Prohibition Era: Knowingly Breaking the Law

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The prohibition era is a fascinating time period because people were knowingly breaking the law, and everyone wanted to take part in it. This widespread wave began in the first decade of the twentieth century. Despite the ratification of the 18th Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors, Prohibition was a difficult to enforce and as a result, it only increased illegal production. The illegal production and sale of alcohol was known as “bootlegging” and illegal drinking spots were known as “speakeasies”. With alcohol being prohibited, people began to smuggle products from other countries, a rise in gang and mafia violence accompanied as a result, and other crimes led to support the end of Prohibition.

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There were groups who opposed alcohol and supported its prohibition. Women played a strong role in the temperance movement. The claim was that alcohol was seen as a destructive force in families and marriages. Other groups, such as the Anti-Saloon League, supported urban growth and the rise of evangelical Protestantism. Many factory owners supported the prohibition because it could prevent accidents and increase worked efficiency, especially during an era of increased industrial production and longer working hours. What began as a temporary wartime prohibition, to save grain for producing food, became an amendment later than year. (Editors)

The federal and local governments struggled with the enforcement of Prohibition in the 1920s. The enforcement began with the Internal Revenue Service and later to the Justice Department. The Prohibition era encouraged the rise of criminal activity due to bootlegging. The Presidential election of Franklin D. Roosevelt was the end of prohibition. His easy victory came with the promise to appeal Prohibition.

Historian Lisa McGirr argues in her book, The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, that the Prohibition era was a crucial part to the development of law enforcement, the penal system, and the grassroots American right wing. In part, her view of Prohibition showed that the level of citizen enforcement was much higher in rural areas. She argues that the levels of crime and increased arrest and incarceration often followed, but especially how it affected minorities and women. (Onion)

McGirr also discusses the post prohibition drug related issues in the last chapter of her book. She introduces the war on alcohol as a prime example of a recurring theme in our mass politics. Protestant evangelicals utilized the 18th Amendment and Volstead Act and aid of the KKK to go after their enemies. McGirr does agree with Allan Lichtman and acknowledges that the ethnic based voting in this time had more to do with ethnicity and less with population density.

Daniel Okrent, writer of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, talks about the social policy where alcohol was banned in the United States between 1920 and 1933. Okrent uses characters who passionately plead both sides of the argument while addressing the rise of the mafia. He begins with discussing the temperance movement and how it became the first modern, single purpose political action committee. Originally dominated by women, many participants of the abolition movement were later involved in fighting for women’s suffrage. As the movement picked up, it became predominantly male and was the start of the Anti-Saloon League. Okrent describes the women’s suffrage movement alliance with the support of corporate America. Factory owners believed that drinking alcohol lowered the productivity of their workers and could cause more accidents on the floor.

Similar to what we’re dealing with today when it comes to marijuana, bourbon became prescription based, and was used for medicinal purposed. Certain households were allowed to ferment grapes to make their own wine, wine was also allowed by religious figures for sacramental purposes, and some people began to stock up before the rule ever went into effect. Smuggling alcohol from different countries became a large “business”. Smugglers would find various ways to bring alcohol into America such as putting it in pig bellies, coat pockets, cars, boats, tunnels – just to name a few. Ships would dock a few miles off of territorial waters and sell liquor from the ship as well.

While Okrent looked more at the big picture, McGirr takes a different approach. McGirr focuses more on how similar the modern war on drugs is to the war on alcohol. She discusses the war on alcohol and how it was aimed at immigrants and the poorer people, and how the rich were almost always unaffected. She focused on the state and local people and acknowledges the role of Progressivism with its reliance on experts, social science, and government intervention. She notes that policies of the 1920s prepared the continuing role that government had when it came to alcohol and drug regulations post the 18th Amendment.

Daniel Okrent demonstrates the evolution of Prohibition. From the start of the idea, all the way to when it was repealed. Prohibition may have had good intentions, but the result was the opposite of what the intention was. By attempting to put a ban on alcohol, Prohibition wound up causing far more problems than they were prepared for. People were seen as criminals for, it created more of a defiance of authority, and gangsters became criminal icons. Okrent demonstrates that the Prohibition didn’t work and how it brought changes to America.

Evangelical perfectionists, the use of the word perfectionists after evangelical is perhaps redundant, believed that Prohibition would virtually usher in a millennial state. As evangelical women saw it, they would be given the vote, violence against women would cease, family incomes increase, and domestic tranquility prevail. Many believed it was the first step toward not only gender equality, but an end to racial prejudice as well. But not all evangelicals shared such utopian visions. Many evangelicals, we call them Fundamentalists, while largely supporting the noble experiment in principle were less confident that sin could be terminated by a governmental edict. 

They focused on individual conversion, formation of Christian communities, and many looked for the eminent return of Jesus who would put things right. In other words Prohibition is tied not to Fundamentalism but the religious arm of Progressivism, the social gospel movement. While at times admitting this, McGirr often confuses the issues in her effort to link Prohibition to Fundamentalism. She even suggests that theological Modernists were critics of Prohibition. But Protestant Modernists of the University of Chicago type were unapologetic champions of the noble experiment. As scholar’s have long known, Prohibition was a product of the social gospel not Fundamentalism. Today liberal Protestant activists are often housed on Capitol Hill at the United Methodist Building. As revealed on its cornerstone, it is a building dedicated to the Methodist women of the WCTU. It is these liberal activists who are the heirs of the 18th Amendment not the very different cultural warriors of the religious right. 

Further and also closely linked with social gospel style Progressivism was the strong support for prohibition among Scandinavian immigrants. Deeply rooted in pietism these Lutheran immigrants shared social gospel perspectives with perfectionist evangelicals. It is the Volstead Act after all. Secondly, McGirr asserts but does not establish a link between evangelicalism and capitalism beyond indicating that well-heeled capitalists like John D. Rockefeller and the very non-evangelical Henry Ford provided funding to support the dry cause. In truth Rockefeller as the chief funder of the University of Chicago was a controversial figure among both social gospel and Fundamentalist Protestants. Too suggest that there is a direct link between such a complex and diverse phenomenon as evangelicalism and capitalism is the wishful thinking of historians who have forgotten the obvious evangelicalism is found many places where there is no proletariat in need of discipline. 

For example, Charles G. Finney, often accused of promoting the market revolution and accurately depicted as taking money from the wealthy Tappen brothers, certainly was far more comfortable in the moral economy of rural New England and Western New York than providing moral support for emerging capitalists. On the other hand, there is of course a direct link between the forces of capitalism and the repeal of the 18th Amendment a point McGirr clearly demonstrates. In fact, prohibition was enacted as a measure that promised to move economic resources to more productive ends and it was repealed in part to stimulate the economy. And while few ever claimed that Prohibition was responsible for the prosperity of the 1920s, its repeal obviously had little meaningful economic impact on the Depression.

Finally and most significantly McGirr consciously suppresses the obvious role women played in the crusade against liquor. Women, especially evangelical perfectionist women, played a decisive role in the entire drama. It is no accident that the 18th Amendment was followed by the 19th Amendment. Also, while WCTU leaders like Frances Willard were certainly guilty of xenophobic outbursts—she really didn’t like my Czech ancestors who stayed clear of pure and dry Evanston, the epicenter of Methodist style righteousness in the greater Chicago area. But of course, the liquor lobby itself with its attacks on “short haired women and long haired men” was equally adept at name calling and pandering to sexual and racial stereotypes. 

It was after all the Prohibition Party that first endorsed women’s suffrage, defended the interests of African-Americans, and as historians have long known supported a forward looking social agenda well into the 20th century. See Roger C. Storm, Partisan Prophets: A History of the Prohibition Party (1972). Even the vilified Carry Nation is best understood through the lens of gender and the attacks upon her were largely sexist in nature. See Robert Smith Bader, Prohibition in Kansas: A History (1986). The actual heirs of prohibition are the great Methodist liberals of the Democratic Party Hubert H. Humphrey, the ordained Methodist minister George McGovern, and a Methodist woman who struggled with a call to the ministry Hillary Rodham. 

Their passion for a more just social order perhaps in the third case eroded by a sense of entitlement is tied to the very evangelical perfectionism McGirr fears. James H. Morone’s Hell Fire Nation presents a fairer picture while raising some of the same points as McGirr. In the same way that slavery was the primary motivator of abolitionism, economic injustice was the primary motivator of Populism, abuse of alcohol was the primary motivation for the temperance crusade. If its supporters expected too much, we should at least have the common sense to realize that they understood that a problem existed. As a descendant of eastern European immigrants to Illinois and Wisconsin, I probably have fewer illusions about the virtues of immigrant drinking culture. If you wish to understand Prohibition in its proper context, please read Jack S. Blocker, “Did Prohibition Really work? Alcohol Prohibition as a Public Health Issue,” American Journal of Public Health 96 (February 2006) 233-243.

What did the Ku Klux Klan, the women’s suffrage movement, William Jennings Bryan, Henry Ford, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Eleanor Roosevelt all have in common? They all favored passage of the 18th Amendment, which criminalized the sale of alcoholic beverages. It is now nearly universally concluded that the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was one of the worst fiascos ever foisted upon our country; moreover, that it was brought about solely by fundamentalist Christians. The last part is a myth (and to be fair, heavy drinking was a problem in the late 19th-early 20th century). If not, then why would the above groups, who differed on so many other issues and in other respects would find each other repugnant, favor the policy of prohibition? And then, just 15 years later, how did the 18th Amendment become the only one in our nation’s history to be repealed? Attached to that, why did the American populace so heavily reverse itself on this issue?

