Prohibition1 Essay

This essay has a total of 2754 words and 12 pages.

Prohibition1



As under a spell, the people had suffered this act to be brought to its fatal conclusion,
but with the first touch of cold reality the charm was undone, and the law appeared in its
true aspect. Brought about by the Eighteenth Amendment and enforced through the Volstead
Act, lasted for over a decade. Despite a growing lack of public support for both
Prohibition and restraint itself, the ban on alcohol continued throughout the United
States—at least in the law books. In practice, however, National Prohibition was much less
effective than restraint and Prohibition leaders had hoped, in the end causing more
problems than it solved. Once passed, Prohibition directly led to the increase in crime
and corruption during the twenties, the public health problems associated with bootleg
liquor and alcohol substitutes, the irritated tensions between religious, racial, and
social groups, and the political disturbance in response to its existence. Yet in the end,
it was the discussion of the supreme public hatred of the Amendment, caused by all of
these factors combined, which brought about Prohibition’s repeal.

Yet Prohibition did enjoy some success. Records reveal that alcohol consumption did
initially drop after the onset of National Prohibition and the Volstead Act. However, this
decrease on a national level was not all that significant compared to the effect of
previous temperance measures in specific communities. Also, after this initial drop
alcohol consumption continued to rise steadily throughout Prohibition to the point where
it was thought consumption would actually surpass pre-Prohibition levels. The same was
true of alcohol related diseases—while initially declining, alcoholism and alcohol-related
illness climbed to new heights, all while Prohibition was still in effect (Thornton,
“Failure” 70–71). Thus, in the long run, the initial success of Prohibition was soon
reversed.

Crime, however, was a problem throughout Prohibition. In his book The Economics of
Prohibition, Mark Thornton states that any prohibitive measures, whether on alcohol or
other goods, inherently create a black market trading in those goods (4). For, since
demand does not generally decrease, or at least not significantly, the prohibited good
will continue to be traded even though laws exist to prevent such an occurrence. The
presence of this black market, in turn, increases the criminal activity related to the
manufacture and sale of that substance (Thornton, Economics 4–5). In short, “prohibition
creates new profit opportunities for both criminals and non-criminals,” especially for
those previously involved in criminal activities (Thornton, “Failure” 116–117).

The same was true in the case of National Prohibition in the 1920’s and early 1930’s—crime
continued to increase as fewer and fewer people were willing to give up alcohol or to
respect Prohibition laws, as shown by the dramatic increase in fines levied for
Prohibition violations throughout its existence (Thornton, Economics 100). In response,
crime quickly became “organized” for the first time, running activities contrary to
Prohibition on a never before seen scale (Thornton, “Failure” 70). In fact, by the end of
Prohibition, speakeasies had actually outnumbered the saloons of pre-Prohibition years,
spreading the influence of alcohol over a much wider range (Thornton, “Failure” 72). In
addition, the increased price of alcohol, due to the difficulties of manufacturing and
selling a prohibited substance illegally, also caused some, especially among the working
classes, to steal alcohol itself or to steal other goods which could then be sold to pay
for spirits (Thornton, Economics 117).

Prohibition was originally meant to curtail the abuses thought to be related to alcohol,
one of which was crime (Thornton, Economics 111). However, as more and more people began
to disrespect Prohibition, new types of criminal activity associated with alcohol were
created. In response, the effort needed to enforce the Act continued to rise throughout
the twenties and early thirties (Thornton, Economics 100); prisons filled to capacity and
beyond (Thornton, “Failure” 73) while money spent on enforcement more than doubled
(Thornton, Economics 100). In this sense, it is not surprising then that crime dropped
dramatically almost immediately after the repeal of prohibition (Thornton, “Failure” 73).

