The Volstead Act, commonly known as Prohibition, which legally prevented the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States, prevailed from 1920 until 1933. The demand for alcohol prohibition from various social groups such as religious groups, women activists, and political groups in the 1920s mushroomed; the act gained traction under the banner of the Republican party and was passed with almost a 2:1 ratio of votes in the house — the Republicans had the majority. People took a myriad of a different stance on the subject of Prohibition, but eventually, their opinions were either of the two: to support, or not to support. The direction — towards good or bad — Prohibition drove the world is a topic of debate, yet it is hard to object that prohibition was certainly significant at the time and still is at the very present moment. Politics, Crime, economy, and health were such areas which Prohibition impacted. Thus this essay wishes to analyse the areas where Prohibition proved to be hugely significant and asses in depth how Prohibition affected different areas of society.
The desire to bring about Prohibition, lead to massive changes to politics and women’s rights. Leading up to the Prohibition there were diverging social groups with all different political interest in the amendment itself: Corporations, Temperance movement, Women’s suffrage movement, and The Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Many affluent businessmen were in favour of Prohibition because they believed alcohol was the main hindrance factor for the most efficient functioning of a business (History.com Editors, 2009). Christians, about 40% of the US population in the year 1900, were also hugely in favour of Prohibition (US Population) (De Tocqueville,2000); Christians shunned the consumption of alcohol because it caused people to be drunk, which took away the capabilities to act rationally and abstain from committing crimes (New International Version, 1984) . The belief of alcohol causing violence — and it is to an extent— continued even into the households.“There is a war about this in America, a war of mothers and daughters, sisters, and wives.” Frances Willard, a leading member of the temperance movement, referred to the alcohol’s detrimental effects it brings in terms of violence, poverty, and madness (Willard, Gifford, & Slagell 2007). Women experiencing increasing incidents of domestic violence turned the guilt on alcohol. Fueled by the huge support from women and Christians, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was established. A pro-Prohibition group, the Anti-Saloon League even had a stronger position in that they were also supported by affluent male businessman and they were capable of lobbying all levels of government (Britannica 2019). As most historians would agree these Leagues and Movement provided the backbone for the 19th amendment, which empowered women to vote. A famous newspaper article Times explains the process of this phenomenon “the Prohibition and women’s suffrage went hand in hand” (Waxman 2019). Women part of the Suffrage movement sought opportunity in the idea of Prohibition in uniting the voices; Prohibition was essentially the ‘united voice package’ for all different political interest groups. For most politician during the time ‘united voice package’ meant ‘united votes’ and that was enough for politicians to seriously consider the ‘package’ — pleasing Christians, ending domestic violence, and empowering women. This was essentially a trade-off made by the Temperance movement to support Prohibition in return of votes for women. This huge political effort was finally reflected in the 19th amendment of the US constitution shortly followed by Prohibition; the 19th amendment officially granted women’s rights vote (Women’s Rights Advanced During, Mob Museum). This amendment directly involved women into politics, and because of Prohibition’s strong ties with the 19th amendment, it is clear that the presence of Prohibition fostered the advancement of many of women’s rights and has changed the entire political landscape we have today.
Prohibition brought a huge impact on American criminal justice. A surprise for most social groups supporting prohibition, crime rates in the United States skyrocketed — the sheer opposite of what the supporters envisioned. Supporters underestimated the determination and the risk some people were prepared to take for alcohol. Shown in (FIG 1), illegal conduct prospered out of government control: uncontrolled production, smuggling, and sales of alcohol (“Crime in the 1920s”, 2019). More familiar to us now the term ‘organized crime’ was coined only after prohibition (Ross, 2019). The prohibition of alcohol fostered the growth of gangsters; sale of alcohol became an entire area of the underground market for organized crime gangs to profit from (“Mafia in the United States.”, 2009). This allowed crime syndicates to grow in size and commit secondary crimes, such as murder, extortion, and bribery (BBC News, 2019). One prominent individual in showing the extent which crimes spiralled out of control is Al Capone, the most famous ruthless gang leader in the 1920s. The leader of the Chicago Outfit gang who hatched the infamous St Valentine’s Day Massacre. It is universally accepted that several Capone’s gang members, dressed as a policeman, slaughtered seven of rivalling gang members on 14th of February 1929 and managed to walk out innocent (Simple History, 2019); a fraction of the life in the 1920s United States is best shown by one of the New York Times’s article in 2018 (Fig 2). Due to the rise of crime because of prohibition, the US prison population was doomed to increase. However, the US Department of Justice suggests in their Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1982 that the prison population didn’t increase as much compared to the huge leap of increase in crime rates. The irony of the situation is explained by the impact prohibition had on the culture of plea bargaining in the US. Jona F Meyer in 2009 indicate that the act of plea bargaining — defendant pleading guilty for less punishment — was standardized around the era of Prohibition due to exploding numbers of prosecution; this proliferating culture of plea bargaining has now become a core part of the current American criminal justice system. This also demonstrates the widespread culture of bribes as shown in a popular cartoon ‘The National Gesture’ — depicts of public officials accepting bribes in return of dropping prosecutions and accepting money. Unfortunately, however, the mobilization of organized crime gangs still lasts until this day; when Prohibition was lifted out in 1933 many gangsters simply turned their eyes to a different profitable business such as prostitution, and drug trafficing ( “Mafia in the United States.”). Thus these examples show stark effect prohibition had on the American criminal justice in numerous ways literally by raising crimes, and on its bare fundamental functioning of the system
