Prohibition in the US was a curious period of time in American history, coinciding with the Roaring Twenties and was repealed a few years into the Great Depression. It is fascinating display of increasing female power in social policy, the emerging federal bureaucratic state and the failure of law to cure social ills.

Overview Of The Social Forces Leading Up To Prohibition

From 1920 to 1933, federal law prohibited any production of any intoxicating liquor with an alcohol content of greater than 0.05%. For you nondrinkers out there, this is less concentration than Boone’s Farm, one of the weakest drinks out there. What this did, effectively, was put the kibosh on alcohol sales in the country, but did nothing to reduce drinking. In fact, drinking actually increased in the wake of the ban on production.

Anti-drinking sentiments always existed since the colonization of the country. Early puritans had placed bans on hard liquors – the high court in Massachusetts banned such liquors in 1657. However, the bans came and went. While there were always anti-drinking impulses—usually referred to as temperance movements—there were also strong pro-alcohol lobbies. Many Americans drank a lot of alcohol – in 1830 the average American household consumed 1.7 bottles of hard liquor weekly and that does not include beer consumption.

The movement continued to grow in the 1800’s and was often part and parcel of the female suffrage movement. The Civil War disrupted the movement but quickly gained steam during the Reconstruction period. The movement was about as diverse as you could get: Christians, primitive feminists, Klansmen, doctors and many business leaders were in the movement. They movement reached a critical mass when women got the right to vote and it was all but certain that an Amendment would get passed. While the 19th Amendment was not passed until after the 18th (Prohibition), most states allowed levels of suffrage for women. Some states, like California, already had full suffrage for women.

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The Prohibition Era

The 18th Amendment did get ratified by the requisite number of states and became federal law in 1920. While this was a fascinating era of American history, I will gloss over it for brevity’s sake. Women’s group were boastful of the new muscle American women were exerting over society and men. However, as usual, women didn’t understand the body politic nor men. Prohibition did nothing to curb drinking – it actually made drinking problems worse. It destroyed the industry, disintegrated communities and left families starving. Crime increased quickly, as booze running and production became serious money-makers. Organized crime rose to the occasion and many famous mobsters emerged in this era. Violence increased and social discontent increased. It spawned a good amount of jurisprudence – there still is a section in the Federal Code for prohibition law and the related cases.

Also, Prohibition helped increase the policing power of the Federal Government. Women demanded enforcement and that resulted in more police and state control over personal lives. The FBI became much more important during this era under J. Edgar Hoover. A special bureau was created to enforce the law. Constitutional law was very conflicted at this juncture of American history as the “Silver Platter Doctrine” existed. This meant state law enforcement could seize evidence in contravention with the Constitution and deliver it to Federal agents; this evidence would be admissible in federal courts. This doctrine resulted in many abuses of power by state law enforcement.

Also consider the constellation of laws that were passed before and in reaction to Prohibition. Dry counties, limits on what alcohol can be served out of, limits on when you can purchase alcohol, etc. – most of those laws came from this era. Look up the liquor laws in your state or county and check the date. It should not be surprising the law was passed in 1907 or 1921.

Briefly consider the flapper. The flapper was considered scandalous and empowered. They were often seen at speakeasies, drinking and flirting with men. The cheap credit afforded by the newly created Federal Reserve, combined with increased urbanization and loosened sexual mores created this perfect storm for young women. Of course, the Great Depression forced them to do right and become wives and mothers, but for a period of time women were afforded a level of liberty they had never enjoyed in American history.

Prohibition was ended in 1933 with another Constitutional Amendment. The lead-up to this Amendment is the passage of the Cullen-Harrison Act, which legalized beer and wine at 3.2% alcohol content by volume. A few days later, Anheuser-Busch famously sent a team of Clydesdale horses to deliver a case of Budweiser to the White House. The legalization of alcohol sorely helped the economy by providing those factory jobs again to men. Crime lessened in the passage of the act, as gangsters could not profit from dealing booze on the black market.

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Analysis Of The Prohibition Movement

Prohibition represented the emerging discontent between men and women in America. Women were slowly becoming more and more upset with men. Women were being taught to expect more from marriage: more togetherness, more love and more of anything positive generally. This discontent flowing from women towards men fed the desire to ban alcohol.

Alcohol consumption by men represented a facet of society shut off to women. Women did not go bars at this time in American history. A man going with his friends after work was a way of coping with the drudgery of low-class factory work, but to women it represented men’s abdicating from his duties at home. A man coming home drunk isn’t just offensive to women about a man’s duties in the home, but it is also offensive to a woman’s concept of self. Coming home sloppy drunk in many is an affront because it suggests that his home is the place he wants to come and relax after work. It could be construed as offensive because it means he sees his wife and his family as a source of conflict, not love and acceptance.

However, what is most striking is the class issues presented in the Prohibition movement. The only lower-class women that agitated for Prohibition were jilted wives and bitter divorcee’s or widows. The primary push for Prohibition came from middle and upper-class people. During these years in America, progressives were extremely skeptical of the lower classes and wished to forcibly transform their lives. Children running through city streets inhibited movement of goods in a city; lower-class pursuits like playing baseball or boxing also cluttered city streets and not only prevented free flow of traffic, but lead directly to drunkenness and violence. All of this behavior was intolerable to upper-classes, as it prevented the lower classes from achieving their maximum productive capacity.

The drive to ban alcohol was most certainly influenced by women and proto-feminist groups, but their anger was co-opted by capitalists and progressives, who were both looking to maximize the potential of the lower classes, either for pecuniary gain or perceived social gain. Capitalists benefited from men not drinking, as they would not just be more productive not hungover, but would also spend their earnings on products produced by corporations. Progressives gained because they got to believe they were transforming the lower classes from their backwards ignorance and bigotry and into better people and citizens. The push for more public education coincided with progressive belief in social progress with capitalist’s desire for better workers.

Prohibition, in sum, was an aborted attempt by progressives—and some conservatives, to be sure—to radically transform society. While many Christians and traditionalists did support the movement, the most vocal and passionate voices were all manner of progressive social reformer. Capitalists, for their part, did support Prohibition, but that stemmed from economic harm incurred by them because of the drinking of the lower classes that worked for them. Early feminists fought for Prohibition because they thought the drinking culture of men afforded men more power than they should have. Other progressives types had better intentions of helping the lower classes, but as was seen, it backfired badly.

Most progressive movements to help society usually end up blowing up badly in the faces of liberals. You can conceive of progressives as high school kids who know just enough about science to blow up their chemistry lab. The deleterious effects of a pervasive drinking culture are obvious, but the outright banning of alcohol is just as facetious as it is ridiculous.  It did nothing to actually cure the social ills of drinking and only helped criminals and strengthened the control of the government over its citizens. Always beware of people who think that criminalization of behavior cures social ills. It rarely does.

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