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American Prohibition Essay, Research Paper

“After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacturing, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation there of, or the exploitation there of from the US and all its territories subject to the jurisdiction there of for beverage purposes is here by prohibited” (Antony 121). These words marked a change in the American way of life forever. The law was intended to improve America and show the rest of the world that a country could survive without alcohol. Instead it led Americans to distrust and hate government officials. Drinking would become fashionable, and organized crime would take over the cities. Prohibition was therefore an impossible ideal and a disastrous social failure.

It is necessary for the reader to understand what prohibition was intended to do and how it came about in order to determine if it failed. For years, people had toyed with the idea of a “dry county”; yet, until World War I, no one had ever seriously considered it. The leaders of the so called dry movement were organized and patient. They used the war to their advantage and introduced prohibition into Congress (Allen 244). At that time, the country happened to be undergoing a social change (often called the Temperance Movement) in which people grew impatient for immediate results. Americans felt that if a law was worth making, it was worth making immediately (Allen 245). With the issue of the nation’s existence at stake, people did not stop to think through outlawing alcohol; they felt if it was in the nation’s best interest to prohibit alcohol (27). War time also meant a shortage of good workers and grain (Thorton 71). The dry leaders pushed prohibition stating that prohibition would increase productivity and that sober soldiers were better soldiers (Thornton 73). That rationalization made sense to Americans so it was entirely supported as a simple solution.

People all over the nation were excepting prohibition with all too great an ease. It seemed that virtually everyone, but the drinkers and alcohol manufacturers, was behind this law. Congress followed the general census. The 18th Amendment was created to outlaw alcohol use as a beverage (Antony 121). The Senate, in 1917, passed the 18th Amendment after only 13 hours of debate, and in the House it was passed after one day (Allen 248). The 18th Amendment was ratified January 16, 1922, and soon after the Volstead Act was passed to reinforce it (Kelly 78-80) .

. Enacting the law was simple. The real challenge for congress would be to enforce the law. Dry leaders, had been in such a rush to make the prohibition a law, that they had failed to think about what enforcing it would actually mean. John F. Kramer, the first prohibition Commissioner, said, “This law will be obeyed in all cities large and small, and in villages, and where it is not obeyed it will be enforced,” (Allen 248). The first problem of enforcing prohibition was the coast line and land borders, it was all together an 18,700 mile long open door for smugglers (Allen 243). Secondly, “near-beer” was still legal. And the only way to produce near beer was to make real beer and then remove the alcohol from it. As you can imagine it was excessively easy to forget to remove all the alcohol (Allen 249). Ultimately, the biggest problem of enforcement was the lack of funds. In 1920 there was only 1,520 prohibition agents, and still only 2,836 by the 30’s (Allen 246). At most the agents were paid $50 a week, and it’s not hard to imagine that these under paid workers could be easily tempted at the offer of cash (Allen 246). Professor M.L. Wilson from the Department of Agriculture was absolutely right in his comparison of the prohibition of farming and the prohibition of alcohol, “the attempt to enforce restricted production will be more difficult than the attempt to enforce prohibition. It runs foul of an instinct for production at least as deep as the desire for alcohol,” (Leone 85-86). Even though American’s did not like their drinking habits, they were finding out that it is hard to just stop since they were chemically dependent.

Ideals are fine, and perhaps it was a nice idea to rid America of alcohol, but the fact is that what the law was intended to do and what it actually accomplished were two different things. Not long after the law was enacted, “people began to flout it right and left…men and women who had always considered themselves patrons of law-abiding respectability began to patronize bootleggers, or home-brew very peculiar beer,” (Lewis 145). Prohibition changed the role of alcohol in peoples lives, many Americans started to drink more and have a generally lower opinion of the law enforcement (Encarta 1-4). The law indirectly forced drinkers to switch to more serious drugs like opium, marijuana, patent medicines, and cocaine (Thornton 70-73). Even the drinking problem worsened as people who used to have only a beer or light cocktail at parties, found it easier and less expensive to have shots of gin or Moonshine (illegal whiskey) (Allen 253). In general people’s morals were on a decline. Sights, like the teenage boy and girl wearing hip pocket flasks to social gatherings or the local cop being in cahoots with bootleggers, began to be common place (Lewis 145).

The media also did not help since it glamorized drinking . The media reinforced an image “of the underworld as a natural manifestation of ethnic urban life,” (Kelly 78). Alcohol went from being a small insignificant part of daily life to a major social event (Kelly 80). Rich people offered a shot of gin instead of cigars and there was a youthful excitement in going to the local bar and grills to have cocktails with friends (Allen 243). Worst of all was the tabloids, where readers could find romance and adventure in the everyday stories of gangster killings (Allen 261).

