were hit with a serious case of buyer's remorse. Nevertheless, in 1828 they elected a pro-Pro politician, Herbert Hoover, as their next president.
In 1929, President Hoover appointed George Wickersham, a former Attorney General, to head a commission to investigate the effectiveness of Prohibition. By this time, everyone knew that enforcement had been a total failure and that gang-related crime was terrifying the citizens. After studying the matter for two years, the commission issued its findings—and it was a major waffle. One critic wrote a poem parodying the commission's conclusions:
Prohibition is an awful flop.
We like it.
It can't stop what it's meant to stop.
We like it.
It's left a trail of graft and slime,
It's filled our land with vice and crime,
It don't prohibit worth a dime,
Nevertheless we're for it. (Source)
Hoover decided to interpret the report as not recommending repeal, but the report gave a lot of ammunition to the anti-Prohibition groups.
The market crash in 1929, followed by the Great Depression, dampened enthusiasm for Prohibition, even though the Amendment did its basic job of decreasing drinking. Millions of unemployed Americans thought about the jobs that might reappear if the liquor industry was back in business. All that potential tax revenue looked mighty good to a government struggling to afford the costs of increased incarceration and enforcement of the Amendment.
Prohibition ended in the early days of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. Roosevelt had campaigned as an enthusiastic backer of repeal, and a few days after he took office, he signed a bill legalizing 3.2 beer and low-alcohol wine. By the end of 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th. The noble experiment was over and the celebration began.