One hundred years ago today, the Eighteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was ratified, prohibiting “intoxicating liquors” in the United States and launching the era known as Prohibition. Here are nine things you should about Prohibition and how the religiously inspired temperance movement transformed America.
1. The roots of Prohibition were planted in the pre-Civil War era. From the 1790s to the 1830s, the religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening strengthened the role of Protestant influence in the realm of politics. Out of the revival came a renewed interest in using politics to reform society and correct the ills of the nation. American Christians began numerous progressive reform movements such as those launched to abolish slavery, champion women’s rights, and reduce the problematic consumption of alcohol.
2. During the 1800s, Christian men and women began the temperance movement, an effort to limit and ultimately discontinue the consumption of alcohol. By 1830 the average American older than 15 years of age drank the equivalent of 88 bottles of whiskey a year, three-times as much as their 21st-century descendants drink. At the time, Americans also spent more money on alcohol each year than the total expenditures of the federal government. Alcohol abuse was blamed for rampant domestic violence and impoverishment. A pamphlet called the “Christian Temperance Catechism” said that American society suffered more from intemperance than all other forms of sin and was “the cause of three fourths of all of the disease and proverty [sic] and sorrow and crime in our land.”
3. In 1826, two Presbyterian ministers founded the American Temperance Society (ATS). Within five years there were 2,220 local chapters of ATS throughout the country with a combined membership of 170,000. And within 10 years there were more than 8,000 local groups with a total membership of more than 1.5 million. The ATS originally focused on voluntary abstinence from distilled spirits, but came to support the legal prohibition against all alcohol. In 1851, they convinced the Maine legislature to pass a statewide prohibition on selling alcohol. A dozen states passed similar laws, though they were overturned a few years later.
4. A new American temperance organization called the Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1893. The League began by using local churches to spread their anti-alcohol message and attempt to change local laws. By 1913 their influence had grown to the point where they were able to lead a national prohibition. The organization was able to help get many “dry” (i.e., anti-alcohol) politicians elected, and in December 1917 the U.S. Congress proposed a Constitutional amendment for nationwide Prohibition. By January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment had been ratified by 36 of the 48 states, making it the law of the land.
5. The text of 18th Amendment stated: “After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” This only forbade the manufacture, sale, and transportation of “intoxicating liquors,” leaving consumption legal. The National Prohibition Act, known as the Volstead Act, was enacted to carry out the intent of Amendment. The Volstead Act defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume. This came as a surprise even to some Prohibition supporters, who assumed that beer and wine would be exempt under the Amendment.
6. In 1923 a wealthy banker and Prohibition enthusiast held a national contest to coin a new word best describing “the lawless drinker.” The winning entry was “scofflaw,” a compound of the words scoff and law. During the Prohibition era, America became a nation of scofflaws. The illegal production and sale of alcohol—which became known as “bootlegging”—was taken over by organized crime syndicates. Tens of thousands of illicit liquor stores and nightclubs—known as speakeasies—also sprung up to serve the demand. Several states refused to enforce the alcohol ban altogether, while those that did found their legislatures and police forces corrupted by black-market bribery.
7. Although many Americans—particularly in urban areas—flouted the law, Prohibition did have the intended effect of reducing overall alcohol consumption. According to a study conducted by MIT and Boston University economists in 1991, alcohol consumption fell sharply at the beginning of Prohibition, to approximately 30 percent of its pre-Prohibition level. During the next several years, however, alcohol consumption increased sharply, to about 60 percent to 70 percent of its pre-prohibition level. The level of consumption was virtually the same immediately after Prohibition as during the latter part of Prohibition, although consumption increased to approximately its pre-Prohibition level during the subsequent decade.
8. The popularity of Prohibition began to wane during the era of the Great Depression. During his 1932 presidential campaign, Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. After his election he signed an amendment to the Volstead Act in 1933 allowing the manufacture and sale of light wines and 3.2 percent beer. That same year the Twenty-first Amendment—a repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment—was proposed by Congress on February 20, 1933, and was ratified by the requisite number of states by December 5, 1933.
9. Even after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, some states maintained a ban on alcohol within their own borders. Kansas had a state ban on alcohol until 1948, Oklahoma maintained a ban until 1959, and Mississippi remained alcohol-free until 1966. Currently, 33 states still have laws that allow localities to prohibit the sale and/or consumption and possession of alcohol.
Other posts in this series:
Events and Discoveries in 2018 • Apostles’ Creed • George H. W. Bush (1924–2018) • Religious Freedom Restoration Act • Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders • Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease • Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State