Friday, July 4, 2008

What If Prohibition Wasn't Passed?

Prohibition is the name given to a period in the 1920s and early 1930s in which the sale of alcohol was made illegal via the Eighteenth Amendment. Andrew Volstead, a member of the House of Representatives from Minnesota, introduced the eponymous Volstead Act in 1919 along with Anti-Saloon League attorney Wayne Wheeler. The bill was initially vetoed by President Wilson on October 28, 1919, but was overridden by Congress on the same day[1]. The Prohibition movement began as early as the 1600s, but increased greatly in popularity over the next two hundred years. Large groups began to move away from socially criticizing alcohol to denouncing it on a political level as well. After a multi-century struggle, Prohibition was passed much to the delight of millions of Americans. Society was supposed to become more moral and more responsible, but this was not the case. Organized crime was directly tied in to bootlegging and smuggling, two illegal large businesses in the U.S during the 1920s. In addition, corrupt law enforcement officials often condoned the illegal activity because it offered them a chance to profit off of bribes. Also, with alcohol no longer in the public spotlight, people from every town and city began to flee to speakeasies to indulge in their favorite illegal beverage[2]. The amount of speakeasies grew exponentially starting in 1919[3]. Overall, America became a country marred by unlawful doings. Prohibition didn’t end the problem of alcohol; it created more problems than ever before. A country without Prohibition would have been one without the tarnish of mobs, illegal breweries and bars, and bootlegging.

Prohibition causes have been around since the early beginnings of American history. As early as the 1600s, English colonists began to recognize the evils of excessive drinking. With a large presence of alcohol in the colonies, settlers began to realize that excessive drinking wasn’t good; shipments of tens of thousands of galloons of beer and spirits were frequent as supplies were quickly being used up. Plymouth was the first colony to prohibit the sale of spirits in 1633[4]. Other colonies did not follow suit and drinking continued to be commonplace.

In fact, many of the popular religions in early America denounced drinking, but this did not stop the wealthy from opening up taverns and bawdyhouses. Non-alcoholic drinks simply weren’t as reliable as their alcoholic counterparts. Without refrigeration, milk spoiled quickly. Water that was gathered from filthy lakes and streams was unpurified and repugnant. Alcohol, on the other hand, was viewed as beneficial to ones health in addition to being tasty. Distilleries certainly catered to the demand of the colonists; in 1792, there were 2,579 registered distilleries in the U.S[5]. The British, however, were able to exploit the colonist’s need of alcohol following the Revolutionary War. Taxes were levied on liquor as a mode of raising money. Farmers felt the biggest burden so they initiated a massive uprising in the late 1700s. The revolt, known as the Whiskey Rebellion, resulted in fifteen thousand soldiers travelling to Pennsylvania to put to an end the fighting between the tax collectors (British) and the whiskey farmers. Taxes couldn’t stop people from producing alcohol, though, as more than 12,000 distilleries registered between 1792 and 1810[6]. The rise of immigration in the early to mid 1800s normalized drinking even more. Many immigrants came from Europe, where drinking was considered a part of their culture. Once the Germans started migrating en masse to America following the Civil War, lager beer grew in popularity. Large companies and corporations started to specialize in the manufacturing and selling of beer to domestic and foreign markets. Many of the purchasers of beer were saloons.

Saloons and breweries had a very profitable relationship: breweries would provide saloons with unlimited beer, advertising, and loan money. Saloons quickly became associated with none other than their drinkers, who were often lower class men. Since there were more saloons than parks, churches, schools, and hospitals combined, competition was quite high. In order to lure in customers, saloon owners often gave away free lunches[7]. Multitudes fled to saloons to drink to forget about family or work problems. As the popularity of saloons soared, so did the amount of detractors. Anti-saloon propaganda argued against saloons on the basis that men went there to support the saloonkeepers’ children instead of their own (by continually purchasing beverages)[8]. Anti-saloon groups, commonly plated as temperance organizations, advocated for lessening the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Many of them were deeply inspired by the First and Second Great Awakenings that swept the nation in the first half of the 19th century. Some fanatical temperance era physicians went as far as to argue that it wasn’t uncommon for drinkers to randomly explode. These kinds of myths along with the messages of temperance advocates helped sway heavy drinkers away from booze[9]. Groups like the Washingtonians were comprised of men who told others about their departure from alcohol in the hopes that others would stop. These groups were widespread at first in the 1840s, but they quickly diminished and were eventually wholly discontinued. A short time later in the 1850s, the first significant precursor to National Prohibition came.

