January 17, 1920: The Law that Dried the Nation. Prohibition in the U.S. and its Consequences

Hier de subtitel

Through the nineteenth century national resentment of the abuses of alcohol and its consumption in saloons grew slowly but incessantly. Alcohol consumption was considered a demoralizing and dangerous habit, a deplorable institution, and a form of social slavery. The proposals for prohibiting the manufacture, sale and transportation of alcohol started at a local level, initiated by prohibition movements such as the Anti-Saloon League and the Woman's Christian Temperance Movement.

18th Amendment Revised

In the early years of the twentieth century, serious attempts were made to enact a national prohibition law that would forbid the consumption of alcohol in the United States. The process that led, in the years between 1917 and 1920, to the adoption of the National Prohibition Act and the Eighteen Amendment can be illustrated through the primary sources available at the RSC. In particular, documents from the Woodrow Wilson Papers and the Congressional Record show how difficult it was for the President to go along with this law. Wilson showed himself sympathetic with the positions of the anti-prohibitionists, but his effort was neutralized by an assertive and more conservative Congress.

In a letter dated November 13, 1917 to President Wilson, Joseph Patrick Tumulty, Wilson's personal secretary, informed him of a questionnaire that was circulating to manufacturers throughout the country. The questionnaire was designed by the "Committee on Alcohol of the Council of National Defense," in order to prove that "consumption of alcoholic beverages of all kinds was impairing the efficiency of American labor." Although the prohibition movements enjoyed the support of the majority of the American people, there was a substantial number of people, including President Wilson, who opposed the implementation of a national prohibition act. A selection of the reasons why Wilson opposed such an act can be found in a letter he received from US Food Administrator, Herbert Hoover, who’s arguments the President endorsed. To highlight the possible dangerous effects of national prohibition, Hoover argued that it could generate social unrest among the laboring classes, since the saloon played such an important role in their sparse spare time. Another important argument was state interference. Opponents claimed that national prohibition would go against personal liberty and freedom and deprive people of beverages which had for centuries been part of American social life.

Ultimately, the Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, on October 28, 1919. Nevertheless, president Wilson vetoed the bill on the basis of moral and constitutional objections. Immediately after the presidential attempt to prevent prohibition taking effect, the House voted to override the veto and, supported by the Senate, ratified the act.

The Eighteenth Amendment entered into force on January 17, 1920, notoriously prohibiting the production, transportation and sale of “intoxicating liquors” throughout the country. The consequences of such a decision, as expected by Wilson himself, affected both the U.S. socio-economic structure and its collective national image. Crime organizations took the lead in the production and distribution of illegal alcohol, making enormous profits in the process. Large-scale producers went bankrupt, and corruption reached unprecedented levels. Instead of reducing crime, poverty, and violence, prohibition had sparked organized crime, bootlegging, and worsened drinking habits.