Prohibition: The Legislation Of Morality Essay

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s through out the United States there was a movement for the end of alcohol. The sole aim and purpose of this body was to stamp out the evils of alcohol. This movement, most commonly called Prohibition, mixed the morals of Christianity and the politics of government. Prohibition did succeed with the ratification of the 18th was, however, a great mistake. This amendment made the common man a criminal, lowered the confidence in the federal government, and started what we now know as organized crime. The 18th amendment was a “noble experiment,” but it was a horrible disaster.

Prohibition has been supported since the original colonize. Pious Christians wanted to stamp out alcohol and to establish a better society. However many of the colonists, even those who considered themselves devout Christians, were heavy drinkers. “The Puritans who set sail for Massachusetts, they had taken care to carry with them 42 tons of beer (in contrast with 14 tons of water) and 10,000 gallons of wine” (Lee, 15). Many of the early laws or prohibition dealt with the control of excessive drinking. The regulation of liquor consumption was a matter of considerable concern in certain colonies. Thus, for a time, Massachusetts went so far as to prohibit the drinking of alcohol in 1638 (Lee, 19). This law was soon abandoned. Although colonial laws made in clear that drunkards were unwelcome, the diary of a colonial traveler, Sarah Kemble Knight, suggests that such laws were unsuccessful:
I could ger no sleep, because of the Clamor of some of the Town Tope-ers in the next room. . . . I heartily fretted and wish’t ‘am tongue tyed. . . . They kept calling for Tother Gill, Wch while they were swallowing, was some Intermission, But presently, like Oyle to fire, encreased the flame (Miller, Johnson, eds.. 430-431).

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Persons, such as Sarah Knight, were to become even more outspoken about their concern for the use of spirits. Although the writings of these people were fierce, the time for temperance had not yet arrived.

During the 1750’s the local ministers throughout the colonies began a crusade against alcohol. On their heels came many pamphlets and a general sentiment that liquor was not something that high society would involve itself with. “John Adams noted in his diary on February 29, 1769 that the taverns were ‘becoming the eternal haunt of loose disorderly people. . .'” (Cherrington, 37). At the end of the 18th Century, the temperance movement began to be noticed. In 1784, the Methodist Church took a staunch position against the sale or drinking of alcohol.
Prohibition became more and more supported throughout the United States throughout the early 1800’s. Eventually, prohibition forces gained enough support to pass laws. In 1847, the first of these was enacted for the state of Maine. A wave of prohibition statues followed. Delaware, on the heels of Maine, passed it’s first prohibition law only to have it declared unconstitutional the following year. Similar laws were enacted in Ohio, Illinois, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York during the next few years. These laws met various fates, including, veto by governors, repeal by the legislature and invalidation by the state supreme courts. (nc2a.htm)
Eventually, all of these early prohibition laws were repealed. But supporters took heart and began temperance societies. Many of these spread throughout the United States, including the American Temperance Society, later to become the American Temperance Union, which by 1835 had 8000 local societies.

During the 1870 to the early 1900’s, several movements started such as feminism, unionism, socialism, and progressivism. In 1874, with the forming of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, feminism became involved in the temperance movement. However, the WCTU was not carrying the burden of reform alone. In 1869, the National Prohibition Party was born. Three years later, the first party ticket was put forth in the presidential campaign of 1872, headed by John Black, who received 5,607 votes for President. Success at the polls ultimately peaked in 1892 when John Dedwell, the Prohibition presidential candidate, received a total of 270,710 votes. The next major organization of the temperance movement was the Anti-Saloon League. The League was to develop the art of lobbying or “political pressure” to it’s most dramatic heights. Scarcely more than 10 years after organization, it was described as “the most dangerous political movement that this country has ever known” by the National Model License League. The League’s indictments included not simply alcohol, but the saloon itself, as the purveyor of spirits. A myriad of League publications denounced the saloon for “annually sending thousands of our youths to destruction, for corrupting politics, dissipating workmen’s wages, leading astray 60,000 girls each year into lives of immorality and banishing children from school. (Odegard, 59) League posters appeard everywhere depicting the saloon-keeper as a profiteer who feasted on demise.

