How Did a Bad Idea Like Prohibition Ever Win Majority Support?

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William Rorabaugh is
Dio Richardson Professor of History at the University of Washington,
Seattle. He is the author of Prohibition:
A Concise History
(Oxford University Press, 2018).

Eighty-five years
ago Congress, desperate for new revenues during the Great Depression,
legalized beer. At the same time the Twenty-First Amendment to the
United States Constitution repealing the dry Eighteenth Amendment was
making its way through the ratification process. All forms of
alcohol became legal in the United States in December 1933. The
disastrous national prohibition experiment had lasted only thirteen
years. Many ironies surround Prohibition. How did such a bad idea
ever get adopted? How had it failed? And why was it abandoned
in1933?

From the 1830s
to the 1930s large numbers of Americans became obsessed with banning
alcohol. This was truly one of the crazier ideas to infect the
national psyche. In one sense, the idea was strange because the
country had been hard-drinking since the colonial founding. In
another sense, the fact of high consumption spurred the anti-liquor
crusade. As early as the 1830s the drys, as they called themselves,
argued that liquor caused crime, poverty, wife beating, child abuse,
and practically every other social ill.

Evangelical
Protestants gave up the Demon Rum, but other Americans did not stop
drinking. German immigrants brewed a lot of beer, and Irish
immigrants operated many saloons. In 1874 the Woman’s Christian
Temperance Union (WCTU) advocated both prohibition and women’s
suffrage. The WCTU grew to 200,000 members. In 1895 the WCTU was
joined by the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), which began to corral votes
in state legislatures and Congress to ban alcohol. The first
single-issue political pressure group, the ASL did not care if
elected officials drank, so long as they voted the way the ASL
dictated.

Wealthy
brewers, who owned 70 percent of the nation’s saloons, financed wet
politicians. Dry business leaders and evangelical churches backed
the ASL. In states where the ASL was weak, the group pushed
legislation for local option dry counties or towns, and in states
where the ASL was strong, they demanded a statewide ban. After most
states were dry, the ASL planned to capture the holdouts with a
national constitutional amendment.

When World War I
started in Europe in 1914, most Americans sided with the British and
French, who bought war supplies in the United States. German
sabotage inside the United States against businesses that supplied
the Allies generated anti-German hostility. Taking money from
German-born brewers became politically difficult. In 1916 the
Anti-Saloon League won two-thirds majorities in both the House and
Senate, which was enough to pass a dry constitutional amendment.

In April 1917
the United States entered the war, and in December Congress passed
the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution banning
alcoholic beverages. The amendment was ratified in January 1919 and
went into effect one year later. As a punitive measure against the
brewers, the Volstead Act (1919) abolished beer by outlawing any
beverage more than a half percent alcohol.

In the early
1920s alcohol consumption may have dropped by two-thirds. Moonshine
and hard liquor from Canada replaced beer. By the mid-1920s alcohol
consumption rose, as the number of people willing to defy the law
increased. Speakeasies attracted both men and women, which marked a
change in drinking patterns. Gangsters gained control of the illegal
alcohol industry in the late 1920s. Public opinion gradually turned
against Prohibition.

Crime, police
corruption, and the Great Depression led to calls for a new alcohol
policy. Repeal of Prohibition promised to fill empty government
coffers with liquor taxes, which were badly needed given the poor
economy. President Franklin Roosevelt brought back 3.2 percent beer
in April 1933, and the Twenty-First Amendment repealing the
Eighteenth Amendment passed and went into effect in December 1933.
Prohibition ended, and the age of strict government regulation of
alcohol began.

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