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The Prohibition Era: The Government’s Fight To Keep It Dry–Part I

In 1734, the British Parliament passed an act that banned alcoholic drinks, except beer, in the state of Georgia because drinking in Georgia was at such proportions that news of it had reached London.[1] But, after it became effective in 1735, the Georgian Prohibition revealed some major flaws. Farmers started moonshining instead of tending crops, law enforcements took bribes instead of busting the bootleggers and moonshiners, juries refused to punish the obviously guilty, and imports were entering on a huge scale. (Behr, Prohibition, p. 13) Eventually, in 1743, the Georgian Prohibition was repealed because of the ineffectiveness it had on its citizens because it was unenforceable. But, would prohibition be more effective if the law, government and enforcement came from somewhere closer to home? Would it reduce drinking? Would prohibition become more effective on a larger scale?

By the time the 18th Amendment (or the Prohibition Amendment) passed Congress, many states, such as Michigan and Washington, had passed their own prohibition laws and were all to willing to ratify the amendment. How did the states get the prohibition laws passed when the majority of the people, especially in the cities, were still drinking so much? The “malapportionment of state legislatures,”[2] was the one significant cause because they hadn’t followed the U.S. Constitution’s requirement of the number of people represented by a Congressman. Each Congressman was required, by the U.S. to represent 30,000 people.[3] While in the country a Congressman might represent 15,000 people, in the city a different Congressman might represent seven times that. (Okrent, Last Call, p. 105) But, why did the states think state prohibition would work?

The state legislatures and people, like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WTCU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) assumed that prohibition had benefits, including lower crime rates, increased productivity, less political corruption (Okrent, Last Call, p. 75) and improved health. (Behr, Prohibition, p. 22) They assumed prohibition would work, bring benefits, and be amply enforced. But did it work in the states before the national prohibition? Could it be, and was it amply, enforced? Did it really bring the proclaimed benefits?

Prohibition on the state levels didn’t work, for it had the problems that the Georgian Prohibition had in its eight years, and even more when national prohibition came along. The states were definitely getting what they paid for in state, and later national, enforcement. They provided some, if any, funds and jobs to enforce laws, but it wasn’t enough to keep enforcement for what was meant to be done.

The states didn’t look to see if there was any precedent that proved prohibition would work. They thought most Americans would obey the laws, and some did. But not all Americans did obey because they wanted to drink and thought it was their choice to drink. Alexander Hamilton agreed with these Americans who thought that it was okay to drink because it was their “personal choice and had nothing to do with what part of the country they lived in,” (Okrent, Last Call, p. 53) or even which country they lived in. Alcohol became more popular in the prohibition era because many Americans were denying the 18th Amendment by drinking to drown the sorrows of the Great Depression which hit in October 1929. More than ever, state level prohibition set a more recent and larger precedent, due to the multiple states having prohibition, than the Georgian Prohibition for what would happen on the national level.

“The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”[4] But, the federal government, like the states, was getting as much enforcement as they were willing to pay. Enforcement’s appropriated sum, even at its largest amount, was small and made it easy for gangsters to bribe the majority of authorities to look the other way. At maximum an enforcement agent could get was $2,800 a year,[5] and never did the funding of enforcement pass, or even become equal to, the cost of enforcement.[6] The federal government also thought that the proposed benefits from the 18th Amendment would become reality when it came into effect on January 16, 1920 because they thought people would obey the law.

During national prohibition, as Mark Thorton stated in a policy analysis of prohibition, “crime increased and became ‘organized’; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant.” [7] Crime increased because there was a market, which wasn’t taxed by government, that produced something the people wanted. Also, alcohol for medical purposes was exempt from prohibition laws, which then helped create the biggest income for pharmacies because doctors prescribed to anybody a pint of alcohol. Although drinking did reduce during the beginning of prohibition, it had been declining for the last few decades and a further decrease in drinking might have been “due to the high cost of bootlegged liquor, rather than the law itself,”[8] or by the fact that it had been gradually going down since 1910, when the per capita consumption of alcoholic beverages was 1.6 gallons per person. (Thorton, Alcohol Prohibition) Whether it was due to the amount of liquor available or the law, drinking and crime rates increased after prohibition was enacted.


[1]Behr, Edward, Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America, New York: Arcade Publishing Inc., 1996, p. 13

[2] Okrent, Daniel, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2010, p. 104

[3] Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3, The U.S. Constitution, Cato Institute, 2004, p. 18

[4] Amendment XVIII, The U.S Constitution, January 16, 1919 Cato Institute, 2004, p. 51

[5] Ness, Elliot, and Oscar Fraley, The Untouchables, Cutchogue: Buccaneer Books, 1957, p. 243

[6] Holcombe, Randall G., “The Growth of the Federal Government in the 1920s,” Cato Institute, http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj16n2-2.html

[7] Thornton, Mark, “Alcohol Prohibition was a failure,” Cato Institute, July 17, 1991, http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=1017

[8]Weiser, Kathy, “Speakeasies of the Prohibition Era,” Legends of America, March 2010, http://www.legendsofamerica.com/ah-prohibitionspeakeasy.html

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About Raise Expectations

R.E. is the founder, admin, and writer on Raise Expectations.

One comment on “The Prohibition Era: The Government’s Fight To Keep It Dry–Part I

  1. There is clearly a lot to realize about this. I think you made certain good points in features also.

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