Short History of the Prohibition Movement

Consumption of alcohol was discouraged by law in many of the states over the first century of the United States under the Constitution. By 1855, 13 of the 31 states had temperance, or alcohol prohibition, laws. The Civil War distracted the public from the temperance movement, but the proliferation of saloons after the Civil War, and the trappings of the saloons (like gambling, prostitution, and public drunkenness) lead to the so-called "Women's War" in 1873. Over time, the movement became more organized and the Anti-Saloon League was established in 1893. The ASL's goal was national prohibition, and it set up an office in Washington to that end - it even established its own publishing house in Westerville, Ohio.

The ASL polled candidates on their stand on the temperance question, endorsing candidates with a pro-temperance stance. In the election of 1915, ASL-sponsored candidates swept the elections for Congress, and on December 18, 1917, Congress passed the 18th Amendment. It quickly was adopted by the states, being ratified in just over a year, on January 16, 1919.

Effects and Movement to Repeal

It would be a disservice to say that the 18th Amendment was completely ineffective. It would also be a disservice to say that the 18th Amendment caused the lawlessness embodied by people like Al Capone. The 18th Amendment did reduce alcohol consumption in the United States, and it did not cause organized crime. In the Prohibition era, alcohol consumption dropped to an average of less then a gallon of alcohol per person per year, down from two and a half gallons in 1915. And organized crime existed before Prohibition, and existed after it, too.

That having been said, the Prohibition era did have a certain sense of lawlessness; the very fact that consumption was not eliminated is testimony to that; and the fact that organized crime manufactured and distributed the bulk of the illicit alcohol of the 1920's and early 1930's is evidence that gangsters were aided by Prohibition. Enforcement was spotty, with stills and speakeasies popping up in every population center. Overzealous police and federal agents violated civil rights when searching for and destroying the paraphernalia of alcohol. While most Americans respected the law, were in favor of the law, the shine of "dry" began to wear off, especially as the Great Depression set in.

A movement began to form to repeal the 18th Amendment. Prohibition of alcohol was seen as an affront to personal liberty, pushed on the nation by religious moralists. Alcohol was also seen as a source of revenue for the local and national governments. The effort to elect "wet" legislators was as grand as that to elect "dry" ones almost two decades earlier. The Congress passed the amendment on February 20, 1933. It mandated, for the first time, that conventions of the states were to vote on the amendment, rather than the legislatures, feeling that conventions would be more apt to vote to ratify - and they did, quickly - the ratification process was complete on December 5, 1933. The 21st Amendment repealed the 18th, the first time an amendment had been repealed by another.

For detailed information regarding prohibition, visit Ohio State's History Department's site. (Be prepared to hear some garish music.)

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