Throughout history, the need and presence of governing forces have always existed. Governments, by the use of legislation, make choices in the best interest of the people. The Nineteenth Century was popular for the great amounts of alcohol that the average person consumed. Such popularity spawned and entire social movement against alcohol. This movement was called the Noble Experiment. Although it failed to directly ban alcohol, the movement contributed by electing many reformers who would change the face of America in the early Twentieth Century. In 1920, the Eighteenth Amendment of the Constitution prohibited the use and sale of alcohol in the United States. Although it was created with good intentions, the law provided an opportunity for organized crime families to come into power.
The temperance and reform movements of the late Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth Century were partitioned into many small groups. The two most influential groups; however, were the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Women at this time were unhappy because men were drinking extremely too much, and women could legally do nothing about it. Since women at this time could not file for divorce, they had no other choice but to try get rid of alcohol altogether (Blocker 10-13). This was not only the first major women’s movement in history (Cayton 2139), but also one of the largest nonviolent movements of the modern world (Behr 35-36). Other than World War I, prohibition was the biggest issue in the country. As prohibition approached, people stored their liquor in large quantities in warehouses or banks. Judge John Knox of New York put an end to this by decreeing that any alcohol stored outside of one’s home was unlawful and therefore subject to seizure (Blocker 21-24). Few things could have caused such a panic as this did. People rushed to return their liquor home by any means possible. The official date of prohibition was growing near and times were tense. Bootleggers found refuge in the Bahamas where they were able to distill large amounts of alcohol and sell it for good prices. Many distillers acquired large stocks immediately before prohibition by doing this (Behr 79-81).
January 16, 1920, the night before prohibition became active, did not fulfill the expectation that it would be an outrageous and wild night. It turned out to be rather dull. There were no crowds on the streets of Manhattan; there were no drunken parades down the streets of Broadway. In spite of a few lavish farewell parties, one would think it was just another night of the year. Thomas Carnegie described the event in the New York Times; “the spontaneous orgies of drink that were predicted failed in large part to occur on schedule. Instead of passing from us in violent paroxysms, the rum demon lay down to a painless, peaceful, though lamented by some, death.”
On January 17, 1920, as written in the Eighteenth Amendment, prohibition became apart of the Constitution and America went dry. The Eighteenth Amendment, though written by Wayne Wheeler, was given the nickname of the Volstead Act because Andrew Volstead introduced it to Congress (Coffey 45). The Senate passed the Act on August 1, 1917; the House of Representatives passed it on December 18 of the same year (Lucas 55-56). Once passed in both houses of Congress, President Wilson vetoed the Amendment. Congress overturned the president’s veto on the same day, but one more obstacle remained. The Supreme Court voted on prohibition soon after. By one vote it was regarded as constitutional (Behr 77-79). Next, it needed to be ratified by thirty-six states. Mississippi leads the states by being the first to ratify in 1918, and Nebraska followed the next year as the thirty-sixth state to ratify (Lucas 55-56). The details of prohibition were explained in the Eighteenth Amendment. Most importantly, the act determined that no one could make, sell, trade, transport, import, export, deliver, or own liquor unless authorized to do so. It also replaced any previous state legislation against alcohol (Behr 77-79). Furthermore, it defined alcohol as anything with an alcohol content of 0.5 or more (Cayton 2139). The act authorized a few situations in which someone could have alcohol. One was allowed to have alcohol for medicinal purposes, even though it was frowned upon by most of the medical field at that time. Alcohol was also legal as sacramental wine, industrial alcohol, flavoring extracts, syrups, vinegar, and near beer. The government would allow some breweries to stay in business producing this near beer, which was less that 0.5 percent alcohol. These brewers faced fines and jail time if they abused these privileges. Generally, the Eighteenth Amendment did not work well because it underestimated people’s will to break the law, their ability to produce and sell liquor illegally, and because it was enforced poorly. The Twenty-first Amendment repealed prohibition after only twelve years (Behr 78-80).
