6 minute read

Alcohol and Crime: The Prohibition Experiment

The Temperance Movement

In December 1917 the United States Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment outlawing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of "intoxicating liquors." In January 1919 the amendment was ratified by three-fourths of the states, and in January 1920 Prohibition became law. In February 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing Prohibition, was passed by Congress. It was quickly ratified before the end of that year, the first and, to date, the only amendment to the U.S. Constitution ever repealed. This brief encounter with legislation criminalizing commerce in hard liquor, beer, and wine was not an unexpected or bizarre interlude in American public life. It was only one phase in a long history of politics, legislation, common law, and exhortation about alcohol questions in the United States (Krout; Gusfield, 1963).

Popular belief and anti-Prohibitionist sentiment have often explained the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment as an aberration, put over on a quiescent public during wartime. Such an explanation ignores the fact that issues of drinking and its controls were very much in the foreground of American political, social, and legislative life from the 1820s through the 1920s. "Dry" and "wet" have been almost as essential in American politics as "left" and "right."

The antebellum movements. Although during the colonial period alcohol was widely perceived as a beneficial commodity and its excesses generally controlled, by the late eighteenth century widespread drunkenness had occasioned concern. In the decades preceding the Civil War, the temperance movement emerged in the form of organizations, such as the American Temperance Society and the Sons of Temperance, that were committed at first to minimizing and later to eradicating the use of beverage alcohol. A variety of state and local laws were passed, and by the 1850s thirteen states had been dry for varying lengths of time.

The temperance movement was a part of the general reformist impulse that marked American political and religious life in the first half of the nineteenth century. In its earliest phase, before 1826, the movement was dominated by a Federalist local aristocracy that saw in the manners and morals of a rowdy electorate a threat to its own fading power (Gusfield, 1963). By the 1820s temperance took on a tone of self-improvement as artisans, farmers, and industrial workers, often inspired by the religious revivalism of the period, sought their own perfection. During the next decade, improved transportation made whiskey less competitive with other uses of grain, and drinking became a costlier affair (Rorabaugh).

Temperance had become widely accepted in American life by the 1850s. If not necessarily followed by all or even most, it was the public ideal. In an expanding industrial and commercial society, employers and employees no longer thought of alcohol as a permissible accompaniment to the workday or a necessary aid to health and wellbeing. In an industrializing society, discipline, routinization, and steadiness of pursuit became virtues that contrasted with the erratic habits and spontaneous festivity of an earlier age (Tyrrell). Temperance, abolition, and penal reform were part of a drive toward a more humane and moral society and family (Clark). What in colonial America had been "the goodly creature of God" had become "demon rum" in the new democracy.

The clash of cultures. From one perspective, the rise of the temperance ideal of total abstinence was part of the transformation of the American population from a self-sufficient, rural society into an industrial and commercial one. However, that interpretation is too simple. Except for the Scandinavians, other industrializing societies have not developed so powerful or widespread a movement, nor one that has appeared and reappeared with such persistence for more than a century. Temperance in America owes much to the confrontation between the diverse cultures and religions that streams of immigration brought to the United States.

Most of the European peoples who immigrated to the United States were Roman Catholic. Their concentration in urban areas among the lower classes accentuated the clash with an American-born, Protestant, and rural population. The Irish and the Germans were the bêtes noires of temperance literature in the 1850s, joined by the Mediterranean and Slavic immigrants of the late nineteenth century. For these groups alcohol, in the form of beer, whiskey, or wine, was a part of daily life, and integral to the culture of the community. By the 1850s this was no longer the case among other Americans. Drinking and drunkenness had become isolated and marginal to the daily life of assimilated middle-class Americans—the acts of willful and weak sinners (Gusfield, 1963).

The vision of a dry America found a more pleasing reception among rural, nativist, and Protestant groups than among the new immigrants. Since its inception in 1869, the Prohibitionist party platforms displayed the rhetoric and aims of agrarian populism. Established in 1874, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union developed a number of programs to bring about the assimilation of immigrants into American culture, seeing in total abstinence a major form of acceptance of American values. Bringing the sinner and the immigrant into the mainstream of American life became a major objective of the temperance movement.

In this fashion the victories and defeats of the movement came to take on symbolic meanings of victory or defeat for the values of middle-class, American-born Protestants. Public approval of total abstinence emerged as a symbol, standing for the dominance of those whose way of life devalued and demeaned drinking and abhorred drunkenness. For some scholars the schism is seen in Catholic-Protestant and immigrant-native terms (Gusfield, 1963). For others it is couched in contrasts between religious theologies—basically between evangelical, fundamentalist, and denominational ("pietist") churches and ecclesiastical, hierarchical, and institutionalized ("liturgical") churches ( Jensen). For both groups of scholars, however, the alcohol issue in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century transcended the simple question of abstinence versus indulgence and acquired symbolic significance for a broader set of cultural, religious, and ethnic differences and conflicts.

The coming of Prohibition. By 1906, when the Anti-Saloon League began its agitation for state and national prohibition, the alcohol question had a long history as a significant factor in American politics. The league, by avoiding all other issues and acting as a pressure group in both major parties, was effective in organizing the power of Protestant churches and its members around a single issue—alcohol. Led by the league and its Methodist officials, the movement for prohibition reached its zenith during the period of the great wave of immigration into American cities. In 1906 only three states had prohibition; by 1912 there were ten. In 1919, before the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, nineteen more states had passed restrictive legislation and more that 50 percent of the American population lived in dry areas.

The surge of Prohibitionist sentiment and power was abetted by the Progressive reform movement for clean and efficient government. The saloon had become a seat and a symbol of urban corruption, crime, and political manipulation of the electorate. It also played an important role in the lives of many immigrant and working-class groups, especially in the urban areas of the United States. The saloon was a major source of sociability, of financial aid, of news and food, and often an important avenue of economic mobility and of support for the urban political machine (Powers). Here, too, the religious and nativist conflicts gain further significance as part of the context for middle-class reform of the saloon as an established institution integrated into the cultures and leisure styles of the new urban immigrants, often from European societies where beer and liquor were more acceptable than in America.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawAlcohol and Crime: The Prohibition Experiment - The Temperance Movement, Prohibition, Bibliography