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

State and national enforcement of the 18th Amendment were there but couldn’t keep up with the alcohol violations. Authorities were either being bribed by gangs or the places had been alerted about a federal raid on their places. (Weiser, Speakeasies) Owners of speakeasies and gang leaders who made the alcohol could be either alerted by any government official they paid or by someone in their own gangs if they were going to be raided. The government officials, usually consisting mostly of police officers and prohibition agents, were being paid by the gangs because it was profitable, or were opposed to prohibition, or thought that it was easier to look the other way than enforce the law.

Even though political corruption was rampant where enforcement was prevalent, there were a lot of arrests and convictions. In fact, prisons were overcrowded from arrests, and mostly due to violating the Prohibition Amendment. A decrease of speakeasies, manufacturing, transportation, importing, and exporting occurred because of federal raids and arrests. However, each did still exist because, for example, some people were bailed out of jail and plants could reopen after a while.

Even though there were lots of arrests, people were still violating prohibition. They were still producing, importing, exporting, transporting, and selling alcohol. Enforcement, mainly consisting of prohibition agents, police officers, and the coast guard, tried to decrease these areas by raiding speakeasies and manufacturing plants. When they did raid speakeasy or a plant, they usually arrested those involved in producing and selling alcohol, and they shut the speakeasy or plant down. But sometimes, raids were failures because people were alerted, usually by either an officer or a gang member, in time to evacuate the building.

Authorities destroyed and captured several millions of gallons of alcohol and products used to make alcohol, costing the gangsters millions of dollars. Sometimes, however, after enforcement had shut down a speakeasy or manufacturing plant, gangsters opened that speakeasy or plant again either in the same spot or in another. Also, enforcement agents captured boats and trucks importing and transporting alcohol. In this way they captured millions of gallons of illegal alcohol before it got to its final destination. This also, like raiding speakeasies and manufacturing plants, cost the gangsters and bootleggers millions of dollars. Through the capture of trucks and boats and by the successful federal raids, enforcement was able to capture some crooks for violating prohibition and help decrease the amount of alcohol produced.

But even with the arrests and destruction or capture of alcohol, the Prohibition Bureau, the main enforcement within the Treasury Department (Holcombe, Federal Government) wasn’t able to keep up with the violations of the 18th Amendment. The Prohibition Bureau had very little resources and funding to keep up with the illegal alcohol.

Congress and the White House lacked support for prohibition. They provided money, but very little resources. Congress provided about $3 million dollars to help enforce prohibition, but that wasn’t enough. Resources were so low that it never helped create “a radical change in the criminal law required” (Okrent, Last Call, p. 255) to enforce prohibition.

However, some support for prohibition and its enforcement came from laws Congress passed. The Volstead Act passed penalties for violating prohibition. The penalties were $500 to $1,000 in fines and/or 30 days to 12 months in jail per violation.[1] Another law, the Jones Act, put harsher penalties for violations. For the first violation, offenders were faced with five years in jail and $10,000. A bystander’s failure to report a violation, considered a felony by the Jones Act, was now subject to three years in jail. (Okrent, Last Call, p. 317)

That was a lot of money for anyone in the Prohibition Era. The average person during the 1920s and 1930s was earning under $3,000 a year and it would take years to pay off a fine from the Jones Act. But, in this way, the Prohibition Bureau was provided with more money for enforcement and resources. However, it still wasn’t enough because enforcement’s expenses surpassed their funds. The most the Prohibition Bureau made was $6,538,000 and spent as much as $13,507,000 on enforcement and other resources. (Holcombe, Federal Government)

The state governments had shrunk their spending and support for enforcement, if they were still spending. Some states stopped funding and providing resources because they realized that their efforts hadn’t worked. Others never funded it because they were represented by a majority of “wets” or those who weren’t personally against alcohol. States did try to make prohibition work, especially those who had passed their own state prohibitions. But by 1927 they had significantly shrunk their support and enforcement.

Even with money from Congress, the states, and from the penalties, enforcement of prohibition wasn’t enough. They couldn’t keep up with the violations or have enough to enforce prohibition nationwide. They couldn’t hire more people to help provide ample enforcement. There also wasn’t enough support for enforcing prohibition from the majority of Americans, including most congressmen and the White House.

The majority of the Americans had no objections to the drinking or production of alcohol, and many openly defied the Prohibition Amendment. Most Congressmen and the White House were publicly against alcohol but were privately for alcohol. Even most prohibition agents and other enforcement were pro-alcohol. People who weren’t American citizens didn’t even support prohibition. Non-Americans imported alcohol to American citizens from their own countries.

Money, laws, nor enforcement could keep America dry. Abraham Lincoln once said that prohibition went “beyond the bounds of reason by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crime.” (Behr, Prohibition, p. 33) No matter how much money, people, and laws went into enforcing prohibition, it didn’t work because it was without support and it was beyond reason.

In 1933, fourteen years after the 18th Amendment was ratified, it was repealed because it was unenforceable. It was unenforceable because it was unsupported by the majority of Americans and non-Americans alike. Samuel Adams, one of the Founding Fathers, once stated that “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”[2]


[1] Hanson, Prof. David J. “The Volstead Act.” Potsdam.edu, http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/Controversies/Volstead-Act.html

[2] “Samuel Adams Quotes,” Saving the U.S. Constitution.com, 2010, http://www.savingtheusconstitution.com/samuel_adams_quotes.html

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About Raise Expectations

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

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