It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the movement really began to pick up steam. This was largely due to the fact that those who favored temperance got organized. Supporters also latched onto an anti-immigrant backlash: most turn-of-the-century immigrants were Irish and German, and were heavy beer drinkers. Additionally, there were brazen appeals to racism. First, two of the presidents who were in office during this era (Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge) were ambivalent at best about enforcing it. As for Warren Harding, who died in office in 1923, some in his cabinet members were involved in bootlegging. So were many other politicians at this time.

Second, there were loopholes in the law. For instance, there was a religious exemption for Orthodox Jews; coincidentally, this era saw a large conversion rate to that religion. Third, just as many opponents of prohibition (most notably former president William H. Taft and essayist H.L. Mencken) rightly predicted, criminal elements would prosper because of it. Okrent records that immediately before the 18th Amendment took effect, Mencken sold his car and used the proceeds to purchase massive amounts of adult beverages. Fourth, many Canadians started wineries and breweries, smuggled their goods over the borders, and made large fortunes.

Fifth, all of this led to greater corruption in politics. This could be subtle, as when police stationed at the docks would fine bootleggers, who merely counted those fines as part of their production costs. But the corruption could also be overt, as when gangsters such as Al Capone and Meyer Lansky virtually controlled local law enforcement. So then, what killed prohibition? Okrent gives a number of factors: First, the aforementioned mob bosses were rightly seen as the direct result of the 18th Amendment. There is little chance that such flamboyant criminals (especially Capone) would have been nearly so successful (and brazenly so) without a nationwide anti-alcohol policy. As this era wore on, more and more people came to that conclusion.

Second, activists like Pauline Sabin began to see the deleterious effects of prohibition. Once a supporter of the 18th Amendment, Sabin especially made it fashionable for women to be politically active in this cause. Third, publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst tired of prohibition. In the late 1920s, he instructed his newspaper editors to flout the hypocrisy of dry politicians when they were caught with alcohol. This was done to marvelous affect, and helped to reverse public opinion on this policy. Fourth, when Herbert Hoover was elected president in 1928, he badly misread his mandate: instead of focusing solely on the fact that he was elected to continue the economic policies of his predecessors, he thought it was because prohibition was more popular than it actually was. In his inaugural address, he devoted much heated rhetoric on why anti-liquor laws needed to be tougher, when in fact Americans were tiring of it.

All of that to say, when the stock market crashed in October 1929, the perception that Hoover was out of touch with the nation was magnified even more. So when 1932 rolled around with no end in sight to the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt acutely read the public mood, and ran on a platform of repeal (though he had a history of waffling on this issue). ‘Last Call’ captures each of these episodes well, which makes it such a compelling read. Additionally, there are some interesting anecdotes; for instance, Okrent also makes a compelling case that contrary to popular myth, Joseph Kennedy was not involved in bootlegging at all; that such claims only came about in 1960 when his son ran for president.

All told, ‘Last Call’ should go down as one of the best volumes written on this subject. If I do have one criticism, it is this: there is a very heavy reliance upon quotations from that era. While this is helpful in some respects, it makes Okrent’s prose a little too choppy. Prohibition was one of those periods of American history that was frequently taught, but seldom taught with any depth. A few historical personages stand out such as Carrie Nation and Al Capone, but for most high school students Prohibition was simply a time when the U.S. seemed to go crazy in 1919 and was restored to sanity 14 years later.

Daniel Okrent has gone behind the national madness to take a deeper look at the nation in the grip of dry fever in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Sure you will find familiar names here. You’ll also find some unfamiliar ones who played important roles in the dry years of Prohibition such as Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League, who almost single-handedly turned the issue of banning booze nationwide from a minority position to the battle cry of an odd coalition of groups like progressives, supporters of women’s suffrage, the Ku Klux Klan, nativists, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant bigots, and more.

Somehow these diverse groups managed to come together and hold the coalition together long enough to get Congress to pass the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. Once Prohibition passed Americans had a new pastime: finding ways around the law. The ways were legion. Whisky crossed the border from Canada. Rumrunners sat up floating shops just past the three-mile limit in international waters. Stills dotted the hillsides in rural areas and urban equivalents of stills thrived in basements. In California’s wine-growing region wine for Catholic and Jewish rituals were sold to churches and synagogues only to find its way into non-clerical hands. Despite being banned, liquor was everywhere, leading one wit to remark ‘Prohibition is better than no booze at all.’

By the time the Stock Market crashed in 1929 and Depression swept the land, the nation seemed ready for a change. Seeing how ineffective Prohibition enforcement actually was and the amount of money that went into the pockets of bootleggers instead of Uncle Sam’s tax coffers, the voices that once cried for Prohibition were now calling for Repeal. Finally, in 1933, Utah became the last state needed to ratify the repeal efforts and the taps flowed, the champagne corks popped, and glasses were raised once again across the land.


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