Maine, in 1851, passed a law which forbade the sale and manufacture of intoxicating liquors. For prohibitionists, this was a great triumph to a longstanding cause. Eleven years later in 1862, President Lincoln signed the Internal Revenue Act which taxed the manufacture of liquor as well as charged saloons an operating fee. State activism for prohibition quickly expanded into the national scene as the National Prohibition Party was founded in 1869. It had two goals: women’s suffrage and prohibition. Women not only wanted rights for themselves, but they also wanted their family life to improve. Husbands wasted invaluable sums of money on drinks and this often had an adverse effect on their jobs and their support of families. Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Women’s Crusade were faith based groups that vocally stressed that taverns and saloons were directly correlated to the separation of men and women in terms of rights. There was a fine line between politely campaigning for prohibition and going too far. Exemplifying the latter was a radical WCTU member named Carry Nation. Nation paraded around Kansas raiding saloons to no end. By the early 1900s, and most especially during World War 1, the issue of prohibition was regularly debated. Prohibitionists reasoned that since many brewers were of German descent, Prohibition and boycott of industry could help win the war on the home front. Despite the overwhelming opposition, the Eighteenth Amendment, which outlawed alcohol, was easily passed in 1919. The early architects of Prohibition did not even begin to contemplate the thought of the movement not working or much worse failing. As soon as the wineries and breweries were shut down and forced to flush out all of their alcohol, the adverse effects of national Prohibition were felt among the masses.

Wild parties roared on throughout the country on the last day of legal drinking, January 16. Before the clock struck 12:00 AM, trucks were well ready for what lay ahead of them as they were filled with bootleg liquor[10]. Not surprisingly, a few of these trucks were snatched by the seizure motivated government. As a result, a black market for alcohol opened up. Millions were without their favorite beverage and millions more wanted to continue drinking independent of how they would get their alcohol in the first place.

Smuggling was not only popular; it was a successful business. Approximately 75% of contraband liquor came via a route from Canada. Short “rum runs” ran from Ontario, more often than not Quebec, to Detroit and neighborhood cities and towns. The Quebecois, by law, were permitted to buy an unlimited supply of alcohol for personal use. At first, harmless fisherman ran the trade, but it wasn’t long until organized criminal organizations took over. These organized gangs had quite a lot of money and paid off bribes to corrupt local officials, who in turn let them run. Way down south in the Caribbean, illegal alcoholic transactions ran rampant. Runners could simply load up their ships from islands like the Bahamas and then sail to New York City without being caught. This all changed when the government diplomatically mandated seizures in foreign islands and commissioned Coast Guard patrol craft[11].

One foible in the Volstead Act was the granting of alcohol prescriptions to patients. A clever exploitation system was set up by George Remus, an infamous bootlegger during the Prohibition Era. Remus was able to purchase thousands of whiskey certificates which granted him quite a surplus of whiskey. He was then able to set up the largest distillery business in America at the time. He then sold whiskey to drug companies under the caveat that they be used for medicinal purposes only. Most drug companies did not follow (Doctor) Remus’ orders; phony prescriptions were given to even the healthiest of men[12].

When the government started to seriously crack down on distilleries and stills (17,000 seized by 1925), bootleggers started to experiment with self-made methods of producing alcohol. Liquid poison wasn’t entirely uncommon as more than 10,000 people perished by 1927. Alcohol was taken from hazardous products such as fabric and antifreeze and used in the distillation process. It is no kidding that alcohol poisoning was likened to “deliberate suicide.” A less painful, less alcoholic “near beer” was produced by creative bootleggers who figured they could manipulate the Eighteenth Amendment provision which allowed for beverages to be sold as long as they contained less than 0.5 percent alcohol. “Near beer” was often closer to real beer than just barely beer. Replacing “near” with real was readily accomplished and barely noticed. Another sly trick was injecting a needle of alcohol into drinks to give it more of a kick. At any rate, these ventures were ostensibly successful. Even beer with a high content of alcohol proved profitable: a bootlegger could make profits of up to $2.50 for each galloon of booze sold[13]. The lower the quality of the alcohol, the higher the revenue was albeit due to counterfeit labels tricking drinkers into thinking that their beverage was a higher proof than it really was. High prices again did not lessen consumer demand.

