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In 1919 congress proposed the National
Prohibition Act, also known as the Volsted Act. Prohibition officially went into
effect on January 16, 1920. Prohibition was a nationwide, constitutional ban on
the production, transportation, importation and sale of alcohol which took
place for nearly 13 years. This was the first and only amendment that limited the
American people’s rights. The vision for this ban was to bring on an age of
moral and social reform, however, over the next decade, this ban produced crime,
violence and an illegal liquor trade. Even though alcohol was banned, people
still wanted to drink. With that, came along a group of young immigrants who
chose to disobey the law to provide alcohol for thirsty Americans. The
prohibition generation created a whole new world of crime for the United
States.

            Banning alcohol gave hope to social
reformers that it would be the end of prostitution, spousal abuse and other
alcohol-related violence and essentially increase a sense of integrity
throughout the country. There were several factors that brought on the
prohibition movement. When America entered the war in 1917 the national mood
also turned against drinking alcohol. The Anti-Saloon League, which was backed
by the church, argued that drinking alcohol was damaging American society.  With help from the church and other
organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, they were able to
get their point that the consumption of alcohol went against Gods will across
to a good portion of the country. In addition, many folks agreed that it was morally
wrong to enjoy alcohol while our nations men were fighting a war. Lastly,
during a time of war, it was not practical to use grain for making booze rather
than food. All of these factors as well as a backlash against brewers due to
their German background, turned prohibition into a “virtual test of patriotism”
and thus became the eighteenth amendment. (Shi, Tindall, 809).

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            Although prohibition was now a law,
it was not widely followed and it was very difficult to enforce.  Banning alcohol caused average law-abiding
citizens to break the law, enabled growth and influenced organized crime, and
increased levels of corruption in government and law enforcement (Okrent). Once
alcohol consumption was deemed illegal, didn’t make the folks who were regularly
drinking want to stop. This “perceived need” for an illegal product “shaped the
precise function and structure for organized crime”. Organized crime is a
society that seeks to operate outside the control of the government (Demleitner).
People found loopholes or ways to brew their own alcohol to continue the party.

It wasn’t just competition between other bootleggers and
innocent citizens that were threatened by these organized crime members either.
 Instead, it was the federal and judicial officials. Officers were
underpaid and there just was not enough of them. Congress failed to supply proper
funding to enforce these new laws. “In 1920, the United States had only 1,520
federal agents in the Prohibition Bureau. Given the public thirst for alcohol
and the profits to be made in making and selling it illegally, it would have
taken armies of agents to police the nation.” (Shi, Tindall, 809) Therefore, corruption
was an essential tool used by gangs to manipulate the law with the use of
bribes and violence to get what they wanted (Demleitner). Being a bootlegger
meant power, but it also meant a lot of income. Al Capone “scarface” for
example, who is the most famous gangsters that we know today, controlled most
of Chicago between 1925 and 1930. His organization of 700 gangsters alone
averaged about 100 million a year. To compare, congressional appropriations for
Prohibition enforcement didn’t exceed 10 million in a 5-year period and was
often much less (Demleitner).

            In addition to regular sales of
alcohol, gangs also controlled spots such as speakeasies. Speakeasies replaced
the saloons. A speakeasy is an underground disguised bar for people to hangout
and drink alcohol in. In New York City alone, there were an estimated 32,000
speakeasies in 1929 according to the city’s police commissioner. (Shi, Tindall,
812) The name comes from the fact that in order to enter you would typically
have to provide a password or the name of a regular patron. They were often
alarmed with high security in case of raids. Also, unlike saloons which were
frequented by lower to middle class in the pre-prohibition days, speakeasies
became an attraction to middle to upper class along with the free-spirited
flappers. Flappers were the ladies of the 1920’s who rebelled and didn’t conform
to the rest of society. These women often had shorter hair, wore shorter
skirts, smoked cigarettes and took part in enjoying alcoholic beverages and
dancing.

            Like the rise of prohibition, there
were many factors that led to the fall of prohibition. The system had many
flaws and consequences that were unforeseen initially. Pre-prohibition liquor
sales were taxed, so the loss of the liquor tax cost the federal government 10
percent of its annual revenue. In addition, with the closings of saloons, breweries
and liquor stores, thousands of people were out of jobs. President Harding was
also an avid drinker. Even though the country was dry, the White House did not.
He explained that he did not see enjoying alcohol as a “great moral issue”.
(Shi, Tindall, 812). If the president, the most important person in the nation,
disobeys the law, it should be expected to fail. In addition, looking at the
larger picture, prohibition didn’t actually keep anyone from consuming alcohol
whether it was legal or not.

            Whether it was through violence, illegal
business conduct or police corruption, organized crime took off throughout the
Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment was one of the only two amendments to the
Constitution that dictated the behavior of individuals and not the behavior of
the government.  Because of this, it is no surprise that law did not
succeed. By limiting the people in their behavior, a spark was lit inside of
many to rebel and turn against the law.  Organized crime existed before
the Prohibition, but once the American people’s actions were restricted, the
line between right and wrong blurred, causing the average citizen to become no
different than a gang member.

            December 5th, 1933 was a
day to celebrate. The 21st amendment to the U.S. constitution was
ratified, repealing the 18th amendment and bringing an end to the
era of national prohibition of alcohol in the United States. Not all states
changed immediately though, such as Mississippi who remained a dry state until
1966.  

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