Prohibition: The Noble Experiment?


The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.” Such was the opinion of the Reverend Billy Sunday, a proponent of Prohibition, one of the biggest domestic mistakes in U.S. History. Despite Sunday’s hyperbolic assertion that it was the panacea to all of society’s ills, it was not long before Prohibition came to be seen as an abysmal failure.

Prohibition, commonly called the “Noble Experiment,” was the anti-alcohol movement that gained steam throughout the nineteenth century and became a staple of the progressive movement at the start of the twentieth century. By 1900, more than half of the states had become dry states, which prohibited the sale of alcohol. The Prohibitionists believed that there was no way a person in a dry state could obtain liquor. However, they overlooked the postal service, which was run by the federal government, not the states. So alcohol could be purchased from a wet state and sent to a dry state.

When that loophole was discovered, the Interstate Liquor Act was passed in 1913, making it illegal to send alcohol to any dry state. Again, that caused more problems for the “dries” because after that law was enacted, there was no longer a legal way to get alcohol in a dry state. Soon illegal methods were proliferating, with crime syndicates and the liquor industry partnering up.

Though neither Woodrow Wilson nor his opponent, Charles Hughes, prioritized the Prohibition issue in the 1916 election, the forces of the temperance movement gained enough congressional and public support to propose the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1917, banning the sale and manufacture of liquor in the United States. Many states did not agree with the proposed amendment, so it was debated for two more years. The Prohibition movement had support from an array of sources, from various Protestant groups, to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to the KKK; the opposition was spearheaded by immigrant groups and Catholics. Sympathizers for each position could be found in both political parties.

On January 29, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, but it was not to take effect until a year later. It banned all hard liquor with more than 40 percent alcohol content (80 proof). Many of the amendment’s original supporters were under the impression that it banned only hard liquor and thought they could still legally consume wine and beer. But in October 1919, the Volstead Act was passed prohibiting the sale and manufacture of all drinks with more than 0.5 percent alcohol content. Basically, any beverage with any alcohol content at all was banned.

The aim of Prohibition was obviously to reduce or eliminate the consumption of alcohol, but proponents believed the societal benefits would extend far beyond that goal. However, the end result was far from beneficial. During the years between 1920 and 1933 when the national prohibition of alcohol was in effect, the United States saw a dramatic increase in violence, organized crime, and corruption. The Prohibition of alcohol created a lucrative black market that crime lords, such as Al Capone, took advantage of. The Mafia grew in strength during Prohibition, and the rate of robbery also increased markedly. During those years, the homicide rate shot up by an alarming 78 percent. Saloons were replaced by speakeasies, illegal alcohol distribution centers that became increasingly common during the Prohibition era. These institutions became particularly prevalent in large cities, where the majority were run by crime syndicates. Violent crime peaked in 1933, the year Prohibition was repealed, and steadily declined in the years after that. When you criminalize the common man, crime becomes common and even accepted.

Even in the area of reducing alcohol consumption, Prohibition failed. While there was a small initial decrease in consumption, this decrease was short-lived. It was not long before consumption levels were higher than pre-Prohibition levels. Arrests of drunk drivers increased by 81 percent during the Prohibition years. Increases in consumption were mirrored by similar increases in money spent on enforcement. While speakeasies were frequently broken up by law enforcement, the black market was simply too profitable to stop the spread of alcohol. Moreover, corruption was rampant at all levels of government, be it in the form of a crooked cop or a bribe-taking politician. Millions of dollars were wasted in an ineffective attempt at eliminating alcohol; this lost money was compounded by the lost revenue that would have been generated via taxation and continued even into the Great Depression.

A quality problem lay beyond the increase in consumption. Alcohol became more frequently adulterated by toxic substances. If you make something illegal, you can’t protect the public from harmful forms of it. In addition, alcoholic beverages became substantially more potent; estimates suggest alcohol products on average contained 50 percent more alcohol than before Prohibition. Moonshine, white mule whiskey, and other dangerous beverages became common. A consequence of this was that the death rate from alcohol poisoning nearly quadrupled during the Prohibition era. While some Prohibitionists disregarded the effect on alcoholics and instead expressed hope that they were reaching out to younger populations through education, the average age of individuals dying from alcoholism fell by six months during Prohibition. Moreover, Prohibition encouraged the use of drugs, such as opium, marijuana, and cocaine as a substitute for alcohol. These are substances that many people would have never come in contact with until Prohibition.

The cumulative effect of Prohibition’s numerous failings was a shift in public opinion in favor of repealing the amendment. Repeal was particularly popular in cities. Despite Senator Morris Sheppard’s famous assertion that “there is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail,” opposition became heated during the Roaring Twenties and at the start of the Great Depression. Eventually Franklin Roosevelt was forced to moderate the federal position on alcohol; he allowed the brewing of certain beers and light wines. This paved the way for full-fledged repeal in December 1933 with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. Roosevelt famously quipped, “I think this would be a good time for a beer.” The decision to prohibit alcohol was restored to individual state legislatures.

After the repeal of Prohibition, many of the problems it created were reversed. While many state and local dry laws stayed intact through the era of federal regulation, others were gone forever with the obvious failure of Prohibition. Crime syndicates and all of their related evils remained. The widespread use of illegal drugs continued to stay an increasing problem that has yet to find a solution.

The Noble Experiment of Prohibition was a mistake completely self-inflicted on the country by the federal government. It had consequences that still reverberate throughout American society. Prohibition was one of the largest domestic mistakes in American legislative history, and it negatively changed the United States forever.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!