Before we can discuss the impact and importance of the time period known as the prohibition, we first must be clear upon the meaning of the word prohibition and what it stands for as an idea. The word prohibition, according to the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, means ” 1: the act of prohibiting by authority 2: an order to restrain or stop 3 often cap: the forbidding by law of the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic liquors except for medicinal and sacramental purposes.”
Prohibition as an idea or more accurately a title was the time period between 1920 and 1933 when alcoholic beverages were illegal to own sell or transport in the United States.
Now that we know the what of the prohibition the next question is why? Why was there a prohibition in America at all? Prohibition was not just thought up one night by a group of politicians trying to irritate the general public. The idea of prohibition was around well before the actual fact of it. The greatest supporters of the idea of the prohibition were members of the anti – saloon league, an organization started in 1893 in Orberlin, Ohio. The sole purpose of this organization was to destroy saloons, which they believed were the “cause of all crime, immorality, and filth in the American Culture.”
Many religions and religious leaders were heavy supporters of the prohibition also believing that saloons and alcohol were the cause of all evil in America. Educators also want prohibition because they felt, “Once drink businesses became illegal an educational campaign would start up.” Educators also thought that in about thirty years the nation would be sober and ready for real education. The real reason was probably more basic in that the government wanted to “flex its mighty arm.” So using the religious and educational shields provided the government passed the Prohibition Act “in an attempt to return America to its former state of innocence.”
The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, better know as the Prohibition Act, was ratified in 1919 and came into effect on January 16, 1920. The passage of this Act not only prohibited the consumption of any alcoholic or intoxicating beverage but also the possession, sale, or even transportation of it. Ships from foreign countries weren’t even allowed to enter U.S. ports if they had any alcohol aboard whatsoever. This halting of many Americans favorite personal habit and stress reliever caused many different reactions in different people.
There were a few people that the Act did not affect though; one being Keith Smith who said, ” It [the Prohibition] didn’t really affect me or my family because none of us drank and neither did anyone we knew. At least not openly anyway.” For most though the Prohibition was something they could not live with. So naturally they turned to the underground, which was more than willing to supply alcohol to anyone that could pay for it. This led to the rise of organized crime and big time gangsters like Al Capone. Al Capone was the most notorious gangster of his time literally ruling Chicago from 1923 to about 1930. He accomplished this by acts of violence, which eliminated competition, and by payoffs to key law enforcement and government personal. Alcohol was more readily available to the public during the prohibition then before or after it. There were over 300 speakeasies “illegal saloons” in Chicago in 1927 more than twice the amount of saloons in Chicago before 1920. The law has never been more flagrantly violated and ignored by the American people, “Not only did Americans continue to manufacture, barter, and possess alcohol; they drank more of it.”
The main reason the illegal sales alcohol flourished during the twenties was due to the simple fact that there were not enough government agents and the city and state officials didn’t care enough to put forth any real effort to stop it. The best example of this is when New York repealed the Mullan-Gage Act, which had incorporated the restrictions and limitations of Prohibition into state law. Repealing this act did very little anything legally; the 18th Amendment to the Constitution still outlawed the possession and sale of alcohol. As a practical matter however it placed the burden of enforcing Prohibition on about 250 federal agents instead of 25,000 state and local officers. With so few agents responsible for enforcing the law it was easy to avoid it, especially when you had people in the government tipping you off.
Of course you could still get as much alcohol as you wanted legally as long as you had a medical release to do so. Originally you could only get one pint every ten days, but Judge John C. Knox changed that stating “that as long as liquor was legal for medicinal purposes, Congress could not restrict doctors’ judgment in prescribing it.” It was now obvious to the government that the Prohibition was failing rapidly and could not be enforced to any reasonable extent. So on January 16, 1933 exactly 13 years after it started Congress ratified the 21st amendment with the sole purpose of repealing the 18th amendment. The 18th remains as the only amendment that has ever been repealed.
The Prohibition is viewed by many as a complete and total failure. This is true only if you look at whether or not it did what it was created to do, which was to stop the consumption of alcohol. It did not stop the consumption of alcohol, but it did lessen the amount of people who did drink by about 25 percent compared to the amount that drank before the 1920’s. Also, it proved that we have a higher system of government that can adapt to the changes of the needs of the people. A government that admits that it was wrong and then corrects that mistake. The prohibition was both a failure and a success.