The rise and fall of prohibition in the United States


The ratification of the 18th Amendment, Jan. 16, 1919, and the subsequent enactment by Congress of the Volstead Act, marked the culmination of a long campaign in the United States against liquor traffic. 

Although the origin of the movement is to be found in several colonial protests against the excessive use of intoxicants, the temperance crusades did not turn from moral persuasion to legal coercion until the middle of the 19th century. 

Anti-Saloon League

The failure of the brewers, distillers and saloon keepers to set their house in order, and the judicious political tactics of the Anti-Saloon League prepared the way for the final drive to outlaw the saloons. 

The league received the active support of all the evangelical denominations and was supported by funds collected at Sunday church services. This “hard-boiled” and “short-tempered” organization had one test for fitness to hold office. If the individual favored the “hootch” bottle, the Anti-Saloon League was against him; if he opposed the “hootch” traffic, the league was for him. 

For a generation, the league made the issue “wet” or “dry” take precedence over every other issue in state and local politics. At first, the successes of the league were mainly confined to the rural districts, but by 1909, four southern states had voted dry and within the next few years other states, both northern and southern, were to follow. 

The initial phase of the national campaign began in 1913 with the passage of the Webb-Kenyon Act which prevented the shipment of liquor in interstate commerce into dry states. 

President William H. Taft vetoed the bill, but the Senate overrode the veto. The “wets” lost another round in their fight when the Supreme Court ruled that the law was constitutional. 

Prohibition and war

Prohibition sentiment would have remained solely in the rural areas had it not been for the occurrence of World War I following the era of Progressive reform. 

The psychology of war suited the prohibitionist reformers well. Militant and aggressive, they demanded present remedies for present evils, and they were able to sweep enough voters to their side with an oversimplified view of morality. 

When war was finally declared on Germany, the American people embarked upon another crusade, and in the process tried to expunge all things that were unpatriotic. 

Since Pabst and Busch, the two leading brewers, were German, beer was unpatriotic; liquor prevented military efficiency; brewing used grain that could feed starving allies and “German measles almost got changed to “liberty” measles.” 

The poster child for the “noble experiment” or “dry movement” was Carry Nation. Carry stood six feet tall, “had the biceps of a stevedore, the face of a prison warden, and the persistence of a toothache.” She once described herself as “a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus barking at what he doesn’t like.” 

Her signature move was to stride into a public bar, prohibitionist followers by her side, order the liquor drinking fellows at the bar out into the street and then destroy the beer barrels with a hatchet that served the thirsty male population. 

Moving toward prohibition

On the eve of the entrance of the U.S. into World War I, several states had prohibitory laws. The liquor industry saw the handwriting on the wall; the political forces of the dry movement seemed to increase every year. 

In the Selective Service Act of 1917, the sympathizers of the “noble experiment” pushed through an amendment that prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages at or near Army or Navy bases. 

In addition, the Lever Food and Fuel Control Act prohibited the use of grain for distilling and brewing, and it authorized the president to halt the manufacturing of alcoholic beverages. 

When Senator James Reed of Missouri jokingly sponsored the bone dry amendment to prohibit liquor advertisement from the mail, Congress, instead of backing down from the harshness of the law, actually passed the bill. 

On Dec. 18, 1917, Congress passed and submitted to the states the 18th Amendment which prohibited the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcoholic beverages one year after ratification. The amendment did not prohibit the use of alcoholic beverages. 

Anyone who had the “moola” and safe storage could legally put in a supply of liquor and legally serve it to guests throughout prohibition. This is exactly what the Yale University Club did — it purchased a 14 year supply before the law became effective Jan. 16, 1919. 

The Volstead Act which followed the passage of the 18th Amendment specified the enforcement procedure. Passed over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, the act set up penalties for bootleggers. Any establishment selling liquor could be closed for one year, and automobiles and planes used to transport liquor could be sold to pay for enforcement. 

Enforcement difficult

The obvious shortcoming of prohibition was the problem of enforcement, especially in the urban areas which detested both the practice and principle of prohibition. Americans since colonial times had never felt obligated to obey a law that they did not like, and the best way to defeat a law was to prove that it couldn’t be enforced. 

The moonshiners went to work in the mountains with stills operating 24/7 and rum runners in souped-up cars out-distanced the sheriff and brought a steady stream of cargoes from the backcountry to the cities. Smugglers crossed the borders of Mexico and Canada and along the unpatrolled sections of the American coast. Private citizens set up toy stills and manufactured “home-brew” and “bathtub gin.” 

The crime world was a master of the arts of bribery, corruption and illicit trafficking in the underworld. Individuals made a fortune providing liquor to those who demanded a stiff drink. 

In 1928, President Herbert Hoover, engineer/humanitarian/public servant, appointed a commission to develop adequate enforcement procedures. The 11 member committee, chaired by George Wickersham, a former attorney general, found that prohibition was virtually unenforceable and that law enforcement at all levels had broken down. 

Many Americans had also begun to question the mounting social and political cost of prohibition. With the Great Depression in full swing, the Democratic party of Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to reunite against prohibition, and after their decisive victory in the 1932 Presidential election, the Democrats passed the 21st Amendment. 

This legislation repealed the 18th Amendment, and the “noble experiment” was dead. That’s your history!


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Professor Emeritus Hugh Earnhart had a 32-year career in the history department at Youngstown State University, where he specialized in the Civil War and the South. Send suggestions, comments or questions to Hugh Earnhart in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460-0038; or via email to:



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