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The National Prohibition and the Great Depression

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    The people had suffered this act were brought to a conclusion, but withthe thought of reality of Prohibition in practice the charm was undone, and thelaw appeared in its true aspect a monstrous reversion to the bogies of ourhistorical infancy. (Monahan 82) National Prohibition, brought about by the Eighteenth Amendment andenforced through the Volstead Act, lasted for over ten years. Besides agrowing lack of public support for both Prohibition and temperance itself, theoutlaw of alcohol continued throughout the United Statesat least in the lawbooks. In practice, however, National Prohibition was much less effectivethan temperance and Prohibition leaders had hoped, in the end causing moreproblems than it solved. Once started, Prohibition led to the rise in crime during the twenties, the public health problems associated with bootleg liquorand alcohol substitutes, the problems between religious, racial, and thepolitical rise in response to its presence. Prohibition did enjoy some success. History revealed that alcoholdrinking did drop after the National Prohibition and the Volstead Act. Thislower on a national level was not all that much to the effect of recentproblems in specific areas or communities. Also, after this drop alcoholdrinking continued to rise through Prohibition to the point where it wasthought drinking would actually pass pre-Prohibition levels. The same wastrue of alcohol related diseases while lowering, alcoholism andalcohol-related illness climbed to new heights, all while Prohibition was stillin effect (Thornton, “Failure” 70-71). The initial ideas of Prohibition was reversed. Crime was a problem during Prohibition. Since demand does not generallylower or at least not greatly alcohol continued to be traded even though lawsexist to stop those kind of problems. The black market increased the crimerate related to the making and selling of alcohol. “Prohibition creates newprofit opportunities for both criminals and non-criminals,” especially for thosepreviously involved in criminal activities (Thornton, “Failure” 116-117). During National Prohibition in the 1920’s and early 1930’scrime ratecontinued to raise as less and less people were willing to quit drinking or torespect the ideas of prohibition, as shown by the raise in fines given forProhibition violations through its time. Crime quickly became “organized” forthe first time, running activities contrary to Prohibition on a never before seenscale (Thornton, “Failure” 70). In fact, by the end of Prohibition, speakeasieshad actually outnumbered the saloons of pre-Prohibition years, spreading theinfluence of alcohol over a much wider range (Thornton, “Failure” 72).

    Alcohol prices rose greatly due to the troubles of making and selling aprohibited substance especially among the working classes, to steal alcohol or to steal other things which could then be sold to pay for alcohol. Prohibition was first meant to stop the abuses thought to be fromalcohol, main problem was crime. As more and more people began to ignoreProhibition, new criminal activity associated with alcohol began to start. Inresponse the effort to enforce the Act rose through the twenties and thirties. Prisons filled to full and beyond most money was spent on enforcement. It’snot surprising then that crime dropped very quickly after the repeal ofprohibition. While meant to limit the problems connected to the influence of alcoholindustries Prohibition also raised the number of kurupt government officials.

    The rise of criminal activity in the form of organized crime, speakeasies, andbootlegging created yet another need to bribe government officials, as theblack market still remained active and profitable (Thornton, Economics 112). To keep the profits leaders of the illegal alcohol trade needed to keep costslow to avoid criminal penalties. Bribes became common. Most of New YorkCity police officers were accepting bribes, bootlegging, drinking, orgambling themselves, some doing all. The Anti-Saloon League itself said thatthey had spent over fifty million dollars on their Prohibition efforts wasaccused of using money to keep government officials in support ofProhibition. Eliminating or at least controlling crime and kuruption was provenimpossible for Prohibition leaders. Not one person actually had a good planfor stopping the flow of alcohol into the United States,it would need makingboth a naval blockade of the coasts and a patrol of both borders on each sideNot many wanted to pay the high costs of a good police force to stop the making of alcohol both would be needed to stop the trade of alcohol.