The heralded stories of underground and illegal drinking have been prevalent, but the numbers and percentages of consumption are relatively unknown. Wet organizations (ones that advocated against Prohibition) often claim that drinking increased significantly while temperance and Prohibition advocates assert that drinking was far less common in the Prohibition era. Such a debate continues today, but no consumption numbers are indicators of the presence of illegal drinking in the 1920s. The 1920s, commonly called The Roaring ‘20s, was a period of rebellion and economic prosperity. Drinking was oft-associated with money and status in society. From the rich to the poor, many made their presence felt at illegal bars known as speakeasies. The number of speakeasies increased by at least six times in New York City alone in the period from 1922 to 1929[14]. From low class shacks to higher end brownstone houses, speakeasies served those who literally “spoke easy”; customers with the right spoken password were allowed in while others were forced to find less popular open door ‘easies. The more expensive speakeasy often featured entertainment, which ranged from relaxing jazz music to recreational table tennis. Saloons formerly consisted of primary men, but speakeasies were populated and, in some cases, maintained by women. Enforcing Prohibition and stopping the spread of speakeasies was not at all easy. Congressman Fiorello La Guardia acknowledged the corrupted nature of speakeasies when he said “In order to enforce prohibition [in New York City], it will require a force of 250,000 men and a force of 250,000 men to police the police.”

The hiring practices of law enforcement agencies such as the Prohibition Bureau were considered highly lenient. Prohibition Administrator admitted so himself when he said in 1927 that “three quarters of the 2500 dry agents are ward heelers [political machine workers] and sycophants named by the politicians.” The enforcers worked for an incredibly low wage, but it is safe to presume that they could accept a year of wages in the form of bribery. “Looking the other way” as it was called gave enforcement officers the chance to gain quite a bit of wealth. On the other hand, there were brutally honest officers who wouldn’t confide to bootleggers and other crooks[15]. The famous couplet of “Izzy” Einstein and Moe Smith often dressed up in a variety of different outfits with the intention searching speakeasies and making arrests. In his hey day, Einstein apprehended close to 5,000 people. They were viewed as good guys in the eyes of the general public, but there were still some who accused them of being dishonest. Some of the most stringent officers used guns and other such weaponry to dismantle bootleggers, gangs, and other such criminals[16]. Their labors were not effectual as many of the criminals had access to far greater weapons and machinery such as machine guns and explosive devices. Overall, a near universal ere amongst the states was that enforcing Prohibition wasn’t something worth doing. By the late 1920s, enforcement was a ridiculously small percentage of state budgets. The ramifications of enforcement were anything but prosperous: nobody wanted to pay enforcers more money, nobody wanted to invest more money into the judicial system for Prohibition, and most of all nobody wanted to increase taxes or take money out of other industries to maintain Prohibition. Thusly, criminal activity reached its peak in the 1920s.

Mobsters had a reputation of specializing in distilling alcohol at this time. Various gangs such as the North Side Gang and the Terrible Gennas surfaced as rivals. Al Capone, the relentless ringleader of the Gennas, was relentless in his attack; hundreds died in gang related activity. Capone used to terror tactics to control the political sphere of Chicago. He was directly responsible for the election of the mayor of Chicago and the state attorney of Illinois. His boss power in Chicago did not last for a long time, however, as he was banished from the public spotlight following the Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929. Two years later in 1931 was Capone sentenced to eleven years behind bars. His influence and legacy lived on and resonated in other major cities like New York, where a younger generation of mob bosses controlled the illegal alcohol trade.

The unemployment rate started soaring in the 1930s causing many people to question whether Prohibition really worked. An end to Prohibition, in the form of a repeal to the Eighteenth Amendment, was seen as a potential benefit to an otherwise wretched situation. People were beginning to feel the ill aftermaths of the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression. They argued that legalizing alcohol once again would create (legal) jobs in that industry. The 1932 election was just around the corner and saw two candidates who both denounced Prohibition. Franklin D. Roosevelt and his Democratic Party won the race to the White House and took up ending Prohibition as their first priority. Roosevelt immediately cut funding as well as raised the limit on the percentage of alcohol allowed in beer. Within months, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified by the necessary thirty-six states.

Prohibition was a national issue which looked to solve the problems of every state in one highly confusing piece of legislature. The American people were forced to live in a supposed structured society that did not include alcohol for thirteen years too many. The issue was not settled in a democratic way and consequently nobody could be entirely appeased. The temperance movement wanted to establish a moral foundation for the country that would bind together the family all whilst wiping out drunkenness. This moral foundation was significantly based upon religion – an integral part of many American’s daily lives. They had a feeling that too much alcohol would spin everything out of control. They did not want to see their children to be ruined by the licentious leech called alcohol. While their efforts were onerous and long, they did not leave much room for discussion. For them, drunkenness was a sin that could not be negotiated in any way shape or form. They were equating drunkenness with sin for nearly three centuries, but to no clear avail until Prohibition. The opposition, those who were against Prohibition, was often comprised of drinkers themselves or activists who believed that morality could not be legislated. They wanted to keep the status quo, which was alcoholic clemency. It wasn’t even that anti-Prohibitionists were anti-religious or anti-moral absolutism. They simply didn’t see the point in banning something that millions upon millions engaged in. For what is certain, both sides of the debate didn’t foresee the disasters of organized crime and corruption that came with the passing of the Prohibition Amendment. Neither side envisioned thousands of speakeasies opening up across the country, neither side envisioned lucrative bootlegging and rum running businesses dominating the country’s economy, and finally neither side envisioned hundreds of deaths due to alcohol poisoning.