Prohibition, for many, was a gateway to power. The opportunities to become rich and powerful were abundant (Behr 88). This temptation drove such criminals as Al Capone to power. With the rise of this new, underground class, corruption grew. Politics became an occupation whereas gangsters with the highest bid employed politicians. It seemed that everyone was breaking the law; the consumption and selling of liquor had actually risen since prohibition started. One could buy alcohol simply by walking down a certain street, or buy going to an illegal saloon known as a speakeasy. Alcohol was also easier to acquire now than it was before prohibition.
During the 1920’s, the act of drinking somewhat changed. People began to drink only hard liquor because it was readily available, it required less to get drunk, and because it was the easiest for distillers to make (Cayton 2140). Since virtually all alcohol was now illegal, distillers no longer needed to abide by alcohol safety standards. This meant that hard liquor was now, more than ever, dangerous. The deaths due to cirrhosis of the liver increased sharply in the 1920’s and were perhaps the biggest indications that the consumption of alcohol had risen (Jones internet).
Crime prevailed over prohibition primarily because the law was too difficult to enforce (Coffey 65). In addition to dealing with the new age criminals that it created, Prohibition Agents attempted to regulate any liquor which was brought into the country (Jones internet). Underground crime bosses became greedier and more ruthless (Behr 176-177). Because they had judges, police, and politicians in their pockets, these crime bosses did not need to hide what they were doing (Jones internet). Hijackings of liquor between gangs were common and usually lead to street wars. Police, for the most part, paid little attention to these wars unless public property was destroyed or civilians were injured. Nearly eight hundred gangsters were killed in a single decade (Behr 176-177).
The most infamous crime boss of the 1920’s, and perhaps of all time, was Alphonse Capone. Capone was born in Italian New York; he grew up around thug types and became apart of a gang at a young age. Following the mysterious retirement of boss Johnny Torrio, Capone became the man in charge of the Torrio gang. His business became crime and death. Although a keen player of public relations, the true Al Capone symbolized everything evil that prohibition could be (Lucas 68). Capone dominated the illegal enterprises of bootlegging and prostitution. His gang, at one time, totaled over two thousand thugs (Jones internet). He was care free when it came to dealing with the police; he neither made serious efforts to conceal his actions, nor was he even aware that a special group of Prohibition Agents had been assigned to gather enough evidence to put him behind bars. In 1931 the efforts of Eliot Ness and the rest of his task force, the untouchables, paid off. Al Capone was convicted on numerous counts of tax evasion and was sent to prison for eight years. In 1939 he was released from prison, but his health had been broken. He died less that eight years later (Lucas 70).
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Prohibition was also a burden on the economy. The government was forced to spend millions of dollars convicting and incarcerating prohibition violators (Jones internet). Since alcohol became an illegal market, the government no longer received taxes on liquor that was purchased. The bootlegging industry became on of the richest in the country, worth billions of dollars per year. The economy is the most important part of a Free Enterprise system, and the damage done to the United States economy, due to prohibition, in the 1920’s was one of the major reasons for the Twenty-first Amendment.
The Twenty-first Amendment repealed prohibition in 1932, only twelve years since its unpopular installation in 1920 (Cayton 2140). In this case, the people’s will to have alcohol was greater that the government’s ability to enforce a law against it. Ideally, a society should be governed without being controlled.
Behr, Edward. Thirteen Years that Changed America. Boston: Arcade Publishers, 1996.
Blocker, Jack S. American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform. Boston:
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Experiment.” Encyclopedia of American Social History. New York: Smith
Coffey, Thomas M. The Long Thirst: Prohibition in America. New York: Norton, 1975.
Johnson, George E. “Al Capone.” Courtroom Television Network LLC. Sept. 19, 2002.
Jones, Chris. “Economic and Social Effects of Prohibition.” Nov. 26, 2001. Got
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Lucas, Eileen. The Eighteenth and Twenty-first Amendments: Alcohol, Prohibition, and
Repeal. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.