In 1926, Senator James Reed of Missouri asked Lee Post, a student at Yale University, whether or not the prohibition law had had any influence on the campus (Ohio State 1). Lee responded, “the greater the attempts at enforcement the stronger the sentiment against it.” (Ohio-State 1). Outlawing alcohol only gave the college students more of a desire to drink . Then Senator James Reed asked if in order to promote alcohol the bootleggers accosted the college students on campus, to which Lee responded “Well, it is the reverse; the students go to the bootleggers.” (Ohio-State 1). Society was beginning to except breaking the law on an everyday basis with the rationalization that it was only alcohol. Alcohol was every where, from the well-born women enjoying Martinis, to the local bar (also known as speakeasies) selling cocktails made from the gin of the Sicilian alky-cookers (Allen 262). This exemplifies just how universal the rebellion against prohibition was; everyone in the nation, except the dry leaders, was still drinking alcohol. It was increasingly apparent that prohibition was not having the desired effect, and “although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of prohibition, it subsequently increased,” (Thornton 70).

The national government also did not fair well after prohibition. Federal courts were suddenly jammed packed with prohibition cases, and most courts found themselves at the breaking point (Thornton 72). Local law enforcement agents and citizens were not getting along (Allen 245). In addition the removal of alcohol meant the loss of a significant source of revenue from sin taxes.(Thornton 73). And the manufactures of illegal alcohol, bootleggers, used their new found wealth to corrupt government officials. Jurors who were “wet” were letting their bootlegging friends off without a penalty.. Federal agents like Izzy Einstein and Moe Smith started dressing up in disguises to make fantastic captures of gangsters, only to find out that the closed establishments moved to a new location a couple of days later (Allen 262). As the government officials became increasingly agitated at their repeated failures of trying to enforce prohibition, they started shooting to kill, even when that meant getting an innocent bystander or two. (Allen 259). This just made the people hate the cops even more. So instead of making the country a better place “prohibition deprived people of jobs and governments of revenue and generally contributed to economic stagnation,” (Encarta 1-4).

After prohibition, corruption of public officials was rampant. Foresee H. LaGuardia, a Representative of New York, estimated at The National prohibition Law Hearings that at lest $1,000,000,000 a year was lost to the national governments, states, and counties in excise taxes (Ohio-State 2). That money went instead “into the pockets of bootleggers and in the pockets of the public officials in the shape of graft,” (Ohio State 2). It seemed that “the coin of corruption was sifting through the hands of all manner of public servants,” (Allen 246). The government was so bad that it even financed the bootlegging industry (Ohio-State 2). In 1925, 286,950,000 more of the $10,000 bills were issued than in 1920, and 125,000,000 more $5,000 bills were issued (Ohio-State 2). Fiorella H. LaGuardia made a clever observation, “What honest business man deals in $10,000 bills? Surely these bills were not used to pay the salaries of ministers. The bootlegging industry has created a demand for bills of large denominations, and the Treasury Department accommodates them!” (Ohio State 2). America’s own law makers and legislators, who had been the cause of the prohibition law, were now becoming corrupt with greed from the revenue of illegal alcohol.

The most serious repercussion of the prohibition law, however, was organized crime. When immigrants came here they were often placed at the bottom of the social rung (Kutler 1579). Some of the immigrants chose to take illegitimate pathways out of their poverty by committing petty crimes (Kutler 1579). Then when prohibition was enacted suddenly Jewish and Italian gangsters were faced with an unprecedented amount of criminal opportunities (Kelly 79). Instead of being dirt poor in the slums of a city suddenly these gangsters were able to get money and respect in the illegal liquor, gambling, and labor racketeering businesses (Kutler 1579). As a result of prohibition, there was a wave of organized criminal activity (Encarta 1-4). Over night it seemed, “Men like Bugsy Siegel helped turn crime into a big business; organized crime became the American way,” (Kutler 1579).

Organized crime was proof that prohibition was a failure, and the mob got its start with Johnny Torrio in Chicago (Allen 261). He, being a business man, saw that there could be lots of money to be made with bootlegging (262). Johnny called on a fellow 5 Points gang member, Alphonse Capone, to help him organize a business in which they would sell alcohol while eliminating the competition through intimidation (262). In 3 years Al Capone had replaced Johnny Torrio as the boss and had 700 men at his disposal (Allen 263). He ruled Cicero, the entire west side of Chicago, and had all the politicians living there in his pockets (Time-Life 45-46). In 1927 federal agents estimated Capone’s revenue from booze alone to be $60,000,000 a year(Allen 264). Al Capone credited his success directly to the law of prohibition saying that, “It looked like a good opening for a lot of smart men,” (Time-Life 45-46).

