National Prohibition Act

Prohibition was partly responsible for the daring, reckless spirit of the twenties. An amendment to the Constitution was submitted to the states on December 18, 1917 and on January 29, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was declared ratified, to wit: Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article, the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

On January 16, 1920, the National Prohibition Act or, otherwise known as the Volstead Act, went into effect. The conservatives had long been calling for temperance arguing that alcohol is the source of all ills. Science was used to give evidence that alcohol was linked to vices, diseases, suicide and leads to early death. The employers encouraged total abstinence so as to minimize industrial accidents and at the same time increase productivity. The religious community associated alcohol with evil. The women’s group proclaimed it detrimental to family relations.

With the entry of the United States in World War I, they quickly gained supporters due to the growing resentment against anything German which included beer. Moreover, patriotism called for self-sacrifice and anyone who did not remain sober and defend the country were met with hostility. During the war, the manufacture of beer and liquor had been prohibited to conserve grain and by July 1919, the sale of liquor had been stopped. With such public sentiment, the prohibitionists gained ground and the amendment was passed.

The day before the Volstead Act was to take effect, the Anti-Saloon League of New York made an optimistic prediction by stating that, “Tonight, John Barleycorn makes his last will and testament. Now for an era of clean thinking and clean living! ” 8 Instead, the opposite took place. Almost immediately, violations across the country were being reported. Police were carrying out raids of establishments who persisted in selling liquor. The law was observed mostly in the Midwest where the “dry” movement had begun, but in the large eastern cities the laws were flagrantly broken.

As well, there were not enough Federal and state agents to enforce prohibition. In fact, now that is was illegal, more people began to drink more than ever. Such circumstances made Al Capone self-righteous enough to proclaim that: I make my money by supplying a public need. If I break the law, my customers, who number hundreds of the best people in Chicago, are as guilty as I am. The only difference between us is that I sell and they buy. 9 Fortunes were made in bootlegging or the manufacture and sale of liquor illegally. Criminals organized “mobs” or “syndicates” to operate in certain areas.

Al Capone was one of these of bosses. He held sway in Chicago and Cicero, Illinois, with an estimated 750 paid gunmen. Crime became big business in other large cities, too. There were many kidnappings for ransom. Among them was Charles Lindbergh’s son who in 1932, was not only kidnapped but was also murdered. When prohibition ended in February 16, 1933 with the passing of the Twenty-first Amendment to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment, the mobs turned to protection rackets, slot machines and other gambling and the distribution of narcotics.

10 To be fair, the prohibition did manifest benefits though only for a short period. This could probably be because liquor was still relatively hard to find and when one did find it, the price of violation was high. This does not refer to the penalties to be imposed when caught but that the cost of liquor had become so prohibitive that the average American earner could not afford a glass of cocktail. The prohibition had no effect on the rich, however, as they continued to drink well while the poor drank badly.

This led to further divisiveness as it was becoming classifies as a class legislation. 11 In 1920, the year the law came into effect, there was a significant drop in the arrests for drunkenness which was even lower than 1918 and 1919 when Americans were voluntary abstaining from liquor due to wartime restrictions and patriotism. By 1921, however, arrests for drunkenness had once again risen with no indications of declining. This data can be seen in a 1926 survey of 384 municipalities that was prepared by Stanley Shirk, the research director of The Moderation League, Inc.