Prohibition: The Power is in the People
“The Power is in the People Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” (The United States Constitution: The First Amendment). By the action taken on December 12, 1791 (when the Bill of Rights was adopted), the United States of America granted its people a power that would prove extremely potent one-hundred and twenty-nine years later. During the era of Prohibition (1920-1933), people took whatever action necessary to get their way, and did so through the rights afforded to them in the First Amendment.
Individuals in favor of Prohibition, seeing the benefits of the institution, worked together to sustain it. Those against Prohibition, feeling a violation of their rights, acted just as intensely, if not even more so, to stop the movement. The government, ignoring the voice of the people, was primarily concerned with keeping Prohibition alive. However, the right to individual voice, a principle upon which the United States was founded, made it impossible for an institution such as Prohibition to exist successfully.
In the years prior to and during Prohibition, many people did everything within their power to keep the nation free of alcohol. Numerous committees were formed for the purpose of pursuing the enactment and continuation of Prohibition. Church and religion also played a large part in the fight to keep the nation “dry”. Some individuals even entered politics and took office in the government in an effort to be heard. People made an united effort to reveal the virtues of Prohibition to the nation.
The Anti-Saloon League of America was founded in 1893 at Oberlin, Ohio. Throughout Prohibition, its members went from town to town speaking out against saloons and alcohol (Merz 8). On January 16, 1920, they also declared, “it is here at last – dry America’s first birthday” (Kobler 11). Women established a group of their own as well. In 1874, Protestant women formed the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They, like the Anti-Saloon League of America, cited the advantages of Prohibition (Kobler 10). As a whole, groups such as these utilized their First Amendment rights to the fullest to preach what they believed. God and religion were essential to those fighting to keep Prohibition intact. Reverend Billy Sunday incorporated the issue of Prohibition into many of his sermons. In his most well-known of these sermons Sunday claims: 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 (Thornton 8). The Women’s Christian Temperance Union held a strong influence in the church scene .
They spoke of Prohibition as “God’s present to the nation” (Kobler 11) and sponsored conventions for all who saw Prohibition as a gift from the Father (Kobler 11-13). Some individuals saw entering politics and taking public office as the best way to make a difference in the fight for Prohibition. Senator Morris Sheppard was determined and confident of keeping the nation alcohol free. He believed that with people such as himself in positions of power, the chances of the 18th Amendment (outlawing anything involving alcohol) being repealed were practically non-existent (Merz ix). Obviously, Sheppard’s assumption would prove incorrect. The efforts of those against Prohibition were much more radical than the actions of the opposition. Several groups were formed, allowing many to voice their opinions about the evils that existed in the Prohibition laws.
The most severe problems resulted from the illegal manufacture of liquor by individuals, and from numerous rebellious acts that brought about more crime. Because of all the negative things that began to occur, many citizens developed a hatred toward the government for instituting Prohibition. The Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, The National Association Opposed to Prohibition, The Moderation League, and the American Veterans’ Association for the Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment were just a few of the coalitions that existed during the Prohibition Era which complained about the injustices of making the nation “dry” (Cashman 161). These groups, besides leading rallies against Prohibition, often wrote letters to the United States government discussing the harm they saw in the Amendment. This approach was the route that the less radical of anti-prohibitionists took (Cashman 162-164).
The ratification of the 18th Amendment, which stated, After one year from the ratification of this, manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation, there of into, or the exportation there of from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction there of for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited” (Constitution Article XVIII: Kobler 11), incensed many people. As a result, the underground production of alcohol sky-rocketed. Many new problems arose because of individual production. The price of liquor increased dramatically. Beer prices rose 700%, brandy rose 433%, and spirits increased 270% from their pre- Prohibition prices (Thornton 4). The potency of alcoholic beverages increased drastically as well, by an average of 150%. This resulted in much more alcohol by volume (Thornton 4). Although liquor was illegal by amendment, the availability of alcohol actually increased, and so did the amount people consumed. The consumption of alcohol rose to 22.8 gallons/year per capita during the height of Prohibition from five times less than that in 1850 (Merz 12). Prohibitionists further lost control because they were unaware of the drinking establishments’ locations (Thornton 6).
Finally, the quality of liquor decreased due to the lack of federal production standards. Many deaths resulted from poisoned alcohol. At the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, there were 1,064 deaths from poisoned alcohol. However, by 1925 that number rose to 4,154 deaths (Thornton 5). It was virtually impossible for one to predict what their alcohol contained, and therefore, what the alcohol’s effect would be.
The Prohibition Era impacted crime like no other period in time. Crime rates reached an all-time high, with the homicide rate increasing by 5.6% in large cities. Overall, there was a 78% increase in general crime from the Pre-Prohibition period (Thornton 9). Not only did crime increase, but it became organized (Thornton 1). Due to this dramatic expansion, jails and prisons quickly began to fill, and eventually exceed, their limits (Thornton 1). Crime was a way for those who were unhappy with Prohibition to rebel against it: Once Prohibition was repealed, the rising crime rate began to decrease (Thornton 11). As the nation essentially began to fall apart, many citizens became increasingly angry toward the United States government. They rightfully blamed the government for the rising crime rate. As Will Rogers said, “The government used to murder by the bullet only. Now they murder by the quart.” (Thornton 5). Numerous individuals and groups of people became continually convinced of the violation of rights generated by Prohibition and refused to do what the government required of them. In some instances it became so extreme that people refused to pay taxes (Kobler 163). Nevertheless, the government ignored these obvious cries for change.
Although it was clearly struggling to survive, the government of the United States of America took several steps throughout the years to keep Prohibition alive. Acts were passed and revisions were proposed, but they were never for the people that they “represented”; they were for continuing Prohibition, something the government created and therefore needed to succeed. The Volstead Act was a preview of the many acts to come the following year. While the government was debating over the content and wording of the 18th Amendment, the Volstead Act was passed in 1919. It defined an intoxicating beverage as one containing over .5% alcohol content. The Volstead Act was responsible, in large part, for the increase of crime that occurred in the early 1920’s , which eventually resulted in the prisons exceeding their capacities (Thornton 9).
The next action taken centered around the Harrison Narcotics Act. It included a wave of state prohibitions, or local-option laws against alcohol. In the states that were affected, laws concerning alcohol became harsher, and they often became strictly enforced (Thornton 10). This also changed the restrictions on alcohol that were originally applied due to World War I. But, now that the war was over, many citizens were no longer willing to accept these regulations. Again the government did not recognize the growing dissatisfaction of its citizens (Kobler 13). Then came the Wickersham Commission which contained four proposals to the Volstead Act. It first directed that there be a codification of all Prohibition laws over the previous forty years. New legislation would also be required to give extra force to the provisions of the Volstead Act. Thirdly, it was recommended that Prohibition matters be transferred from the Bureau of Treasury to the Department of Justice. The final request included in the Wickersham Commission was that there be trial without jury for any slight violation of the Prohibition Laws (Cashman 208).
Once again, this action by the United States did not consider the rights the people were granted by law. Prohibition revealed many important things about the United States. It highlighted the united strength of the people, and the impact of individual voice. But, first and foremost, the failure of Prohibition made it evident that the citizens of the United States truly do have the right to voice their opinions in accordance with the freedom of speech granted to them in the Bill of Rights. The people of the United States and the differing opinions they voiced were the primary reason for the downfall of Prohibition: The power is in the people.
1.Cashman, Sean Dennis. Prohibition: The Lie of the Land. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. 1981.
2.Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 1973.
3.Merz, Charles. The Dry Decade. Seatlle: Doubleday, Doran and Company. 1930.
4.Thornton, Mark. “Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure.” http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-157.html. July 17, 1991.
Prohibition: The Power is in the People