The 1920s was a time of major social change in the United States. The social changes during this period were reflected in the laws and regulations that were brought into play at this time. One of the most prominent examples of this was prohibition. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, also known as the Volsted Act, which got its name from its sponsor, Representative Andrew Volsted of Minnesota, was created to eliminate the use of alcohol in the United States. In doing this, the proponents of prohibition hoped to end the social problems associated with alcohol, such as domestic abuse.
It was an attempt to promote Protestant middle-class culture as a means of imposing order on a disorderly world(Dumenil, 1995). However, this goal of keeping peace by not consuming alcohol, was not reached during the years of prohibition, or the years following it. Alcohol consumed by Americans did decline, but it was not totally eliminated as hoped, and some of the social problems seemed to be even greater than before prohibition was in effect. Therefore, prohibition was not successful in its original purpose.
To better understand the reasons behind the failure of prohibition, one must have to look at the years before, during, and after prohibition. This will give a better understanding to the implementation of the 18th Amendment as well as show the trends of Americans alcohol use and the effects of alcohol on American society. The early 1900s was a time of great prosperity in the United States. America was thriving economically, and big cities were booming. However, some Americans thought that this was not a good thing because of the social problems that came with the urban culture.
The Drys, as Prohibitionists were referred to, saw large cities as providing people with readily available alcohol. This in turn led to an increase in crime, poverty and immorality. During the period of 1911-1915 the average per-capita consumption of alcohol of each American was 2. 56 gallons (Kyvig, 1979). The only solution that was proposed was a national prohibition of alcohol. The goal of this was to eliminate drinking in America, which would result in reducing all of the problems associated with it.
The Prohibitionists thought that the sale of liquor was a social crime, that the drinking of liquor was a racial crime, and that the results of liquor consumption were criminal actions(Sinclair, 1962). By making alcohol illegal nationally, such as it would be with prohibition, the social problems of America would be fixed. On January 16, 1920, alcohol became illegal with the passing of the 18th Amendment. Under the Volsted Act, the importing, exporting, transporting, and manufacturing of all intoxicating substances was outlawed.
The government defined intoxicating liquor as anything having an alcoholic content of more than . . However, this excluded alcohol used for religious or medical purposes. With the passing of this Amendment, the temperance movement in the United States had won a major victory. Supporters saw the implementation of prohibition as the key to freeing America from the fiery vices of alcohol. So began the prohibition era. At the onset of prohibition, alcohol use in the United States did decline. It did cut alcohol consumption, perhaps by as much as thirty percent, and was more effective in the early years (1919-1922) (Dumenil, 1995).
However, this reduction in consumption was not permanent or even long lasting. Seldom has a law been more flagrantly violated. Not only did Americans continue to manufacture, barter, and possess alcohol; they drank more of it (Bowen, 1969). One of the reasons for this was that prohibition was so hard to enforce. This was partly due to the poor wording of the amendment. The 18th Amendment prohibited the sale, import, export, manufacture, and transport of alcohol, but it failed to specifically make purchasing alcohol or its use a crime.
According to David E. Kyvig (1979), This allowed continued possession of intoxicants obtained prior to prohibition, provided that such beverages were only for personal use in ones own home. This loophole in the Amendment was favorable to the Prohibitionists, and ultimately led to a decline in prohibitions effectiveness. Another reason that the decline in alcohol sale and usage was not permanent was its increased profitability. After the implementation of prohibition, the price of alcohol went up dramatically. During prohibition, the price of beer went up 600%, and the price of gin went up 520%.
This made the sale of illegal spirits more profitable to bootleggers. The alcohol trade was a lucrative practice. Bootleggers smuggled alcohol into the country and sold it at tremendous profits. Therefore, because alcohol was more profitable to sell during prohibition, it was more widely consumed. The levels of consumption never reached those of pre-prohibition times, but alcohol use in the United States was not totally eliminated. National prohibition substantially reduced, but did not altogether eliminate, the use of alcoholic beverages(Kyvig, 1979).
The huge public demand for alcohol led to a soaring business for bootleggers. When prohibition began, people immediately wanted a way to drink. Hence, the extremely profitable bootlegging business was born. Before Prohibition, gangs existed, but had little influence. Now, they had gained tremendous power almost overnight. Bootlegging was easy – New York City gangs paid hundreds of poor immigrants to maintain stills in their apartments. Common citizens, once law abiding, now became criminals by making their own alcohol. However, this posed risks for those who made their own.
The rich managed to continue drinking good liquor while less-affluent Americans often consumed homemade alcoholic beverages, which were sometimes made with poisonous wood alcohol. Due to this, many died because alcohol poisoning. There was very little enforcement to the law, since the government employed few prohibition agents, most of whom could be bribed by the bootleggers. Those in favor of prohibition “became increasingly dismayed with the efforts of the government to enforce the law. ” (Fisher, 1926) In 1920, the government had fewer than 1,600 low-paid, ill-trained Prohibition agents for the entire country.
Speakeasies, which got their name because a password had to be spoken through the door to get in, popped up all over the country. The number of speakeasies in New York was somewhere in the hundreds or even thousands. It was easy enough for police to close and padlock individual speakeasies, but there were so many it was impossible to keep them shut down. Even with prohibition in effect, the demand for alcohol never gave it a chance to work. One of the most famous gangsters of all time achieved his fame during the times of prohibition.