The League geared up for political campaigns, but it was not alone. As the Progressive spirit caught the national interest in the early 19th century, the movement embraced the cause of temperance. Through the combination of temperance and progressivism, it was believed that the Kingdom of God could actually come to the United States.

Other movments were more ordinary. Scietist began accumulating evidence of the effect of quantities of alcohol on the nervous system and general physical condition. The myth that alcohol consumption improved muscular power was discredited. The relationship between psychoses and alcohol was documented, and thus did the condemnation of alcohol as a poison assume scientific support.

Nevertheless, the Episcopal and Lutheran churches never aligned themselves with the Anti-Saloon League, while Jewish and Catholic groups generally opposed their objective. The conviction shared by Anti-Saloon Leaguers expressed by Reverend Francis Ascott McBride was: “The League was born of God” (Lee, 35). Thus one had to be for or against the movement, there was no half-way commitment.

From the company’s point of view, the saloon was often responsible for industrial injuries and absenteeism. Some believed that the drinking man demanded higher wages than his sober counterparts. Furthermore, union locals tended to congregate in saloon meeting halls maintained for that purpose and, it was suspected, for the plottings of anarchistic conspiracies. It was not long before industry moved from and indifferent position to an active role in the temperance movement. Various methods were adopted to encourage sobriety, including lectures, literature and job preferences for drunks, Businessmen thought that sobriety expanded productivity, increased bank deposits, improved collections and stimulated the retail trade (Timberlake, 67-79)
Opinion was not unanimous, of course. Businessmen, including bankers, whose interests were tied to the liquor industry could ill afford to be charitable toward temperance. Others, including the DuPonts, Rockefellers, Kresges, and Wananmakers spent freely to cover the League’s annual campaign costs of #2.5 million (Odegard, 126)
All of this happened as the fist World War was nearing. Many people became more distrustful of German-Americans. The United States Brewers Association misread the prevailing remper and associated itself with the German-American Alliabce to oppose the temperance advocates and defend German-Americans. As the United States came closer to war, the opposition which developed against the Centeral Powers in Europe was directed with equal force against brewers in the United States (nc2a.htm)
The war gave the prohibition cause new ammunition. Literature depicted brewers and licensed retailers as treacherously stabbing American soldiers in the back. Raw materials and labor were being diverted from the war effort to an industry which debilitated the nation’s capacity to defend itself. It was urged that wartime prohibition would stop the waste of grain and molasses and would remove the handicap on worker’s effciency.

In this atmosphere the Wartime Prohibition Act was passed in 1918. It followed a series of federal laws such as the Wilson Original Packages Act and the Webb-Keyon Act. The Wilson Original Packages Act was passed on August 8, 1890, and provided that all intoxicating beverages shipped interstate would be subject to the laws of the distination state upon arrival. There was no help from the fedreal government to enforce this. The Webb-Keyon Act, enacted on March 1, 1913, was intended to reinforce the 1890 Act by providing that it was a violation of federal law to ship an intoxicating beverage interstate with the intent that it be used or sold in any manner i violation of the laws of the distinationg state. The lack of federal enforcement rendered the statute virtually meaningless. The Reed Anendment, enacted four years later, provided a fine of $1,000 for transporting liquor into a dry state. These new laws changed the federal government’s stance on liqour taxs from a way to make revenuem but now Congeress took notice of the role it could play in the regulation of consumption. (nc2a.htm)
Congress had many chances to bring about national prohibition many times. In 1876, Congressman Henry Blair of New Hampshire introduced a prohibition ammendment to the Constitution for the first time. As a senator, he introduced another such resolution in 1885, along with Senator Preston Plum of Kansas. After consideration by the Senate Committee on Education, the bill was reported out favorably and placed on the Senate Calendar in 1886. Nevertheless, no cation resulted (Cherrington, 317).

In the meantime, state continued the struggle between the wets and the drys, with great success for the temperance advocates. By 1913, nine states were under stateside prohibition. In 31 other states, local option laws were in effect. By reason of these and other vairants of regulatory schemes, more than 50% of the United States population was then under prohibition (nc2a.htm).

The Anti-Saloon League went on record at it’s 15th National Convention in 1913 in favor of immediate approval of a constitutional amendment. The National Temperance Council, founded at the same time, coordinated the activities of numerous temperance organizations with the same objective. In 1913, the demands if the League were formally presented to Congress.

