For thirteen years, America participated in an ill-fated experiment to prohibit alcohol consumption. As the country soon discovered, criminalizing hooch created a whole host of new problems. A rise in organized crime and a massive financial blow to the government were two of those problems. The pressure of the Depression eventually lifted restrictions on alcohol. But over ten thousand American lives and billions in tax revenue were lost first.
Keep reading for more on the catalysts of American Prohibition and its devastating effects. But stay tuned for the national joy once it was repealed on December 5th, 1933.
Beginning in the mid-1800’s, various groups slowly, quietly began blaming alcohol for all sorts of societal ills. It is true that the average American over the age of 15 was drinking almost seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. (That’s three times what we drink on average today!) In an era-specific quest for personal and community perfection, alcohol quickly became a scapegoat.
This constant inebriation was bad for factory owners, for instance. They had to deal with on-the-job accidents and employee inefficiency as a result of hangovers. Churches made the argument that saloons were bad for Sunday morning attendance. Women’s groups argued men were wasting all the family’s money on drink. Men were made violent toward their wives and children, they said. That is, if they weren’t abandoning them altogether either by running off or dying of their overconsumption.
So after decades of pressure, Prohibition was ratified by thirty-six states. This triggered federal implementation. The new law was set to prohibit the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol (including any import/export business). With high hopes, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution officially went into effect on January 17, 1920.
Here’s the thing: it was never actually illegal to drink alcohol. In addition, a loophole allowed men (yes, specifically men) to produce 200 gallons of wine per year for personal use. That is 1,000 bottles of wine. Per man. That’s not to mention stashes of hidden liquor or the bootleg booze that the ‘20s became so famous for.
There was, initially, a substantial decline in arrests for drunkenness. But it was offset with a rise in illegal smuggling of moonshine and so-called “bathtub gin.”
With a black market comes crime. Prohibition opened the door for the Mafia and other organized crime to firmly establish their hold on communities. Underground speakeasies flourished, with much of their profits bolstering the mob. Gang violence devastated urban areas.
Even officials found it difficult or unsavory to enforce this law. Many sheriffs campaigned on looking the other way on alcohol. Even the federal government’s own enforcement was arbitrary, at best. A number of governors openly refused to participate in enforcing the law.
As more people tried to cash in on the illegal trade, the quality of the bootleg alcohol declined. With no federal oversight to ensure safety, an average of 1,000 Americans died of tainted liquor every year during Prohibition.
In the end, Prohibition cost the federal government $300 million to enforce and lost $11 billion in tax revenue.
By the end of the 1920s, it was becoming clear that the “noble experiment,” as it had been termed by President Herbert Hoover, was not working out. The U.S. was suffering from serious economic decline. And the cost of this failed public policy was more than the country was willing to withstand. Money that could have been funding the federal government was instead lining the mobster’s pockets. Not only that, it was making criminals out of ordinary Americans.
Therefore, on December 5th, 1933, Congress repealed the 18th Amendment. Utah, of all states, clenched the ratification to repeal. It was the first time in U.S. history that a Constitutional amendment was repealed. It was replaced with the 21st Amendment.
Prohibition times in America in the 30s
President Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged the American people to enjoy themselves responsibly. He said, “I trust in the good sense of the American people that they will not bring upon themselves the curse of excessive use of intoxicating liquors, to the detriment of health, morals, and social integrity.” It’s rumored that he then celebrated with a dirty gin martini, his favorite libation.
Celebrations sprang up around the country. New Orleans marked the date with twenty minutes of uninterrupted cannon fire. Swanky restaurants popped champagne. Then there was Foppiano, a California vineyard whose winery had been raided by federal officials just a few years prior. A hundred thousand gallons of vino had been dumped in the nearby river! But it was immediately ready to go to market with 83,000 gallons of wine.
With the regulation of alcohol came a torrent of funds to the federal government. Some $258 million in alcohol taxes came in the first year following the repeal. That money directly helped raise the nation out of the Depression. (This was along with Roosevelt’s New Deal, the historic legislation that restored American prosperity.)
The 18th Amendment was born out of concern for the soul of America. Over ten years later, it was apparent that the law couldn’t keep Americans from one of their favorite pastimes and was, in fact, causing more harm than good.
This December 5th, make sure to raise a dirty gin martini (or whatever you prefer!) in honor of National Repeal Day when Americans could drink in peace once again.