Prohibition certainly crippled the US economy and worsened the great depression. Prohibition did not ban the sale of alcohol but it only banned it from the legal market — the market where the government can tax. Most sales continued to prevail in the illegal underground markets; on the scheme of things this drastically decreased the government Income and Profits Tax. The total tax revenue showed a drop of $2,024,009,144 just from 1920 to 1921 (Fig 4). Not only the US government was now losing on its capital budget, but it was now draining its last of its feeble income. Despite the overall loss of capital revenue, comparing the estimated budget drafted by the US government, (Fig 5 and Fig 6) it indicates an almost an increase in a triple in expenditure for the department of justice. This ironic circumstance — less revenue but more spendings — for the US government and the nation’s economy was certainly detrimental.“Economic effects of Prohibition were largely negative.”, as Michael Lerner in his article ‘Unintended Consequences’ in 2011 mentions, he states that entertainment industries such as restaurants and theatres also largely took a downturn; it is suggested that the effect was due to the large reliability of revenue of alcohol sales in these industries — supporters of prohibition expected this but predicted that other revenues will rise compensating the loss. However, the rise of household goods, estate price, and alternate entertainment industries did not compensate for the massive capital loss from the void of legal alcohol sales. Furthermore, such terms as ‘1920s agricultural slump’ are largely attributed to Prohibition. Prohibition absolutely decimated the grain industry in the US; grains, largely used for brewing and production of alcohol, no longer had a legal market to sell their goods (Boeckel,1928). Due to the overall decline in almost all parts of the US industries, it shows a clear relationship between Prohibition and the Great Depression which had a direct impact on the US economy. This relationship is further observed in an unemployment statistics in 1933, the peak of Prohibition, it shows the unemployment rate at 23%, but as the year continued throughout 1933 and Prohibition was lifted out of existence by the ‘New Deal’ it shows unemployment rate steadily decreasing (Amedeo, 2019). This evidence is suggestive of the role Prohibition played in aggravating the Great Depression and in doing so it has significantly impacted the US economy.
Serious health issues emerged to the surface as Prohibition was enacted. Hitherto prohibition came into action all alcohol sales were legal; it meant that there were forms of jurisdiction and guidelines in the process of producing liquor. As prohibition banned the manufacture of alcohol there was no longer the obligation for brewing companies neither the government to inspect and give guidance in the production of these ‘intoxicating’ liquor because alcohol — supposedly — didn’t exist. However, the production of alcohol by bootleggers continued and inevitably lead to the rise of homemade spirit. Self-made liquor such as moonshine and bathtub gin went rampant in the US during the Prohibition; people were drinking unchecked, high proofed, intoxicating liquor. It is well proven that unregulated alcohol produced by bootleggers caused blindness, other disabilities, and even death (Ammerman, 1999). The risks of this unregulated alcohol were only worsened with some bootleggers even including — actual — intoxicating substances such as iodine, creosote, and embalming fluid (“Effects of Prohibition… 2019). Bureau of Prohibition, the government organization at the time in charge of enforcing Prohibition laws, was highly inspired by the bootleggers — on the scheme of extreme — and adopted a poisoning policy. The federal government quickly realizing that the bootleggers producing alcohol were mainly sourced by industrial alcohol — an exception to the Prohibition — decided to deliberately poison the alcohol used for industrial purposes: government intoxicated industrial alcohol with Benzene, Carbolic acid, Gasoline, and tens more (Rothman, 2015). This act was so that none would consider making consumable alcohol with what essentially was poison. As the common saying goes “Determined always gets what they want no matter what”, in the case of Prohibition it turned out to be death. One newspaper from Spokane Daily Chronicle published in 1926 revealed that bootleggers tried their best to detoxify 690,000,000 gallons of purposely poisoned alcohol every year, but more shockingly were that out of all alcohol in circulation in United States 80% were classified as poison; it also estimates that millions of Americans were actively exposed to this alcohol every day. The extent which the American health was at risk is visualized in one statistic presented in the US Senate Judiciary Committee Hearings on National Prohibition in 1926, it shows that reports of insanity commitments have doubled, death due to alcohol sextupled, and drunken auto drivers septupled (FIG 7). It is quite clear that Prohibition affected the health of Americans individually and also on a national scale.
In the spectrum of its impact, Prohibition certainly had a significant effect on society. Its legacies affected and shaped the world we live in. The magnitude of Prohibition, which it had an effect on our world, ranges from the health of an individual to the emerging homicidal gangsters from a crippled economy, and even to an extent that it gave an entire population the right to vote. Prohibition wielded explicit influence during the period when the act was being enforced in all aspect of society. It altered how people lived daily and posed its influence on government politics and its influence remains unchanged until this day.
Statistics and Visual Sources
Fig 1 (“Crime in the 1920s”, 2019)
Fig 3 (“corruption during prohibition…. , 2019)
Fig 4 (Office of Commissioner of Internal Revenue,1923)
Fig 5 (United States Bureau of Budget, 1923)
Fig 6 (United States Bureau of Budget, 1933)
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