Al Capone and his men were not the only smart men in Chicago. Soon other gangs were trying becoming involved in the bootlegging operations. The O’Banions were the only real competition in Chicago’s bootlegging industry, and because of that the two gangs fought daily (Allen 264). It was said that “Chicago was afflicted with such an epidemic of killings as no civilized modern city had ever before seen, and a new technique of whole sale murder was developed” (Allen 265). In short prohibition was allowing the mob to turn Chicago into a war zone where “beer running trucks being hijacked on the interurban boulevards by bandits with sub-machine guns” was an everyday event (Allen 243).

Another important failure of prohibition was its lack of a tangible decrease in the amount of alcohol in America (Thorton 72). Between 1924 and 1926 13-15 million gallons of illegal industrial alcohol was diverted each year (Allen 247). From this amount, three more gallons could be made from every one gallon of diverted alcohol (Allen 258).It had become exceedingly easy to obtain alcohol. Smuggling too was so successful that in 1925 assistant Secretary of Treasury General Lincoln C. Andrews reported that only 5% of the liquor was recovered, and the profit for moonshine and diverted alcohol was estimated at $40,000,000 (Allen 247). Alcohol’s continued success was attributed to its availability. Approximately 50-100 gallons of alcohol could be produced from a still, which only cost $500 to set up (Allen 255). Yet, the dry leaders still argued that there was less alcohol consumption in America. To this, opponents of the law said, “Presumably there was a good deal less, except among the prosperous,” (Allen 247). “What’s more, the annual spending on alcohol ended up being greater during prohibition than it had been before the law was enacted,” (Thornton 71). Alcohol use was generally increased through out the US because of prohibition.

Prohibition was obviously not doing what it was supposed to do. When President Herbert Hoover saw that failure he commissioned 11 members, under George W Wickersham, to study why prohibition was not being enforced (Allen 257). In January 1931, the findings “revealed very clearly the sorry inability of the enforcement staff to dry up the country” (Allen 258). Five of the members said lets keep the law, four said change it, and two said repeal it, so they did not do anything to it. Public reaction to the government’s indecision was stated simply in this poem from F.P.A’s column in the New York World:

Prohibition is an awful flop.

We like it

It can’t stop what its meant

to stop

We like it

It’s left a trail of graft and slime,

It’s filled our land with vice and crime.

It don’t prohibit worth a dime,

Nevertheless we’re for it (Allen 259).

Everyone in the nation saw that prohibition had to go, it had failed. It failed for two reasons, the government was afraid to admit they were wrong, and because people were not sure what they had wanted. Americans thought they could stop drinking, they were wrong. Congress was still hesitant to repeal the amendment, for “to what sinister occupations might not the bootlegging gentry turn if outright repeal took their accustomed means of livelihood away from them?” (Allen 265).Organized crime was here to stay, and people would never look at the government the same way again,. The nation’s ideals of perfection were abandoned. Finally, on December 5,1933, congress voted to end prohibition with these words, “The eighteenth article of amendment to the constitution of the US is hereby repealed,” (Antony 121). But by then it was already to late. The damaged had already been done. Organized crime had gotten a strong hold, American history would be forever changed and.

Works Cited

Allen, Fredrick Lewis. The Big Change, Ameriac Transforms itself 1900-1950. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1952. Pg 17

Allen, Fredrick Lewis. Only Yesterday and Since Yesterday, a Popular History of the 20’s and 30’s. New York: Harper and Row publishers, Inc. 1986. Pg 243-265

Antony, Susan C. Fact Plus: An Almanac of Essentail Information. Alaska: Instuctional Resources company, 1991. Pg. 121

Encarta. “Prohibition,” Microsoft ? Encarta ? 96 Encyclopedia ?. 1993-1995 Microsoft Corporation. Funk &Wagnalls Corporation. Pg 1-4

Kelly, Robert J. “Organized Crime: Past, Present, and Futuer.” Usa Today. May 1992: 78-80. CD-ROM. 1997 SIRS. SIRS 1992 Crime, Volume 4. Article 86.

Kutler, Stanley I . ed. Encyclopedia of the U.S, in the 20th Century. New York: Simon & Schuste,1996. Pg 1579, Volume IV.

Leone, Bruno, ed. ” The Great Depression,” Oppsosing View Points. California: Green Have Press, Inc., 1994. Pg 85-86

Ohio-State 1. “American prohibition in the 1920’s”. Internet. Available : http://www.cohums.ohio-state.edu/history/projects/prohibition/student.htm 1/19/98

Ohio-State 2. “American prohibition in the 1920’s”. Internet. Available : http://www.cohums.ohio-state.edu/history/projects/prohibition/laquardi.htm 1/19/98

Thornton, Mark. “Prohibition’s Failure : Lessons for Today.” USA Today. March 1992: 70-74. CD-ROM, 1997 SIRS. SIRS 1992 Alcohol. Volume 5. Article 7

Time-Life Books. Time Capsule 1927. Canada: Time-Lifge Publishing Co., 1968. Pg 45-46

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