Prohibition was passed in Congress in December of 1917. It was ratified by ¾ of the states and added to the Constitution as the 18th Amendment on January 16, 1919. It would not go into effect until January 16, 1920. It changed the course of the nation.
It’s easy to think that the push for prohibition was just a bunch of pearl-clutching teetotalers appalled at the idea of alcohol, but there were dozens of organizations from across the political spectrum and it goes all the way back to 1784 when Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote a book on the connection of alcohol and disease. In 1789, 200 Connecticut farmers formed the first temperance league in America. More and more groups became involved in temperance. Some promoted moderation in drinking; others promoted abstaining from all alcohol. Two of the most prominent groups were the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (Episode 31) and the Anti-Saloon League.
The passage of the 18th Amendment (1919) and its eventual repeal by the 21st Amendment (1933) had much deeper roots than just getting rid of alcohol.The reasons ranged from fighting the scourge of addiction, poverty, and domestic violence to anti-immigrant and specific anti-religious views. Immigrants like the Italian, German, and Irish, regularly drank wine, beer, and spirits as part of their culture. Wine was often part of Catholic and Jewish ceremonies but not Protestant or Evangelical ones. Like any social movement, temperance groups had complex views and their own agendas including some with direct ties to the Klu Klux Klan. The suffrage and temperance movements often overlapped, but not all suffragists agreed with temperance, and not all temperance advocates agreed with suffrage.
The actual prohibition amendment was conceived by Wayne Wheeler, leader of the Anti-Saloon League and championed by Andrew Volstead, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who helped override the veto from President Wilson to put the 18th Amendment into law and pushed through the Volstead Act to strengthen enforcement of it.
However the law was poorly written because it banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol but not private possession or consumption. Exceptions were made for “medicinal purposes” and doctors wrote phony prescriptions for it. It was also impossible to police an entire nation.This led to the rise of a normal law-abiding citizen breaking the law and engaging in illegal activities such as bootlegging, speakeasies, and home distilling operations. Overall, alcohol consumption by volume did go down but gangsterism went up and became organized into the Mafia and other criminal syndicates.
Bonus fact: Mabel Walker Willebrand (1889-1963), the first female public defender in Los Angeles (1916), was Assistant Attorney General for the United States (1921-1929) and aggressively enforced prohibition. She was known as “Prohibition Portia” and the “First Lady of the Law”.
This week’s song pick
“Hurtin’ (on the Bottle)” by Margo Price https://youtu.be/LtxUDSRfmto
Episode 78 Sources: