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Prohibition and Its Harmful Effects

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Topic: Prohibition and Its Harmful Effects
Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, early colonists have attempted to control the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the United States. Prominent people like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin were once leading figures in the Temperance movements that started in early Colonial times. The first temperance society in the United States was begun in New York in 1808 which begun a long battle between reformers and the American public for years to come. The modern movement for prohibition had its main growth in the United States and developed largely as of the agitation of the nineteenth century temperance movements (Colliers Encyclopedia 97). When World War I began the idea of prohibition was thought to be a way to keep the country patriotic and at the same time strong. A phrase that was commonly heard was “A drunk worker is not a productive worker” (McDonnel 394). Prohibition proved to be very difficult to enforce and at the same time the overall effect did more harm to the United States than good. In the United States constitution, amendment eighteen which was passed in 1919 stated that “ 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 beverages purposes is hereby prohibited.” Throughout this period of time when the amendment was in effect it was illegal to make, transport, or sell alcoholic beverages in the United States. When the amendment was repealed in December of 1933 America went through a major change. Among many causes of the Prohibition movement, the one thought to be the main one was religious rebirth. Protestant communities wanted to dominate their culture around the United States. They believed that if this were achieved they would be able to preach their moral beliefs to the nation. Prohibition was enacted because rural, small town Americans, who were attempting to stop what they felt, was the corrupting influence of the growing cities, held the highest population in the most of the government positions in Washington D.C. Many Americans who were not rural Americans or Protestant also believed that alcohol ruined lives. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was an organization founded in 1874 and it was made of up of Protestant women who argued that alcohol consumption was related to a poor environment, the group fought for better working conditions of the working class (The Reader’s Companion to American History 1157). This organization of women also fought for the banning of alcohol to protect families. The women believed that alcohol ruined their lives because sometimes men who drank and had wives were abusive, destructive and sometimes they ended up spending all the families’ income that was needed to live.
Other organizations also fought for the passing of Prohibition laws. Two of the most important organizations included the National Prohibition Party founded in 1869 and the Anti-Saloon League founded in 1893. Of the two the one that had the most effect on society was the Anti-Saloon League. They were organized at the grass-roots level, working through churches and carefully questioning politicians about their views on temperance and then endorsing or opposing them accordingly, No matter what their stands on other issues, their party affiliation, or their progressivism. The League worked closely with the small Prohibition Party. The Anti- Saloon League had a considerable national influence when it helped pass the Volstead Act on October 28th, 1919 (The Reader’s Companion to American History 41).
The Volstead Act provided for the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. The act was passed over President’s Woodrow Wilson’s Veto, affirmed and further specified the provisions of the Eighteenth Amendment, delineated fines and prison terms for violation of the law, empowered the Bureau of Internal Revenue to administer Prohibition, and classified as alcoholic all beverages containing more than one-half percent alcohol by volume. (The Reader’s Companion to American History 1122). Federal agents, in desperate times often spilled beer and liquor directly into the gutters to prove to opposers that the law under the Volstead Act would be enforced. Many opposers believed it was an infringement of their rights, and out of tune with the times of wealth, automobiles, travel, radio, motion pictures, and good times. Soon there was great split in American Society—the “wets”, which believed the law an ineffective unnecessary restriction on personal choice, generally urban Americans, versus the “drys”, rural Americans who supported the amendment. This split made enforcement difficult. President Coolidge signed legislation that amplified the Prohibition Bureau in 1927. However, the Bureau was severely underfunded and understaffed. There were only 1500-2300 agents and investigators for the whole country. They were underpaid and their jobs were risky. “Corruption was often too tempting to ignore, for they had no training and no coverage by civil service regulations…one twelfth was dismissed for this cause” (McDonnel 396). Later, in 1929, Herbert Hoover created the national commission of Law Observance and Enforcement to investigate the enforcement