The National Prohibition and the Great Depression

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The people who had suffered from this act were brought to a conclusion, but with the thought of the reality of Prohibition in practice, the charm was undone, and the law appeared in its true aspect as a monstrous reversion to the bogies of our historical infancy (Monahan 82). National Prohibition, brought about by the Eighteenth Amendment and enforced through the Volstead Act, lasted for over ten years. Besides a growing lack of public support for both Prohibition and temperance itself, the outlawing of alcohol continued throughout the United States, at least in the law books. In practice, however, National Prohibition was much less effective than temperance and Prohibition leaders had hoped, ultimately causing more problems than it solved.

Once started, Prohibition led to the rise in crime during the twenties, public health problems associated with bootleg liquor and alcohol substitutes, and problems between religious, racial, and political groups in response to its presence. Prohibition did enjoy some success. History revealed that alcohol consumption did drop after the implementation of National Prohibition and the Volstead Act. However, this decrease on a national level was not significant compared to recent problems in specific areas or communities. Also, after this drop, alcohol consumption continued to rise through Prohibition to the point where it was thought drinking would actually surpass pre-Prohibition levels. The same was true of alcohol-related diseases. While they initially lowered, alcoholism and alcohol-related illnesses climbed to new heights, all while Prohibition was still in effect (Thornton, “Failure” 70-71).

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The initial idea of Prohibition was reversed. Crime was a problem during Prohibition. Since demand does not generally lower, or at least not greatly, alcohol continued to be traded even though laws existed to stop those kinds of problems. The black market increased the crime rate related to the making and selling of alcohol. “Prohibition creates new profit opportunities for both criminals and non-criminals,” especially for those previously involved in criminal activities (Thornton, “Failure” 116-117).

During National Prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, the crime rate continued to rise as fewer and fewer people were willing to quit drinking or respect the ideas of Prohibition, as shown by the increase in fines given for Prohibition violations over time. Crime quickly became “organized” for the first time, running activities contrary to Prohibition on a never-before-seen scale (Thornton, “Failure” 70). In fact, by the end of Prohibition, speakeasies had actually outnumbered the saloons of pre-Prohibition years, spreading the influence of alcohol over a much wider range (Thornton, “Failure” 72).

Alcohol prices rose greatly due to the difficulties of making and selling a prohibited substance, especially among the working classes. People resorted to stealing alcohol or other items to sell in order to pay for alcohol. Prohibition was first meant to stop the abuses thought to be caused by alcohol, but the main problem it caused was crime. As more and more people began to ignore Prohibition, new criminal activity associated with alcohol began to emerge. In response, the effort to enforce the Act increased through the twenties and thirties. Prisons became overcrowded, and beyond capacity, and most money was spent on enforcement. It’s not surprising then that crime dropped very quickly after the repeal of Prohibition. While meant to limit the problems connected to the influence of the alcohol industry, Prohibition also increased the number of corrupt government officials.

The rise of criminal activity in the form of organized crime, speakeasies, and bootlegging created yet another need to bribe government officials, as the black market still remained active and profitable (Thornton, Economics 112). To keep the profits low, leaders of the illegal alcohol trade needed to keep costs low to avoid criminal penalties. Bribes became common. Most of New York City’s police officers were accepting bribes, bootlegging, drinking, or gambling themselves, some doing all. The Anti-Saloon League itself said that they had spent over fifty million dollars on their Prohibition efforts and was accused of using money to keep government officials in support of Prohibition. Eliminating or at least controlling crime and corruption was proven impossible for Prohibition leaders. Not one person actually had a good plan for stopping the flow of alcohol into the United States. It would require both a naval blockade of the coasts and a patrol of both borders on each side. Not 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 was the goal of the Prohibition Bureau, which was initially controlled through the Treasury Department. However, the Bureau lacked the budget necessary for proper enforcement (Clark). The large effort that would have been needed to keep Prohibition in effect was not very easy. Besides the crime and corruption brought by Prohibition, the United States also had many serious health problems involving bootleg liquor and alcohol substitutes. Because a substance considered illegal cannot even exist in the eyes of the government, lest the government be admitting that the prohibition of that substance is a failure, a prohibited substance is no longer subject to government regulations (Thornton, “Failure” 71). In the case of alcohol during Prohibition, the laws which had been placed on the production and sale of alcohol in the pre-Prohibition era, and which had been accepted by most of the people, no longer stopped the production of alcohol in the United States.

