The Irony Of It…

During the Prohibition era’s first years, amendment supporters were gratified by a decline in arrests for drunkenness, hospitalization for alcoholism, and instances of liver-related medical problems. These statistics seemed to validate their campaign and to suggest that America’s future might include happier families, fewer industrial accidents, and a superior moral tone.

We have the unimpeachable evidence of our senses that certainly more than half the crimes and misdemeanors perpetrated throughout the land and sensationally featured and headlined in the newspapers are crimes which are the result of prohibition.

Prohibition is a double-headed hydra of lawlessness, for we have on the one hand the crimes that infract the law of prohibition, and crimes that result from alcohol and drug intemperance that follow in the wake of prohibition; and on the other hand we have the crimes of attempted enforcement of prohibition and the crimes of punishment, which are no less crimes because they have the sanction of expediency of prohibition law enforcement.

In an age when individual freedom is all, it comes as something of a shock to reflect that in the world’s most prosperous and dynamic country the prohibition of alcohol lasted for almost 14 years. Today we often think of Prohibition as a deluded experiment, instinctively associating it with images of Al Capone, the mafia and the Valentine’s Day Massacre. In fact, the campaign to prohibit alcohol had been deeply rooted in Anglo-American society for some two centuries. The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, for example, was founded in 1826, and by the following decade as many as a million Americans belonged to an anti-alcohol group of some kind.

From the very beginning, criminals had recognized that Prohibition represented a marvelous business opportunity; in major cities, indeed, gangs had quietly been stockpiling booze supplies for weeks. Legend has it that the first gangster to grasp the real commercial potential of Prohibition, though, was racketeer Arnold Rothstein, whose agents had been responsible for rigging the baseball World Series in 1919. Establishing his “office” at Lindy’s Restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, Rothstein brought alcohol across the Great Lakes and down the Hudson from Canada, and supplied it – at a handsome profit – to the city’s gangsters.

By the time Capone went down, support for Prohibition was already ebbing away. With newspapers alleging that as many as eight out of 10 congressmen drank on the quiet, it was obvious that the attempt to outlaw alcohol had failed. In March 1933, just weeks after he had been inaugurated, President Franklin D Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead Act permitting the sale and consumption of beer with no more than 3.2% alcohol content. The Depression was in full swing, national morale was at rock bottom and, as Roosevelt put it, “I think we could all do with a beer.” And on 5 December 1933, Utah approved the Twenty-first Amendment, providing a majority for ratification and consigning national Prohibition to the history books.

Yet although the age of Prohibition now feels very remote, the idea lives on. Alcohol is not, after all, the only drug to have been prohibited by law; many people who regard Prohibition as bizarre and misguided think nothing of outlawing, say, heroin or cocaine. We often forget, too, that many states chose to remain dry after 1933. Mississippi, the last entirely dry state, only repealed Prohibition in 1966. Even today, more than 500 municipalities across the United States are dry, often in strongly evangelical states. In a famously delicious irony, they include Moore County, Tennessee, the home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery, although visitors are allowed to buy a “commemorative” bottle.

As Prohibition commenced in 1920, progressives and temperance activists envisioned an age of moral and social reform. But over the next decade, the “noble experiment” produced crime, violence, and a flourishing illegal liquor trade.

By Gregory Marose, an intern in the National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications.