The Prohibition era usually refers to the period from January 1920 until April 1933 when the National Prohibition Enforcement Act forbade the manufacture and sale of beverages with an alcoholic content greater than 0.5 percent. Supporters of this law (commonly called the Volstead Act) believed that it would quickly bring an end to the apprehensions of most Americans for more than a century about the social problems associated with alcoholic intoxication.

A useful historical signal of such problems has been the annual per capita consumption of absolute alcohol by the drinking-age population. (Spirits bottled at 80 proof—the "ardent spirits" or "hard liquor" of historical literature—are 40 percent absolute alcohol; most beers are from 3 to 8 percent; most wines, 10 to 20 percent.) During the 1830s, this per capita figure was 7.1 gallons. Considering that at this time there were many abstainers and that women, children, and slaves probably did not consume their per capita share, that stark statistic pointed to what some called an "alcoholic republic." Thus Thomas Jefferson had hoped that viniculture might provide a safe alternative to ardent spirits, and James Madison, in his old age, urged that for the "good of the country" young men abstain. In 1842 Abraham Lincoln sadly recalled that during his youth intoxicating liquors had come forth "like the Egyptian angel of death, commissioned to slay, if not the first, the fairest born in every family."

Temperance became a social movement when large numbers of people urged upon themselves and others a reasonable sort of individual discipline—usually abstention from hard liquor and a moderate use of wine and beer—to protect individual health and family well-being. Prohibition—like the prohibition of slavery, dueling, gambling, and prostitution—became a political movement when large numbers of voters began to demand of government what churches could no longer provide: a strong sense of moral stewardship.

It was in the 1840s that a businessman named Neal Dow in Portland, Maine, discovered in his hometown an astonishing range of moral delinquencies—family violence, poverty, crime, disorder, and incompetence in shops and factories—all of which he attributed to the "excessive use" of alcohol encouraged by local custom and competition among grog shops. Dow, like Jefferson, at first hoped to persuade individuals to become temperate. But when this failed, he and many others became convinced that the state legislature should abolish the sale of alcohol. Dow's achievement, the "Maine Law" of 1851, prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors. Thirteen of the thirty-one states had such laws by 1855.

Such laws were especially vulnerable to the turbulent realignment of political loyalties then sweeping through these states. The emerging Republican leaders, inclined toward Prohibition but fearful that their stand against the extension of slavery might be compromised by other moral issues, removed Prohibition from their platforms. This bound to the party many opponents of Prohibition who, wet or dry, held religious persuasions emphasizing the role of the church, not the state, in matters of moral stewardship. These people were often, but not exclusively, recent immigrants: Irish and German Catholics, some German and Scandinavian Lutherans.

This unity did not long survive the Civil War. In the 1870s groups of women—in the first such movement in American history—began to march from church meetings to the streets, where they halted traffic with their demands that the saloons close their doors. Spreading from Ohio in 1873, these protests demonstrated that women had found in the saloon both a symbol and an active agent of the threats raised by a new industrial society to what Frances Willard called the purity of the American home. Among these threats Willard could see drunkenness, prostitution, crime, and ignorance. As president of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she urged women in their role of home protectors to move to the streets and the legislative halls committed to direct action. In their protests, disrupting almost every major city in the North, her followers were at first asking not for the franchise but only for "home protection," though many of them did indeed want to vote so they could vote against the saloon. Republicans responded in 1888 by bringing into their platforms a delicate approval of "purity of the home" and "temperance and morality."

In 1895, the leaders of the Anti-Saloon League of America (ASL), then holding their first national convention, were confident that these matters were at the center of middle-class consciousness. Enlisting Protestant congregations as basic organizational units, the ASL was strikingly successful in guiding Prohibition sentiment through a sequence of political reforms that in many states were changing fundamental democratic procedures. Early in the 1900s, direct primary laws opened the selection of political candidates to the influence of ASL leaders, who then identified for their membership those candidates—Democratic or Republican—who were safely "dry."

Within a few years, dry legislatures were favoring women's suffrage and allowing popular referenda on the question of whether states should prohibit saloons. To many voters—frightened by the common knowledge that increasing competition among saloons encouraged crime and political corruption, and by the psychologists and neurologists whose research indicated that alcohol was in fact an addictive poison—there was then no more important political question. By 1916, twenty-one states had banned saloons. National elections that year returned a Congress in which dry members outnumbered the wets two-to-one. In December 1917, Congress submitted to the states the Eighteenth Amendment, which, when ratified in 1919, placed in the Constitution a nationwide ban on the "manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors." By that time most of the states had been dry for years. In 1920, the Volstead Act was to most Americans a belated confirmation of an earlier reality.

For several years after 1920, the illicit manufacture and sale of alcohol, if not entirely eliminated, was at least inconspicuous. Many people who regarded themselves as victims of a bewildering law and expected regularly to violate it nevertheless praised it as a high-minded achievement for the next generation. But most people probably wanted to obey the law and were curious about the emerging character of the dry rather than the alcoholic republic. They rejoiced that arrests for drunkenness declined sharply, along with the cost of maintaining prisons, and that medical statistics recorded a drop in the number of treatments for diseases associated with alcoholic psychoses. It is reasonably certain that many drinkers drank considerably less—especially if they were wage earners—if only because of the high cost of bootleg beers and liquors. (Between 1916 and 1928, the price of whiskey in most places rose by an average of 520 percent.)

Although determining the extent of drinking by any group at that time is difficult, Prohibition was at least partly effective. Records show that annual per capita consumption stood at 2.60 gallons for the period 1906 to 1910, before state dry laws had much impact. In 1934, when accurate statistics were again available, the figure was less than a gallon, and even as late as 1945, it was only 2 gallons. Not until 1975 did per capita consumption rise again to what it had been before Prohibition.

But at some time near the middle of the 1920s it became abundantly clear that "Volsteadism" was presenting enormous, if not intolerable problems. Stopping the illegal traffic seemed impossible. Few political leaders had realistic plans for funding a naval blockade of the coasts or for closing the thousands of miles of borders along Canada and Mexico. Nor were elected officials inclined to pay for the huge police forces necessary to restrict the bootlegging that became pandemic, or to monitor the distillation of medical alcohol, which flowed easily into illicit outlets, or to track the production of sacramental wines, which so easily found secular markets. Token raids on speakeasies by federal agents usually encouraged colorful newspaper stories rather than respect for federal law. In fact, after 1925, more and more citizens seemed to resent the cynicism with which the federal government (whose Founding Fathers had left murders, lynchings, adulteries, and other moral transgressions to the disciplines of the state legislatures) was so inconsistently pursuing an intrusive interest in whatever it was they might be tempted to drink.

Congress had placed the matter within the jurisdiction of the Treasury Department, whose untrained Prohibition officers faced challenges that would have defeated entire armies and navies. They operated with ineffective budgets—if any at all could have been effective—and only slight approval by the public. Even their friends in the Anti-Saloon League began to feel that, having made Prohibition the law of the land, they should employ their lagging energies and resources in the interest of propaganda and education, not law enforcement. Congress seemed to agree: it allowed Prohibition for the most part to live or die in the public conscience.

To some voters, this seemed adequate. Many in the rural areas, especially the farm counties, had voted dry early in the century and had remained happily so ever since. In such areas few people ever saw a bootlegger or visited a speakeasy. But in the major urban areas the failures of Volsteadism became both obvious and notorious. The ease with which beer and liquor flowed in such cities as New York, Chicago, Detroit, New Orleans, and San Francisco could easily convince observers that the Eighteenth Amendment was destroying respect for law and order throughout the nation.

Yet before 1930 few people called for outright repeal of the amendment. No amendment to the Constitution had ever been repealed, and it was clear that few Americans were moved to political action yet by the partial successes or failures of the Eighteenth. Newspaper polls did reveal that large numbers of readers approved of some revision in the Volstead Act to allow light beers and wines but would not accept outright repeal. Most of these readers voted in 1928 for Herbert Hoover, who during the campaign had called Prohibition "a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." He had, of course, also promised to uphold the Constitution.

Thus the repeal movement, which since the early 1920s had been a sullen and hopeless expression of minority discontent, astounded even its most dedicated supporters when it suddenly gained political momentum. What had not been articulated in 1928 was that the nation had been moving away from the concerns that from the beginning had lay at the heart of Prohibition. The postwar industrial society and the new lifestyles of individualism and personal freedom—apparent in Europe and America—were making the protection of the Victorian home and family seem less and less urgent. The powerful accelerators of change were mass production, the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the new literature, the movies—all with their stunning potential for broadening individual freedoms, including the freedom to use intoxicating beverages. But the most powerful accelerator was the Great Depression, which for many people everywhere marked the end of a cultural and social era, an era that had embraced Prohibition.

The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), which had supported wet candidates since 1922, was an organization of wealthy industrialists who shared the view that Prohibition was at best an eruption of sheer lunacy that had without warning ruined their leisure and increased their taxes, and at worst a dark victory of rural ignorance and prejudice over civil liberty and urban sophistication. They also feared the augmented powers that Prohibition had given the federal government. After 1929 these men argued that repeal would increase the number of wage-earning jobs the country so desperately needed and that reviving the manufacture and sale of alcohol would provide vast profits to be tapped for taxation. The AAPA found widespread support, including that from the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, a remarkable group of wealthy women who were prepared to speak from caravans of expensive automobiles about the rights of women to individual freedom—in striking contrast to the dimly remembered antisaloon parades thirty years earlier when prominent women had campaigned for a woman's right to protect home and family with a vote for Prohibition. In 1932 the critical issue before the AAPA and its supporters was the election of a sympathetic Congress and president.

At that moment, the AAPA had a daring plan: this was to validate the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth, in such a way as to circumvent the traditional process of ratification by the state legislatures, in some of which, AAPA attorneys feared, the entrenched powers of dry legislators presented a threat far out of proportion to their actual representation. According to this plan, Congress—for the first time since the Constitution itself had been ratified—was to call for ratifying conventions in each state, whose delegates would be elected in 1933 for the specific purpose of saying yes or no to the Twenty-first Amendment. The plan worked. Two-thirds of the conventions quickly voted yes, and when the delegates' voting was complete on December 5, 1933, the nationwide total favoring ratification was almost 73 percent. With this vote, the states were again in control of liquor legislation.

Although it is true that some simply rejected the moral and economic premises of repeal and steadfastly held to Prohibition (Kansas did not accept state repeal until 1948, Oklahoma until 1957, and Mississippi until 1966), the great question before most legislatures in 1934 concerned liquor laws for states that were now anti-Prohibition but still antisaloon: what would define the next phase in the historical movement toward protecting American society from drunkenness?

There were, almost immediately, efforts to prevent what earlier had been called the "drunkard-making business"—laws that, following examples in Canada and Sweden, created state monopolies of liquor sales to prevent free-market competition. Fifteen states had such laws by 1936. Others allowed taverns, hotels, and restaurants to serve beer and wine but banned barrooms and service of liquor by the drink. Still others created various forms of county local option. Liquor advertising fell under close scrutiny almost everywhere, and taxation on all alcoholic beverages—computed to raise revenues as well as to discourage drinking—assumed a gratifyingly moral dimension. During this time, many medical researchers were encouraging the view that addiction to alcohol was not so much a moral flaw as a disease, one open to study and perhaps receptive to new therapies. As alcohol studies progressed in university laboratories, many states began introducing the findings into public school curricula. The new phase of protection thus variously emphasized coercion, education, research, and treatment.

The years since 1960, however, have seen ambiguously ironic developments. Coercive measures, especially those directed against drunken driving, have become increasingly harsh and, in many areas, effective. American drinking habits, perhaps in response to education, seem to have been moving away from ardent spirits and toward light wines and beers. But at the very time when alcohol studies and curricula were becoming mandatory and treatment centers based upon the disease theory of alcohol addiction were popular and profitable, leading researchers in the field were questioning the validity of the theory itself.

This most recent phase has been called one of "neotemperance," and it probably anticipates future phases. It seems clear that most Americans have rejected the controlling idea of prohibitionists since the victories of Neal Dow—the notion that alcohol is without qualification an evil substance, an inevitably addictive poison, a relentless threat to the innocent. And most Americans seem to have accepted as the lesson of Prohibition that alcohol cannot be abolished outright. Yet they just as surely do not share the early Puritans' full confidence that alcohol is the "water of life," the "good creature of God," that only the eternally degenerate abuse. The language of neotemperance is rich in words like stability, responsibility, and prudence.

Mark Moore and Dean Gerstein, eds., Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition (1981); W. J. Rorabaugh, The Alcoholic Republic (1979).

Norman H. Clark