    Stopping the flow from other countries and the production of alcohol.TheProhibition Bureau, initially controlled through the Treasury Department,lacked the budget necessary for proper enforcement (Clark). This large effortwhich would have been needed to keep Prohibition in affect was not veryeasy. Besides the crime and kuruption brought by Prohibition, the UnitedStates also had many serious health problems involving bootleg liquor andalcohol substitutes. Because a substance which is considered illegal cannoteven exist in the eyes of government, lest the government be admitting thatthe prohibition of that substance is a failure, a prohibited substance is nolonger subject to government regulations (Thornton, “Failure” 71). In the caseof alcohol during Prohibition, those laws which had been placed on theproduction and sale of alcohol in the pre-Prohibition time laws which hadbeen accepted by most of the people no longer stopped the production ofalcohol in the United States. Since few people were willing to accept theprohibition of alcohol makers of illegal alcohol were free to make even themost harmful of substances. Bootleg liquor became more stronger and moredangerous Jackass Brandy caused internal bleeding and Panther Whiskey hada fuel oil base. Prohibition also made transporting easier, less strong forms of alcoholmore dangerous and difficult. Beer which had not been widely abused inpre-Prohibition years, was to much than the more stronger, more compactbottles available. While beer drinking lowered through Prohibition drinking ofhard liquor rose because it was the less expensive alcohol. As shippingalcohol became more difficult and prices rose, some turned to other thingssuch as marijuana and heroine, as a substitute for alcohol . It’s not surprising that drug and alcohol related illnesses and deaths rose greatly duringProhibition. Prohibition also aggravated certain preexisting tensions among varioussocial and cultural groups. For example, when blacks in Tennessee votedagainst Prohibition, white temperance leaders saw them as an obstacle anddecided to favor their disenfranchisement. Playing up the “danger of Negroviolence,” these white wets sought to put down black political forces in orderto secure passage of their Amendment. Yet there was also an equal number ofanti-black wets at the time. And while Prohibitionists claimed the law wasnever designed to oppress blacks but rather to aid the lower class situation byremoving the corrupting forces of alcohol, Prohibition did contribute to theseracial tensions in the end (Isaac 266). The largest social conflict over Prohibition occurred with the workingclasses and labor unions: central to the support of Prohibition was the ideathat alcohol and alcoholism caused working class poverty. Labor unions, onthe other hand, tended to think the reversethat alcoholism was a result ofworking class poverty. Instead of eliminating alcohol in the hope that it wouldimprove the conditions of the working, labor forces hoped to improveworking conditions and worker standing to eliminate the “need” for alcohol(Drescher 36). In addition, labor forces were concerned about the effect ofclosing saloons on working class morale, as saloons had been centers ofcommunity for the lower classes. Similarly, labor leaders were upset aboutthe loss of jobs caused by the closing of the alcohol industry (Drescher 37).

    To them, the intrusion of Prohibition forces felt more like a threat to unionsolidarity than an offer of assistance (Drescher 35)Prohibition seemed littlemore than class legislation attempting to once again subvert the workingclasses. Needless to say, labor’s opposition to Prohibition, although mostlikely in the best interests of the worker, did not help labor’s image among themiddle and upper classes (Drescher 38). During the twenties people started in a new era in American history, asvehicles, mass-media, and mass production gave many a new sense ofindividual existence, ready to be protected whether from a previousgeneration or a government power. Many believed that Prohibition limited”the franchise of American liberty” personal and individual freedom and thatit developed only as “a giving play to that ineradicable passion for regulatingand controlling and tyrannizing over the livers of others”. While not opposednecessarily to temperance itself, these anti-Prohibitionists fought againstgovernment enforcement of a moral decision (Monahan 155-157). To them,Prohibition was, in effect, legal coercionimposing the morals of themajority on the individual, disregarding his personal freedom (Murphy 68-69)and punishing those who practiced “wise indulgence” (Monahan 84) by”inhibiting the natural or harmless appetites” (Monahan 90). Thus, theEighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act seemed little more than anothergovernment attempt to intrude upon the lives of ordinary citizens. Prohibition did start its share of problems even politically. Manyunderstood that a moral crusade had to be disruptive to political systems.