While meant to limit the corruption related to the influence of alcohol industries in
government (Thornton, Economics 111), Prohibition also increased the number of corrupted
government officials and corruption’s spread (Thornton, Economics 5). The rise of criminal
activity in the form of organized crime, speakeasies, and bootlegging created yet another
need to bribe government officials, as the black market still remained active and
profitable (Thornton, Economics 112). In order to maintain those profits, however, leaders
of the illegal alcohol trade needed to keep costs low—that is, to avoid criminal
penalties. Thus, bribes became common. The majority of New York City police officers, for
instance, were personally accepting bribes, bootlegging, drinking, or gambling themselves,
some doing all four (Thornton, Economics 133). The Anti-Saloon League itself, admitting
that they had spent over fifty million dollars on their Prohibition efforts, had even been
accused of using money to keep government officials in support of Prohibition (Sinclair
390).

And yet eliminating or at least controlling crime and corruption proved virtually
impossible for Prohibition leaders. No one had any sort of clear plan for prohibiting the
flow of alcohol into the United States, which would require establishing both a naval
blockade of the coasts and a strict patrol of the Canadian and Mexican borders, nor did
many want to pay the high costs of maintaining an effective police force to stop the
internal production of alcohol—both measures would be needed to eliminate the trade of
alcohol, stopping the inward flow from other countries and the internal production of
spirits. In addition, the Prohibition Bureau, initially controlled through the Treasury
Department, lacked the budget necessary for proper enforcement (Clark). In all, the
massive effort which would have been required to forcefully maintain Prohibition was
simply not practical.

In addition to the crime and corruption caused by Prohibition, the United States also
experienced serious health problems in relation to bootleg liquor and alcohol substitutes.
Because a substance which is considered illegal cannot even exist in the eyes of
government, lest the government be admitting that the prohibition of that substance is a
failure, a prohibited substance is no longer subject to government regulations (Thornton,
“Failure” 71). In the case of alcohol during Prohibition, those regulations which had been
placed on the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the pre-Prohibition era—regulations which
had been accepted by the majority of people—no longer affected the production of alcohol
in the United States. And since few were willing to accept the prohibition of alcohol
entirely, manufacturers of illegal alcohol were free to produce even the most harmful of
substances. Thus, bootleg liquor became more potent and more dangerous—Jackass Brandy
caused internal bleeding and Panther Whiskey had a fuel oil base (Cooper).

Prohibition also made transporting lighter, less potent forms of alcohol more dangerous
and difficult (Thornton, “Failure” 71). Beer, for instance, which had not been widely
abused in pre-Prohibition years, was much too bulky than the more potent, more compact
spirits available. Thus, while beer consumption decreased throughout Prohibition,
consumption of harder liquor continually increased, it being the less expensive form of
alcohol (Thornton, Economics 104). And as shipping alcohol became more difficult and
prices rose, some turned to other substances, such as marijuana and heroine, as a
substitute for alcohol (Monahan 10). It is not surprising then that drug and alcohol
related illnesses and deaths rose on the whole during Prohibition (Thornton, “Failure”
71).

Prohibition also aggravated certain preexisting tensions among various social and cultural
groups. For example, when blacks in Tennessee voted against Prohibition, white temperance
leaders saw them as an obstacle and decided to favor their disenfranchisement. Playing up
the “danger of Negro violence,” these white wets sought to put down black political forces
in order to secure passage of their Amendment. Yet there was also an equal number of
anti-black wets at the time. And while Prohibitionists claimed the law was never designed
to oppress blacks but rather to aid the lower class situation by removing the corrupting
forces of alcohol, Prohibition did contribute to these racial tensions in the end (Isaac
266).

While religious bigotry and immigrant hatred also resurfaced, particularly against the
Irish Catholics (Monahan 10), perhaps the largest social conflict over Prohibition
occurred with the working classes and labor unions: central to the support of Prohibition
was the idea that alcohol and alcoholism caused working class poverty. Labor unions, on
the other hand, tended to think the reverse—that alcoholism was a result of working class
poverty. Instead of eliminating alcohol in the hope that it would improve the conditions
of the working, labor forces hoped to improve working conditions and worker standing to
eliminate the “need” for alcohol (Drescher 36). In addition, labor forces were concerned
about the effect of closing saloons on working class morale, as saloons had been centers
of community for the lower classes. Similarly, labor leaders were upset about the loss of
jobs caused by the closing of the alcohol industry (Drescher 37). To them, the intrusion
of Prohibition forces felt more like a threat to union solidarity than an offer of
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