All of the aforementioned results of Prohibition would not have been if the Volstead Act was not passed decades ago. The various temperance organizations would still be active in politics today. Surely, their efforts would still go unrewarded; the American people are just beginning to realize the importance of states’ rights in democracy based affairs. Religious institutions to this day still insist that drinking is a sin if done to excess, but these views aren’t reflected in modern day legislation. Gang related activity is still closely connected to illicit behavior such as illegal drug and narcotics trade. If there was no Prohibition, there would be no Al Capone, and there would be no unprecedented rise in mob activity. There is no such thing as legal gang activity and the laws of causality affirm this: there needs to be a cause (Prohibition laws) for an effect (criminal behavior). Prior to 1919 racketeering, the owning of illegal businesses, was unheard of in America. Following the passage of Prohibition, racketeering increased drastically and has continued to over the years. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (RICO) wasn’t passed until 1970, long after many mafias and gangs established notability in the United States. With that said, no law or provision today has enough power to stop organized illegal activity from occurring. Men have long found ways of avoiding trouble with the law and this all started with Prohibition.

Many revisionist models of today look back to the 1920s when evaluating current drug policy. They see a link between the alcoholic use in teenagers in the 1920s and the marijuana use in teenagers at the present time. They can see how both were affected by drug prohibition laws. They read about the hundreds of innocent citizens arrested all for just having possession of an illegal substance. They look at the statistics and realize that the one of the highest periods of alcohol consumption in the U.S was from 1916 to 1922 – slightly before and after the passing of the Prohibition Amendment. The overall point is that Prohibition did more harm than good and set the groundwork for years of drug policy failure in the United States alone. Temperance organizations (today, anti-drug organizations) have proven that they can still have a positive effect on the general public (less consumption) without federal backing. Of course the government did not realize this before Prohibition began and still today they haven’t given legalization or decriminalization of drugs a chance.

Whenever ever something is made illegal, there exists an underground scene of illicit trading and smuggling. The Prohibition of alcohol was no different: rum runs were frequent and unproblematic until the government decided to condemn these illicit behaviors and even then corruption took over. The movement was out of control from its very beginning, but hardly anyone ever admitted to this. The most negative consequences of Prohibition still afflict America today. Many wonder why there are gang problems. More than eighty years later, they don’t realize the impact Prohibition had on gangs. With education of the effects of Prohibition, these people, often law makers and politicians, will realize what started it all. As Charles R. Swindoll one said, “We cannot change our past. We can not change the fact that people act in a certain way. We can not change the inevitable.”

[1] Suzanne Lieurance, The Prohibition Era 13-16

[2] The Prohibition Era 65-68

[3] Speakeasies;

[4] History of Alcohol Prohibition;

[5] The Prohibition Era 21

[6] The Prohibition Era 23

[7] Saloons;

[8] Jeff Hill Defining Moments of Prohibition 12-15 (The Business of Alcohol)

[9] The Prohibition Era 33

[10] Defining Moments in Prohibition 31

[11] Defining Moments in Prohibition 34-38 (Running the River; Rum Row)

[12] Edward Behr Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America 121-128

[13] Defining Moments in Prohibition 41 (“Near Beer” and Real Beer)

[14] The Prohibition Era 76

[15] Digital History;

[16] Defining Moments in Prohibition 62-63


  1. I liked that, but I have a few qualms. We'll get into it later.

  2. Maybe instead of posting your whole AP US History essay, you should make a cut or something, where you have to click to continue reading.

  3. You know, Pete, I've been looking around for code to do that, but I think that is only possible on WordPress.

  4. Hey,

    Glad my book helped you write this paper. It's always fun to see my name in a footnote someplace. :)

    Have a great day!

    Suzanne Lieurance
    The Working Writer's Coach
    "When Your Pen Won't Budge, Read The Morning Nudge"

  5. Suzanne, you should be proud of such a well-written book! I didn't know too much about Prohibition prior to writing the paper, but your book really did a nice job of laying a foundation for my research.


  6. I know it's possible in wordpress and livejournal, and I remember using it in blogger before, but I may have been mistaken. I would just search for it some more.


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