    Prohibitionists, almost by definition, hated politics and compromise, feelingthat any such settlement meant sacrifices of a part or more of any one of theirgoals. Thus, many refused to be anything but absolute, and few could find amiddle road. Most of the period from 1920 to 1933 saw the Democrats andRepublicans either fighting over the Prohibition issue or attempting to ignoreit. No amendment to the Constitution had ever been repealed, and many werenot even sure if such a thing was possible (Kyvig 137). And conflict did notoccur exclusively between the two parties, but also within them, and wet anddry Republicans and Democrats battled over their stand on the issue, swayingeach party back and forth, for and against Prohibition (Kyvig 137). TheDemocrats, for instance, tried to gain support in both the anti-Prohibitionurban centers and the pro-Prohibition rural areas (Eaggles 533) effectivelysplitting the Democratic party to the point of near collapse in 1928 (“VolsteadAct”). Roosevelt himself waffled on the issue while senator, following withthe tide of political forcesas New York ran strongly for Prohibition, so didhe, and as they changed their minds, he did so too (Kyvig 147). Few whodepended on party support could afford to do anything but the same for fearof upsetting or alienating half of more of the party. Local politics also played a role in the Prohibition’s effectiveness, orlack. Local officials were often against Prohibition and refused to enforce it(Isaac 267): Too many officials were weak, corrupt, or at least not dedicatedto the enforcement of Prohibition. (Isaac 267) As in the case of the New YorkCity policemen, enforcing Prohibition meant bring charges upon themselves(Thornton, Economics 133). And policemen were no different than thegeneral populationas general support for Prohibition faded, so too did thewillingness of the police force to enforce it. The rise of wet organizations and influence equally led to the repeal ofProhibition. The increase in media support for anti-Prohibitionist sentiment,for instance, came in the form of colorful stories of speakeasies andbootlegging in well-know papers and magazines such as the Chicago Tribuneand World (Sinclair 335). The formation of the Association Against theProhibition Amendment (AAPA) successfully turned the away wealthysupport from Prohibition by focusing on the economic benefits of Prohibitionrepeal (Sinclair 338) the Act had removed a significant source of governmentincome previously provided by liquor taxes and alcohol regulations whilesimultaneously increasing government spending (Thornton, “Failure” 70),many hoped repealing Prohibition would give the wealthy some sort of relieffrom heavy taxes (Sinclair 338) and restore a number of desperately neededjobs (Clark). The end of Prohibition, Prohibitionists were loosing interest insupporting their reason. According to Joseph Kett, the Great Depressionkilled Prohibition, creating a distraction from Prohibition’s moral crusade. Asthe Depression set in, the economy of the nation became the first concern,and few wanted to continue to spend large amounts of money on enforcingthe Volstead Act. Alcohol provided an effective and well-welcomed form ofescapism from the harsh conditions the Depression brought. By 1930, theProgressive reformers of early temperance movements had long ago lost theirinfluence and few now were willing to maintain the dying cause of Prohibition(Kett). The Anti-Saloon League and other pro-Prohibition movements receivedcontinually less support throughout Prohibition. The loss of wealthy support,both influentially and financially, eventually left the League with a few toofew resources to produce a sturdy effortthe upper classes were no longerwilling to support a cause which was not only a dismal failure but also asource of restriction and regulation for themselves (Sinclair 339). In the end,the League was more interested in spending its time and money spreadingpropaganda in support of voluntary temperance rather than enforcingobviously unenforceable Prohibition laws. Soon, the ineffectiveness of theLeague made many, especially among the middle classes, lose interest(Clark). Prohibition at its end, many thought, was “destroying respect for lawand order throughout the nation” (Clark). Other nations had ended theirexperiments in Prohibition long before and continued to smuggle liquor intothe United States (Sinclair 336). The problems with enforcement and thedisrespect shown toward the Eighteenth Amendment were making theAmerican government seem an ineffective force, unable to control its ownpeople. As more and more people, angered by the government’s interferencein their personal lives, refused to take Prohibition seriously, Prohibition wasmet with failure at nearly every count (Clark). While Prohibitionists looked to decrease crime, eliminate corruption,and improve the general health of the population, they were met instead withan increase in crime, an increase in corruption, and an increase in publichealth problems. Efforts to raise up the working classes disregard theworkers’ needs as they themselves saw them, and both racial and ethnictension ensued. Politicians fought over which stand to take on the issue ofProhibition, dividing parties and delaying resolution of the issue. The expenseof maintaining Prohibition, both socially and monetarily, was just too high. Thus, people soon drew away from the support of Prohibition to thepoint of utter disrespect for the law. Angered at government interference inpersonal choices during the new era of individual freedom and tired of dealingwith Prohibition as an issue with the onset of the Great Depression,anti-Prohibition forces grew in influence and support. Legislation which haddirectly opposed the will of the people had been created and maintained(Kyvig 138). Yet prohibition’s effort to “reduce consumption of a good inorder indirectly to reduce social ills… and to promote social goals” hadproved a failurean unenforceable measure (Thornton, Economics 4). “Bythe 1930’s… Americans had had enough” (Cooper). Bibliography and Works Cited Clark, Norman H. “Prohibition and Temperance.” The Reader’s Companionto American History (1991): 124-198 Drescher, Nuala McGann. “Labor and Prohibition: The Unappreciated Impactof the Eighteenth Amendment.” Law, Alcohol, and Order. Ed. Kyvig, DavidE. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985. 35-52. Eagles, Charles W. “Congressional Voting in the 1920’s: a Test ofUrban-Rural Conflict.” Journal of American History 76 (1989): 528-534. Isaac, Paul E. Prohibition and Politics. Knoxville: University of TennesseePress, 1965. Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: University ofChicago Press, 1979. Monahan, Michael. Dry America. New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1921. Murphy, Paul L. “Societal Morality and Individual Freedom.” Law, Alcohol,and Order. Ed. David E. Kyvig. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985. 67-80. Sinclair, Andrew. Era of Excess. New York: Harper & Row, 1962. Thornton, Mark. The Economics of Prohibition. Salt Lake City: University ofUtah Press, 1991. Thornton, Mark. “Prohibition’s Failure: Lessons for Today.” USA TodayMagazine 120 (1992): 70-74.

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