of Prohibition and other related problems. Though many of these attempts to enforce the law seemed to fail, there were successful endeavors. In 1925, the US Treasury Department used US Coast Guard vessels to wage a campaign against rumrunners who had been increasing their scope of activities along the Atlantic Seaboard. There was one mishap during this campaign. The Coast Guard sunk a Canadian vessel off the Florida Coast because the crew suspected the ship was being used by rumrunners to smuggle alcohol (Baughman 341). When arrests were finally made, the judicial system seemed to fail. Courts could not keep up with heavily backlogged prohibition cases. Therefore, they instituted “bargain days”, when large groups of defendants would plead guilty in exchange for small fines or short jail terms. Most defendants opted for a jury trial, though, for juries were generally sympathetic to the cause, and voted against the prosecution. Another roadblock for enforcement was that there were too many exceptions to the law. For instance, the manufacture of industrial alcohol was permitted if made undrinkable with additives. Also, under the Volstead Act, the consumption of existing supplies of liquor for religious and medicinal purposes was allowed. The greatest exception to the law was that it was never made illegal to buy liquor, only to manufacture, transport, or sell it. Because of these problems in enforcement, the effects were often harmful to the cause. Prohibition led to the start of organized crime in the United States. Organized crime existed before the 1920’s, but it wasn’t until the Prohibition that it became hugely profitable, and with money came strength and influence. “One of the worst effects of Prohibition was the power that it gave to gangsters” (McDonnel 400). In ten years, 286 officers and citizens were killed (401). These crimes often went unpunished, for enormous sums of money enabled mobsters to buy the cooperation of police forces and politicians. “Al Capone became the era’s most notorious gang lord by establishing a bootlegging empire in Chicago
That reputedly grossed more than $60 million in a single year” (The American Promise 890) Prohibition was dangerous to society in other ways, as well. An average of 2,000 people died each year from poisoned liquor made from industrial alcohol that didn’t have all of the additives removed (Baughman 234). During the 1920 New Year’s celebration, over 100 people were killed from drinking wood alcohol, a highly toxic alcohol made for industrial uses (McDonnel 342).
There were other ways around the law, however. Many made their own brews of alcohol. Those who didn’t frequented illegal saloons (called speakeasies). Wealthy people bought up as much wine, beer, and spirits as they could while it was still legal and stored it in cellars. A general disregard for the law soon developed among Americans. This led to carefree attitudes about everything. Lower morals swept the social scene. New music, new dances, new feminism, and a general relaxation of standards were all social effects of the law. It seemed to be almost a sign of social status to disregard the law. The lower class’ social life depleted, instead of blooming as in the upper class. Workers lost more than the privilege to drink they lost their neighborhood saloon, a working-class-meeting place and haven (McDonnel 203). They resorted to cheaper forms of illegal saloons, called blind pigs. Patrons to these saloons risked blindness or even death. This went unnoticed. People’s minds were focused on the new times which brought new fashions. Young men and young women wore cloths that concealed flasks. Women’s fashions changed as a result of the relaxation of standards. They wore shorter skirts, and flimsy dresses. Prohibition affected foreign countries as well as the United States. Smugglers were, after all, a major supply of alcohol. Two-thirds was smuggled in from Canada, creating a boom in Canadian economy. The other third came from rumrunners in speedboats by sea. The economy of the U.S. was affected as well. There was a drastic increase in sales of coffee, tea, soft drinks, and ice cream sodas. Prohibition caused a drastic decline in the market for barley and grapes, the main ingredients in beer and wine. The effects of Prohibition turned out to be much different than what the Protestant reformers had intended it to be. It was considered, in fact, a basically ineffective law. More bad came from the passing of Prohibition laws than Good. Consumption of alcoholic beverages containing hard liquor drastically increased when the Eighteenth Amendment was enforced. The nation’s behavior never changed until the Amendment was repealed in 1933 with the ratification of Twenty-first Amendment.

Works Cited

Baughman, Judith. American Decades: 1920-1929. Gale

Research Inc., MI: 1996.

Creamer, Robert W. Collier’s Encyclopedia, “Prohibition”:
Edition 1997

McDonnel, Janet. America in the 20th Century: 1920-1929.

Marshall Cavenish, New York: 1995.

The America Promise. Volume II. Bedford Books,

Boston, MA: 1998.

The Readers Companion to American History.

“Volstead Act.” Houghton Mifflin: Edition

1991: Pg. 1122.

“Anti-Saloon League.” Houghton Mifflin: Edition 1991:

Pg. 41.

“Women’s Christian Temperance Union.” Houghton

Mifflin: Edition 1991: Pg. 1157.…...

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