Since few people were willing to accept the prohibition of alcohol, makers of illegal alcohol were free to make even the most harmful of substances. Bootleg liquor became stronger and more dangerous. Jackass Brandy caused internal bleeding, and Panther Whiskey had a fuel oil base. Prohibition also made transporting less strong forms of alcohol more dangerous and difficult. Beer, which had not been widely abused in pre-Prohibition years, was too much weaker than the more concentrated bottles available. While beer drinking decreased during Prohibition, drinking of hard liquor rose because it was less expensive. As shipping alcohol became more difficult and prices rose, some turned to other substances, such as marijuana and heroin, as a substitute for alcohol. It’s not surprising that drug and alcohol-related illnesses and deaths rose greatly during Prohibition.

Prohibition also aggravated certain preexisting tensions among various social and cultural groups. For example, when blacks in Tennessee voted against Prohibition, white temperance leaders saw them as an obstacle and decided to favor their disenfranchisement. Playing up the “danger of Negro violence,” these white wets sought to put down black political forces in order to secure passage of their Amendment. Yet there was also an equal number of anti-black wets at the time. And while Prohibitionists claimed the law was never designed to oppress blacks but rather to aid the lower-class situation by removing the corrupting forces of alcohol, Prohibition did contribute to these racial tensions in the end (Isaac 266).

The largest social conflict over Prohibition occurred with the working classes and labor unions: central to the support of Prohibition was the idea that alcohol and alcoholism caused working-class poverty. Labor unions, on the other hand, tended to think the reverse – that alcoholism was a result of working-class poverty. Instead of eliminating alcohol in the hope that it would improve the conditions of the working class, labor forces hoped to improve working conditions and worker standing to eliminate the “need” for alcohol (Drescher 36). In addition, labor forces were concerned about the effect of closing saloons on working-class morale, as saloons had been centers of community for the lower classes. Similarly, labor leaders were upset about the 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 union solidarity than an offer of assistance (Drescher 35). Prohibition seemed little more than class legislation attempting to once again subvert the working classes. Needless to say, labor’s opposition to Prohibition, although most likely in the best interests of the worker, did not help labor’s image among the middle and upper classes (Drescher 38).

During the twenties, people started a new era in American history, as vehicles, mass media, and mass production gave many a new sense of individual existence, ready to be protected whether from a previous generation or a government power. Many believed that Prohibition limited “the franchise of American liberty”, personal and individual freedom, and that it developed only as “a giving play to that ineradicable passion for regulating and controlling and tyrannizing over the lives of others”. While not necessarily opposed to temperance itself, these anti-Prohibitionists fought against government enforcement of a moral decision (Monahan 155-157). To them, Prohibition was, in effect, legal coercion imposing the morals of the majority 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, the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act seemed little more than another government attempt to intrude upon the lives of ordinary citizens. Prohibition did start its share of problems even politically. Many understood that a moral crusade had to be disruptive to political systems.

Prohibitionists, almost by definition, hated politics and compromise, feeling that any such settlement meant sacrifices of a part or more of any one of their goals. Thus, many refused to be anything but absolute, and few could find a middle road. Most of the period from 1920 to 1933 saw the Democrats and Republicans either fighting over the Prohibition issue or attempting to ignore it. No amendment to the Constitution had ever been repealed, and many were not even sure if such a thing was possible (Kyvig 137). Conflict did not occur exclusively between the two parties, but also within them, and wet and dry Republicans and Democrats battled over their stand on the issue, swaying each party back and forth, for and against Prohibition (Kyvig 137).

The Democrats, for instance, tried to gain support in both the anti-Prohibition urban centers and the pro-Prohibition rural areas (Eagles 533), effectively splitting the Democratic party to the point of near collapse in 1928 (“Volstead Act”). Roosevelt himself waffled on the issue while senator, following with the tide of political forces. As New York ran strongly for Prohibition, so did he, and as they changed their minds, he did so too (Kyvig 147). Few who depended on party support could afford to do anything but the same for fear of upsetting or alienating half or more of the party.

