The latest in the publisher’s Concise Histories series focuses on the effort to prohibit the production, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States, which resulted in the ratification—and repeal—of a constitutional amendment.
Rorabaugh (Law/Univ. of Washington; American Hippies, 2015, etc.), author of The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition (1979), offers a brief, authoritative overview of the causes, impact, and legacy of the law. Drunkenness was prevalent and problematic beginning in Colonial times. In the 1800s, “the average adult white male drank a half pint of whiskey a day.” Excessive drinking had a negative impact on health and led to social and familial problems, including crime, domestic abuse, and sometimes financial ruin. Reformers mounted campaigns to persuade drinkers to switch from whiskey to beer; the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874, went further, pushing for anti-liquor laws. Although reform movements gained a patchwork of supporters, they also met opposition. Irish and German immigrants, arriving from “heavy drinking cultures,” were unwilling to give up imbibing. Evangelical Protestants urged abstinence from alcohol, but other religious groups saw no contradiction between drinking and holiness. The alcohol industry, unsurprisingly, fought against efforts for prohibition, backing “wet” political candidates, but during World War I, giving up alcohol became a form of wartime sacrifice. “Moral fervor ran high,” writes the author, and that fervor led to the passages of the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment. Enforcement was a problem from the outset: home brewers sold moonshine, liquor flowed over the Canadian border, and gangsters extended their activities from gambling and prostitution to the liquor industry. By the mid-1920s, gang wars were more threatening than alcohol, and public sentiment began to change. Moreover, Franklin Roosevelt, campaigning for the presidential nomination, discovered that unless he “took a wetter position on alcohol, his candidacy was doomed.” By 1933, the new president stopped enforcement and set in motion repeal of the amendment.
A clear, straightforward history of a law that defined a decade.