By Jack Stevenson. March 6, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC — January 1920: the 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States became effective.
That amendment prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages. The amendment and the implementing laws were the result of decades of lobbying activity. Americans consumed a lot of alcohol.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jack Stevenson is retired. He served two years in Vietnam as an infantry officer, retired from military service, and worked three years as a U.S. Civil Service employee. He also worked in Egypt as an employee of the former Radio Corporation of America (RCA). Currently residing in Pensacola, FL, he reads history, follows issues important to Americans, and occasionally writes non-exclusive commentary for Blowing Rock News.
All opinions expressed by Mr. Stevenson are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Blowing Rock News or its managers and employees.
The discovery that bacteria and other micro-organisms cause disease is fairly recent. Europeans, from the Middle Ages to modern times, drank alcoholic beverages extensively. They didn’t understand disease transmission, but they did know that water could make them ill.
Americans consumed a lot of alcohol.
The Mayflower sailed for America with more beer than water on board. European immigrants continued to consume alcohol in America, and they consumed a lot of it. They produced beverages with high alcohol content. Drunkenness became common enough to cause concern.
Grain produced by farmers had to be protected from vermin and decay. Converting the grain to alcohol yielded a storable and transportable product. The Triangular Trade brought Caribbean molasses to America where it was converted to rum. Alcohol was cheap and plentiful.
But, of course, not everyone imbibed excessive amounts of strong drink. A reaction developed as early as the 1830s. Opposition to alcoholic beverages was centered in religious organizations. A temperate person practices moderation and restraint, something that those who consumed excessive quantities of strong alcoholic beverages did not do.
The citizens who opposed alcoholic beverages became known as temperance advocates with a capital T. Temperance organizations proliferated. Pamphlets, lectures, and sermons spread information and false information just as social media does today. The religious forum led the way, but the primitive medical community was not far behind. One medical myth was that alcohol caused the human body to erupt in flames, a result of spontaneous combustion.
In the early 1900s, the world was about to change.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union played an important role in promoting the notion that alcoholic beverages should not be sold. The WCTU was joined by the Anti-Saloon League, a non-religious forum. Together, they persuaded several states and a substantial number of counties to pass “dry” legislation, but the legislation was rarely enforced. It did, however, produce momentum for Prohibition.
In the early 1900s, the world was about to change. The Wright Brothers flew the first engine-powered airplane in 1903. Henry Ford introduced a popular and affordable automobile in 1908. The larger cities were getting electricity for lights and power for machinery. But the greatest shock was the U.S. entry into World War One in Europe. President Wilson campaigned on keeping the U.S. out of the conflict but betrayed his supporters and thrust America into the conflict.
There was a massive induction of men for military service. That caused a labor shortage and generated the first recruitment of Mexican labor to help harvest farm crops in California. America’s pre-war rural and isolationist character was changing. The war experience produced a popular tune with the line “How are you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm—after they have seen Paree?”
Then tragedy struck in 1918. An influenza pandemic swept the planet and took the lives of as many as 675,000 Americans, a disproportionate number of them young adults in the prime of life. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ensuring women’s right to vote was ratified in August 1920.
The prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages launched a major crime wave.
Legislation known as the Volstead Act proposing a constitutional amendment to prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages passed in both houses of congress in 1919. President Wilson vetoed the legislation. The U.S. Congress overrode the veto and sent the proposed amendment to the states allowing seven years for ratification. The necessary two-thirds of the states ratified the amendment within a year. The prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages launched a major crime wave.
Imposing moral beliefs by law generated unforeseen consequences. Alcoholic beverage distributors and sellers paid bribes that corrupted local, state, and federal law enforcement officials even including the Attorney General of the United States. Gangsters fought for control of the liquor business.
In Chicago, approximately 800 gangsters were killed by other gangsters struggling to control the lucrative illegal alcohol sales. Thousands of doctors and drug stores applied for licenses to sell “medicinal” alcohol. Edward Behr, a journalist for Time, Newsweek, and the Saturday Evening Post, writes in his book Prohibition that “It [Prohibition] would transform the country’s morals; alter American attitudes toward law enforcers, politicians, and all those in authority; and herald a new mood of cynicism, along with an often justified conviction that the courts dispensed a form of two-tier justice based on class, wealth, and rank.”
During the Prohibition era, ladies began to drink in speakeasies and at various social events. It was the Roaring 20s.
An estimated 500,000 people went to jail or prison. “Moonshine” whiskey killed or blinded thousands of people.
In the decades before Prohibition was adopted, it had been mostly men who frequented the taverns. During the Prohibition era, ladies began to drink in speakeasies and at various social events. It was the Roaring Twenties.
Nine years into the Prohibition era, in 1929, the Great Depression descended on America and the world. By that time, most Americans were ready to scrap Prohibition. The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealed Prohibition on December 5, 1933, ending the “noble experiment.”