Local politics also played a role in Prohibition’s effectiveness or lack thereof. Local officials were often against Prohibition and refused to enforce it (Isaac 267): Too many officials were weak, corrupt, or at least not dedicated to the enforcement of Prohibition (Isaac 267). As in the case of the New York City policemen, enforcing Prohibition meant bringing charges upon themselves (Thornton, Economics 133). Policemen were no different than the general population – as general support for Prohibition faded, so too did the willingness of the police force to enforce it.

The rise of wet organizations and influence equally led to the repeal of Prohibition. The increase in media support for anti-Prohibitionist sentiment, for instance, came in the form of colorful stories of speakeasies and bootlegging in well-known papers and magazines such as the Chicago Tribune and World (Sinclair 335). The formation of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) successfully turned away wealthy support from Prohibition by focusing on the economic benefits of Prohibition repeal (Sinclair 338). The Act had removed a significant source of government income previously provided by liquor taxes and alcohol regulations while simultaneously increasing government spending (Thornton, “Failure” 70). Many hoped repealing Prohibition would give the wealthy some sort of relief from heavy taxes (Sinclair 338) and restore a number of desperately needed jobs (Clark).

By the end of Prohibition, Prohibitionists were losing interest in supporting their reason. According to Joseph Kett, the Great Depression killed Prohibition, creating a distraction from Prohibition’s moral crusade. As the Depression set in, the economy of the nation became the first concern, and few wanted to continue to spend large amounts of money on enforcing the Volstead Act. Alcohol provided an effective and well-welcomed form of escapism from the harsh conditions the Depression brought. By 1930, the Progressive reformers of early temperance movements had long ago lost their influence, and few were now 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 Anti-Saloon League and other pro-Prohibition movements received continually less support throughout Prohibition. The loss of wealthy support, both influentially and financially, eventually left the League with too few resources to produce a sturdy effort. The upper classes were no longer willing to support a cause that was not only a dismal failure but also a source of restriction and regulation for themselves (Sinclair 339). In the end, the League was more interested in spending its time and money spreading propaganda in support of voluntary temperance rather than enforcing obviously unenforceable Prohibition laws. Soon, the ineffectiveness of the League made many, especially among the middle classes, lose interest (Clark). Prohibition, at its end, many thought, was “destroying respect for law and order throughout the nation” (Clark). Other nations had ended their experiments in Prohibition long before and continued to smuggle liquor into the United States (Sinclair 336).

The problems with enforcement and the disrespect shown toward the Eighteenth Amendment were making the American government seem an ineffective force, unable to control its people. As more and more people, angered by the government’s interference in their personal lives, refused to take Prohibition seriously, it was met 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 instead met with an increase in crime, corruption, and public health problems. Efforts to raise up the working classes disregarded the workers’ needs as they saw them, and both racial and ethnic tension ensued. Politicians fought over which stance to take on the issue of Prohibition, dividing parties and delaying the resolution of the issue.

The expense of maintaining Prohibition, both socially and monetarily, was just too high. Thus, people soon drew away from the support of Prohibition to the point of utter disrespect for the law. Angered at government interference in personal choices during the new era of individual freedom and tired of dealing with Prohibition as an issue with the onset of the Great Depression, anti-Prohibition forces grew in influence and support. Legislation that had directly opposed the will of the people had been created and maintained (Kyvig 138). Yet Prohibition’s effort to “reduce consumption of a good in order indirectly to reduce social ills… and to promote social goals” had proved a failure, an unenforceable measure (Thornton, Economics 4). “By the 1930s… Americans had had enough” (Cooper).

Bibliography and Works Cited:

  1. Clark, Norman H. “Prohibition and Temperance.” The Reader’s Companion to American History (1991): 124-198.
  2. Drescher, Nuala McGann. “Labor and Prohibition: The Unappreciated Impact of the Eighteenth Amendment.” Law, Alcohol, and Order. Ed.
  3. Kyvig, David E. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985. 35-52.
  4. Eagles, Charles W. “Congressional Voting in the 1920s: a Test of Urban-Rural Conflict.” Journal of American History 76 (1989): 528-534.
  5. Isaac, Paul E. Prohibition and Politics. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1965.
  6. Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  7. Monahan, Michael. Dry America. New York: Nicholas L. Brown, 1921.
  8. Murphy, Paul L. “Societal Morality and Individual Freedom.” Law, Alcohol, and Order. Ed.
  9. David E. Kyvig. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985. 67-80.

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