Al Capone used prohibition to build one of the biggest crime empires in United States history. He started as a member of John Torrio’s gang in Chicago. Torrio was a notorious gangster and bootlegger, and after he was shot in 1922, Capone became the leader of his gang. He quickly expanded the business and by 1930 controlled speakeasies, bookie joints, gambling houses, brothels, horse and race tracks, nightclubs, distilleries and breweries at a reported income of $100,000,000 a year. By bribing police and prohibition agents, he was able to get away with almost anything he did.
He was somewhat of a celebrity in Chicago and admitted what he did with quotes such as: “All I’ve ever done is to supply a public demand – you can’t cure a thirst by a law. It’s bootleg when it’s on the trucks, but when your host hands it to you on a silver tray, it’s hospitality. They say I violate Prohibition. Who doesn’t? ” Capone also believed in killing anyone who got in his way. Throughout his career, Capone was said to have killed over 200 people, but he was never convicted of any related charge. In addition to bootlegging and operating his other establishments, Capone began the widespread use of racketeering.
Racketeering is when Capone would force businesses to pay him money in exchange for protection by his gang. Really, though, they were paying for protection from Capone’s gang. However, what goes up must come down. Capone became too famous for his own good. The American public began to hate him for being able to defy the law, and the government hated him for continuously breaking laws and embarrassing it. After the Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929, in which Capone executed seven rival gang members dressed as police, the public saw Capone as a truly evil man.
In 1931, Capone was indicted for tax evasion and sentenced to ten years in prison along with being told to pay substantial fines. At first he went to Atlanta prison, but after being able to buy better treatment there, he was transferred to Alcatraz, where his money meant nothing. He was soon diagnosed with syphilis and spent the rest of his term in a hospital. After he was released, Capone returned to his Florida estate and slowly succumbed to his disease, he died on January 25, 1947. During prohibition, the social ills of America that the prohibitionists had hoped to cure with the implementation of the Volsted Act were not eradicated.
Before prohibition, the temperance movement blamed an increase in crime on alcohol. This was one of the main arguments for prohibition. However, after the beginning of prohibition the homicide rate actually increased in America. This was mainly the selling of liquor was becoming increasingly more profitable for criminals. Because each separate criminal group was fighting for the same thing, to sell the most illegal alcohol, there were increasing tensions among these groups. The crime rate in major cities went up, as did the homicide rate. Serious crimes such as homicide and assault and battery increased 13% during prohibition.
Even though proponents of Prohibition saw the 18th Amendment as a law that would reduce criminal activities in America, this was not the reality. Another social problem that prohibition was supposed to address was the loss of morals in America. The emerging middle class used the temperance and evangelical movements to establish a culture of sobriety, restraint, and industry to strengthen the family, promote individual and community prosperity (Dumenil, 1995). Many Americans thought that society was morally and ethically decaying. There was prostitution, gambling, and open sexuality, more prevalent in the cities than in rural areas.
Prohibition would cure this. With prohibition in place the Temperance Movement claimed that, The abolition of the saloon and of drinking in clubs and at public dinners are an unequivocal sign that the new ideal of social responsibility has progressed(Fisher, 1926). Prohibitionists thought that this was the path America should be headed in. But prohibition failed its desired outcome. In the times of prohibition America did not move toward the new ideal of social responsibility, but, in fact, backed off to being less ethical then it had been before prohibition.
During the years of prohibition, the number of illegal clubs for drinking or speakeasies increased dramatically. Just in New York, as early as 1923, the estimate was 5,000 which later upped to 32,000 (more than double the 15,000 places where a man could have gotten a drink legally in pre-Volstead days) (Lee, 1963). This was not the only place where this was happening. All over America speakeasies were popping up. In Illinois there were an estimated 40,000, Pennsylvania 20,000, and California 15,000 (Lee, 1963).
This shows that even though it was illegal to drink, frequenting saloons was still a common habit among Americans. With this increase in speakeasies, there was also an increase in moral decay. These establishments brought with them crime, gambling, and prostitution, all things that the Temperance Movement thought would be eradicated with prohibition. The year 1933 marked the conclusion of a thirteen-year prohibition of alcohol in the United States, with the pressing of the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. This marked the end to a lengthy period of the great experiment, which was prohibition.
Looking at the era following prohibition will complete the picture of how prohibition did not meet its goals. The amount of per capita consumption of Americans did in fact decrease to . 97 gallons of alcohol in 1933 from 2. 56 gallons in 1915, but alcohol consumption was not eliminated. In addition, the homicide rate for America actually decreased in the years after prohibition was repealed. Even though this fact would seem to be a positive effect of prohibition that is not the case. One reason for the decline in the homicide rate is that after prohibition, there was not as much violent crime among gangsters.
During prohibition, there was more cause for violence; because alcohol was so important to them. This explains the decrease in the homicide rate after prohibition. Prohibition also did not accomplish its goal of stopping the decay of Americas morals and values. After prohibition was repealed, the cultural change had already taken place. There were new, acceptable ethics. Progress in the 1920s had changed the ways American life After looking at prohibition in the context of the time period before, during and after, one can better see the failure of prohibition.
Prohibition did not achieve its goals. Instead, it added to the problems it was intended to solve(Thornton, 1971). We can see that prohibition did reduce the amount of alcohol consumed in the United States, but alcohol use was not altogether eliminated. The social problems that were hoped to be addressed were not solved either. The great experiment that was prohibition did not accomplish its goals of solving the social problems of America or eliminating alcohol consumption. But, it will always be remembered for causing Americans to reflect on the effects of alcohol on society.