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Prohibition Was Bound to Fail

As the culmination of the century-long temperance campaign in the United States by religious preachers, women's temperance advocates, abolitionists, and later industrial leaders, the Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1919, outlawing the sale, production, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States. While at the early stage of Prohibition, the new policy seemed to work and was not opposed by many, Prohibition's popularity began to dwindle later. Many Americans, labor unions, advocates of civil liberties, and industrial leaders fearing demoralization of workers began to oppose Prohibition, campaigning for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. The idea then was picked up by Democratic Party leading to the passing of the Twenty-First Amendment which effectively lifted the ban on alcohol. There were many reasons why the Prohibition failed. It may be argued that it was bound to fail from the very beginning. The major reason for the failure of Prohibition was that the temperance ideology behind it was never based on realistic understanding of America's social problems. At the heart of the temperance campaigns was utopian moralism and fantasy. Prohibitionists believed the ban on hard alcohol would solve America's economic and social problems. By promising an easy fix to these problems, prohibitionists were able to be successful temporarily -- to the point of convincing the Congress to pass a Constitutional Amendment in their favor -- but as soon as it became clear to the majority that Prohibition was not the solution to society's problems (in many regards, it made things worse than before the Prohibition), repealing of the Eighteenth Amendment became a matter of time.

The anti-alcohol movement began to develop in the early nineteenth century. Physicians, ministers, and business owners concerned about widespread drunkenness among servants and workers began to advocate total abstinence from alcohol. They were known as temperance movement. Temperance became an integral part of women's and anti-slavery movements. Supporters of temperance believed that the alcohol use was at the heart of all social ills. Drinking was often associated with the loss of moralism, as something loved by undesirable immigrants, or even as a devilish behavior. "From the very beginning, temperance ideology contained a powerful strand of ideology," as Harry Levine and Craig Reinarman argue. "It held that alcohol was the major cause of nearly all social problems: unemployment, poverty, business failure, slums, insanity, crime, and violence (especially against women and children). For the very real social and economic problems of industrializing America, the temperance movement offered universal abstinence as the panacea."

These anti-alcohol campaigners held on to this belief well until the onset of the twentieth century when their ideology began to be picked up by a greater strand of the society.

In a book published in 1918 and titled Why Prohibition!, Reverent Charles Stelzle, a passionate Presbyterian prohibitionist, argued, in the words of David Kyvig, that drinking "lowered industrial productivity and therefore reduced wages paid to workers; it shortened life and therefore increased the cost of insurance; it took money from other bills and therefore forced storekeepers to raise their prices in compensation; and it produced half of the business for police courts, jails, hospitals, almshouses, and insane asylums and therefore increased taxes to support these institutions."

In short, it would have been hard to point at an economic or social ill that prohibitionists did not somehow associate with alcohol. These ideas nevertheless became prominent, even among secular scholars. A writer for American Journal of Sociology, described alcohol as "the mother of felony" and argued that alcohol was at the heart of crime, laziness, degeneracy. Liquor, the writer argued, was scientifically proven to cloud the reason, enfeeble the will, aroused the appetites, while inflaming the passions and releasing the "primitive beast from the artificial restraint of social discipline."

In the twentieth century, prohibitionists began to pursue a legal battle and call for a national prohibition. They argued that their ideology was consistent with the spirit of the Constitution. A new organization called the Anti-Saloon League began to pursue such courses. The League hired lawyers, organized propaganda campaigns, raised funds, and began to lobby the Congress. The organized used its resources to support candidates who were willing to argue for the prohibition of liquor in the country. Individual states began to adopt "dry laws," prohibiting the production and sale of alcohol on a state level. The League in 1913 officially declared that the prohibition must be enshrined in the Constitution.

Their campaign was supported and financed by powerful corporations who thought that the worker morale was being destroyed by alcohol drunkenness. Prohibitionist campaigns also coincided with the rise of Progressivism, which sought to cleanse America from economic and social ills. Ultimately, it was the right timing that allowed Prohibitionists to convince Congress to amend the Constitution.

In 1917, the United States joined the allied war effort against Germany. In addition, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia led to a hysteria known as the "Red Scare." The effects of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution strengthened patriotic fervor that the prohibitionists used for propaganda purposes. The Congress passed the War Prohibition Act in 1918, citing American involvement in the war. Prohibitionists claimed that the German beer was weakening American will to fight and the consumption of German beer supported the enemy. Banning the manufacture, sale, and consumption of beer became a matter of patriotic importance. The specter of Bolshevism was also used to galvanize the public for national prohibition. Chapter of the Anti-Salon League of Nashville, Tennessee, made the following warning in one of its campaigns:

Bolshevism flourished in wet soil. Failure to enforce Prohibition in Russia was followed by Bolshevism.

Failure to enforce Prohibition HERE will encourage disrespect for law and INVITE INDUSTRIAL DISASTER.

Radical and Bolshevist outbreaks are practically unknown in states where Prohibition has been in effect for years. Bolshevism lives on booze.

The social turmoil caused by American involvement in World War I and the anti-Bolshevik hysteria contributed to the passing of Prohibition. It is important to note then that with the waning of the Red Scare and the end of World War I, support for Prohibition would also likely to drop, accordingly.

The War Prohibition Act banned the production and sale of beverages that contained more than 2.75% alcohol. That was not enough for hard-core prohibitionists who pushed further. Their campaign eventually brought fruits, convincing the Congress to pass a national ban, even overriding President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The Volstead Act, sponsored by the chair of the House Judiciary Committee Andrew Volstead, amended the Constitution and defined any beverage that contained more than "one-half of 1% of alcohol by volume" as constituting "intoxicating liquor."

Section 1 of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution stated that the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importance thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited." The Section 2 stated that the prohibition would be enforced by "appropriate legislation."

The Prohibition officially began.

As soon as the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect on January 16, 1920, jubilation among supporters of Prohibition began. The celebration continued to stir patriotic feelings, considering Prohibition as a victory over America's foreign enemies. "Let the church bells ring and let there be great rejoicing," one Presbyterian Church leader stated, for an enemy the equal of Prussianism in frightfulness has been overthrown and victory crowns the efforts of the forces of righteousness. Let us see that no Bolshevistic liquor interests shall ever tear the Eighteenth Amendment from the Constitution of the United States."

Others celebrated Prohibition by repeating the utopian fantasy of the temperance and prohibition ideology. "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory," Billy Sunday, a prominent minister, stated speaking to a crown of ten thousand people. "We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent."

Mostly likely, these proclamations were made in good spirit. But they did not reflect the realistic nature of American society. Both these preachers and their listeners would be disappointed by the real turn of events.

Virtually none of the prohibitionist fantasies realized. The crime rate during the Prohibition Era of 1920-1933 soared. There were numerous reasons for the increase of crime rates during Prohibition. Americans widely considered drinking alcohol, at least in measured levels, acceptable. They were not willing to give it up all of a sudden. Americans were also concerned that adopting such a law on a federal level infringed upon their individual rights. Many began to pursue the alcohol in accordance with the theory of pursuing "forbidden fruit" as an adventure. While beer was specifically targeted by Prohibition, many Americans turned to drinking wine and home-made or illegally manufactured alcoholic beverages. New practices such as bootlegging and bathtub ginning appeared, while smugglers brought alcohol from neighboring Canada and transported…[continue]

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