The measure was then introduced in the House by Congressman Thompson and in the Senate by Senator Sheppard. The following year, the first joint resolution failed to secure the necessaty two thirds majority for submitting a constitutional amendment to the states. A second resolution was submitted in 1915 and favorably considered by the Judiciary Committees of both houses, but neither ever came to a vote. Ultimately, in 1917, the resolution to prohibit the manufacture, sale, transportation or importation of alcoholic beverages in the United States was approved by Congress and sent to the states for ratification (Cherrington, 330). It took only one yeat and eight days for the 18th amendment to sccure the necessary ratification. On January 8, 1918, Mississippi proudly became the first state to ratify, and on January 16, 1919, Nebraska completed the job as the 36th state. By the end of Fevruary 1919, there remained only three hold-outs: New Jersym Connecticut, and Rhode Island (Lee, 42).

On October 28, 1919, Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act – more often known as the Volstead Act – with the intent to give effect to the new constitutional amendment. Officially, the liquor drought was to begin on January 17, 1920.

The early experience of the Prohibition era gave the government a taste of what was to come. In three months before the 18th amenedment became effective, liquor worth half a million dollars was stolen from Government warehouses. By midsummer of 1920, federal courts in Chicago were overwhelmed with some 600 pending liquor violation trials. Within three years, 20 prohibition agents were killed in service. By 1921, “95,933 illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized. In 1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282, 122 in 1930” (Sinclair, 176-177). The law could not quell the continuing demand for alcoholic products. Thus were legal enterprises could no longer supply the demand, an illicit traffic developed, from the point of manufacture to consuption. The institution of the speakeasy replaced the institution of the saloon. Estimates of the number of speakeasies throughout the United States ranged from 200,000 to 500,000.

Writers of this period point out that the law was circumvented by various means. Although there may have been legitimate, medicinal purposes for whiskey, the practice of obtaining a medical prescription fot the illegal substance was abused. It is estimated that doctors earned $40 million in 1928 for writing prescriptions for whiskey.

The leagal system was equally evasive. The courts convicted about seven percent of those charged with liquor violations. The exception for sacramental wine from protection under the Volstead Act also invited abuse.The failures of prohibition enforcement were spotlighted in the big citites where the law was flagrantly defied and in the smaller towns, populated by miners and industrial workers, where the law was simply ignored.

Notwithstanding the weak enforcement of the Volstead Act, some believe that it was only the coming of the Depression with it’s demand for increased employment and tax revenues which finally killed the experiment. Others observe that Prohibition was a by-product of the stress and excesses of war and could not have survived in the peacetime even under optimal economic conditions. Finally, there are those who accues the selfishly modivated businessmen of the United States for repeal which they allegedly brought abouth through the same high-pressure tactics so successfully employed by the partisans of temperance in the preceding decades (nc2a.htm).

I feel that prohibition was only a attempt by people who thought that an alcohol-free society would be a perfect, utopian society, one free of crime, complaints against employers and government and a society that worked tword common goals. This society was of course a foolish and absurd idea. It did not take into account that we are sinful human beings or that morals cannot be legislated. This experiment should never be repeated with any drug that is now legal, such as tobacco, and we should learn from the past that prohibition does not work.

Works Cited
Cherrington, E. H. The Evolution of Prohibition In The United States of America Westerville, Ohio: American Issue, 1920.

Lee, H. How Dry We Were: Prohibition Revisited EngleWood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1963.

McGrew, J. L. “History of Alcohol Prohibition” Online. Internet. Available:

Miller, P. and Johnson, T. H. eds. The Puritans New York: American Book, 1963.

Murphy, P. L. The Constitution in Crisis Times: 1918-1969 New York: Harper and Row, 1972.

Odegard, P. H. Pressure Politics-The Story of the Anti-Saloon League New York: Columbia University, 1928.

Sinclair, A. The Era of Excess Boston: Little, Brownm 1962.

Timberlake, J. H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement Cambridge: Harvard Press, 1963.

“The Frenzied Twenties.” Christian History Issue 55, Volume 16, Number 3, 3.


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