America’s discomfort with alcohol developed in the mid‐​19th century. Previously, alcoholic beverages were an established facet of American society: George Washington operated a whiskey distillery, Thomas Jefferson dabbled in viticulture, and Samuel Adams had his brewery. Hard cider and rum enjoyed mass appeal, and rum was a common barter item in the cash‐​strapped New World. Even religiously rigid groups such as the Puritans and the Quakers stressed moderation rather than abstinence.

Following the Revolution, the expanding western frontier contributed to turning the nation’s tastes from cider and rum to whiskey and beer. Isolated western farmers found it easier to transport whiskey rather than raw grain to urban markets. In the 1840s, immigrants introduced German yeast strains and brewing methods, resulting in lager beers that kept better than British‐​style ales and porters, while the post–Civil War railroad boom allowed distillers and brewers to dispense their products nationally.

The resulting abundance of alcoholic beverages—and the saloons that served them—horrified the nation’s first prohibitionists. By the mid‐​1800s, abstinence from alcohol had become an intrinsic element of many evangelical movements, which saw alcohol as an enslaver of men and insisted that one of the functions of government was to foster a moral society. Therefore, prohibitionist groups such as the Anti‐​Saloon League adopted a strategy of driving brewers and distillers out of business through government action. They did so by making drinking culturally and politically opprobrious and by vilifying politicians who opposed alcohol’s opponents. The result of these efforts was that, by the end of 1919, 33 states had either full or partial prohibition.

Entry into World War I gave the federal government great control over the country’s agricultural production and provided utilitarian ammunition to prohibitionists, who ticked off the pounds of grain lost to brewing and the man‐​hours wasted in saloons that could be spent making bullets and bayonets. Various acts and measures whittled down alcohol production, including the Wartime Prohibition Act of 1918, which was signed into law 10 days after the November 11 armistice in Europe. It was in this wartime atmosphere of privation, sobriety, and xenophobia toward all things German (including German American brewers and their products) that Congress passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors and sent it to the states for ratification. On January 16, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th Amendment; of the 48 states, only Connecticut and Rhode Island declined their approval.

The amendment went into effect exactly 1 year later. The National Prohibition Enforcement Act, introduced by Representative Andrew Volstead (R–Minn.), but written by the Anti‐​Saloon League’s general counsel Wayne Wheeler, gave teeth to the amendment by banning any beverage with an alcohol content of 0.5% or greater and establishing a Bureau of Prohibition within the Internal Revenue Service responsible for enforcement.

Prohibition, of course, did not stop drinking in the United States. Although per capita alcohol consumption did drop sharply during the early years of Prohibition, by the latter half of the 1920s, it had rebounded to 60% to 70% of its pre‐​Prohibition level and remained steady before and after repeal. Certainly crime did not decrease. According to one study, crime in 30 major cities increased 24% between 1920 and 1921. In Philadelphia alone, drunkenness‐​related arrests nearly tripled from 20,443 in 1920 to 58,517 in 1925. The national homicide rate climbed from about 7 per 100,000 people in 1919 to nearly 10 per 100,000 by 1933, and then it dropped sharply after repeal.

Domestic moonshine and industrial alcohol provided the majority of the alcohol consumed during Prohibition. Moonshiners would distill neutral grain spirits in hidden stills and then attempt to mimic the color and flavor of whiskey or gin with additives called congeners. Industrial alcohol, denatured by government order to make it undrinkable, was typically repassed through a still to remove the poisons, but not always successfully. Thus, between 1925 and 1929, 40 out of every 1 million Americans died from toxic liquor.

The rest of the booze was smuggled over land or by sea. Scarcity of alcohol meant it could be sold in the United States for anywhere between two to five times its purchase price in Canada, Mexico, or the West Indies. In the early 1920s, vessels formed “rum rows” off the American coast. After 1924, however, most freelance entrepreneurs—tramp merchant marines or fishermen seeking an easy profit—were muscled out by crime syndicates.

Public disenchantment with Prohibition grew throughout the 1920s and into the next decade. In 1930 and 1931, polls by the National Economic League found that the top three concerns of Americans related to Prohibition and its consequent lawlessness, ahead of issues regarding unemployment and the economy. Another 1930 poll revealed that almost 70% of Americans favored repeal or modification of the Volstead Act. Repeal groups formed, and their memberships swelled. In January 1931, a majority of the 11 panelists of the National Commission on Law Observation and Enforcement, appointed by President Herbert Hoover 2 years earlier to review Prohibition’s effects, favored total repeal or alteration of the Volstead Act. Yet Hoover, a hardline dry, instead interpreted the Wickersham Report as an affirmation of Prohibition and did nothing.

By hitching the administration so closely to the dry cause, Hoover and the Republicans sealed their doom in the 1932 presidential election. The Democrats made repeal a part of their platform, whereas the Republicans adopted an ambiguous “moist” plank that endeared them to no one, further crippling a president already blamed for mishandling the economy. Proposed remedies such as alcohol taxes, jobs relating to alcohol manufacture and service, reopening legal markets to grain farmers, and eliminating the Bureau of Prohibition further incited politicians to act for repeal. After the election, the Democratic majority in both houses passed the 21st Amendment, with Utah becoming the 36th state to ratify the amendment on December 5, 1933.

Decades after repeal, both state and federal government sustain control over the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol. Eighteen states currently hold partial or full monopolies on the sale of alcoholic beverages, while most others have blue laws (often for protectionist purposes) limiting where and when alcohol may be sold. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which withholds federal highway funds to states that allow the sale of alcohol to people under 21 years old, effectively nationalized what had been a state‐​level decision. Meanwhile, private prohibitionist groups continue to agitate for increasingly strict or arbitrary blood‐​alcohol limits for drivers (e.g., at their discretion, police in Washington, D.C., may arrest drivers with any amount of alcohol in their systems) and for legislation criminalizing parents who serve alcohol to their children at home.

Further Readings

Cashman, Sean Dennis. Prohibition: The Lie of the Land. New York: Free Press, 1981.

Kerr, K. Austin. Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti‐​Saloon League. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.

Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Miron, Jeffrey A., and Jeffrey Zwiebel. “Alcohol Consumption during Prohibition.” American Economic Review 81 no. 2 (May 1991): 242–247.

Thornton, Mark. Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1991.

Willing, Joseph K. “The Bootlegger.” The Twenties: Fords, Flappers, and Fanatics. George E. Mowry, ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.

Originally published