Causes and Effects of Prohibition Laws

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Prohibition is defined as the years between 1920 to 1933 when the United States made it illegal to make and sell liquor. On January 16th of 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment, which made the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors into… or from the United State or all territory…” illegal. However, the 18th Amendment did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol.


The Volstead Act established enforcement for the 18th Amendment. This was passed on October 28th of 1919, just eight months after the 18th Amendment was ratified. On December 5th of 1933, Congress passed the 21st Amendment which repealed the 18th Amendment. The 18th Amendment is the only amendment to ever be repealed in the history of the Constitution.

Prohibition was not a law that was created in a short period. The 18th Amendment was a long time in the making. Almost 100 years before the 18th Amendment, there was religious revivalism that ran across the United States that pushed for temperance or perfectionism. In 1826, in the middle of revivalism, Reverend Lyman Beecher preached a service over the evils of alcohol. His service was translated into different languages, sent all over the United States, and even went to England and published in some of their newspapers. 

In 1917 during World War I, President Woodrow Wilson called for a temporary wartime prohibition to save grain for food. It is during this wartime prohibition that Congress began to work on the 18th Amendment. On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was ratified into the Constitution. In October of 1929, the Stock Market crashed causing the United States to go into the Great Depression until 1941. During the Great Depression on December 5th of 1933, Congress repealed the 18th Amendment by the ratification of the 21st Amendment. 

One of the major causes of the 18th Amendment was the fear of what alcohol could do to families. Women believed that alcohol causes abuse at home. Women also believed that marriage troubles and divorce were caused by drinking alcohol. Another cause of the 18th Amendment to be ratified was the concern for public health. It was believed that alcohol caused increased violence. The only way for that not to occur was to not drink alcohol. The United States government stepped in to help the health of the public.

Before prohibition, some religions push the idea of banning and not drinking any beverage that has any alcohol. That religion believed that alcohol increased the rate of crime and abuse between couples; it was also believed that alcohol caused Americans to decrease their religious activities and focus because of alcohol. Due to this, another cause of prohibition was religion. 

The final major cause of prohibition was Americans' Anglo-Saxon roots. Some people believed that if alcohol was prohibited, the United States would return to its Anglo-Saxon roots. Anglo-Saxons are anyone who descends from white people who lived in English-speaking countries. Anglo-Saxons believed that they were the superior race and returning to their history, by removing alcohol, would solve the problems in the United States.

Instead of calling a place to drink alcohol a saloon, people called them speakeasies. Speakeasies were unlicensed, non-public bars. These speakeasies were in backrooms, basements, attics, storage rooms, and anywhere that could be hidden. At one point, it was believed that one district in New York housed over 15,000 speakeasies. These speakeasies were stored by bootleggers. Bootlegger is the term to describe people who illegally transported alcohol into or across the US.

At the beginning of prohibition, enforcement was in the hands of the IRS, Internal Revenue Service. The Justice Department took over enforcement shortly after. The cost of prohibition units tripled from 1920 to 1926. An example of this is the US Coast Guard; they wanted $10 million to continue their efforts of running the operation to keep the United States dry. Officials were so corrupt that they would not report, and even in some cases help the criminal, for a hefty price. Some officials made hundreds of thousands of dollars during prohibition.

At the beginning of prohibition, drunk arrests decreased. As well as alcohol consumption, which decreased by about 30%. However, that did not last long. Organized crime and moonshine increased a couple of years after prohibition took effect. Gang violence began to rise. An example is Al Capone, a major gang leader in Chicago. He made around $60 million every year of prohibition until he was arrested. 

He was arrested in March of 1929 for disrespect in the courtroom, again in May for carrying a concealing a weapon. Lastly, Capone was arrested in October of 1931; he was sentenced to 11 years in prison, fined $50,000 plus $7,692 in court fees, and forced to pay back $215,000 in back taxes with interest. Capone made millions by supplying liquor to over ten thousand speakeasies, which most of them he owned a part of.

Citizens at first decreased their consumption of alcohol. However, that did not last long. Americans began to go to speakeasies, create their alcohol, or even buy liquors from bootleggers. Since people began to get laid off because of the closure of bars, alcohol manufacturers, and even restaurants and keg-making factories, people found jobs in bootlegging and gangs. Thousands of people lost their job because of prohibition. Some states did not enforce the 18th Amendment until later in the prohibition era. This caused some issues in the government because states were not abiding by the Constitution.

Prohibition restricted the working class and the poor. While the working and poor were suffering, the upper and middle classes were flourishing. Anyone associated with operating a saloon, bartenders, and owners, suffers because their business became illegal and they lost their jobs, so they lost their source of income. Alcohol manufacturing companies also had to close their production or turn to another production. Corrupt officials benefited by receiving extra money to not expose criminals. The official was not well-liked during prohibition because of all the illegal activities in the United States.

The repeal of the 18th Amendment began in February of 1933. In less than a year, the 21st Amendment was ratified to repeal the 18th Amendment. The push for the end of prohibition was by Congress and President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The United States was in the Great Depression and was in desperate need of jobs and revenue. One way that Congress believed would help the United States create jobs was to end prohibition. The end of prohibition let manufacturers, saloons, keg-making factories, and restaurants open back up and hire people.

Prohibition affected the United States terribly. Since the transportation of alcohol was illegal, the United States could no longer trade alcohol. The United States lost billions in taxes because all the alcohol sales were hidden in the black market. The enforcement created a new expenditure for the US which was approximately $300 million. This negatively impacted the economy. 

The loss of thousands of jobs, ranging from waiter to truck drivers to bartenders to factory workers, created a loss in incomes for many families across the United States. Some people expect that goods and entertainment would rise because of the loss of alcohol sales. This was the complete opposite. People went out less and the money going into entertainment and goods dropped because people did not have much money.

An effect of the 18th Amendment is the increase in the consumption of alcohol Speakeasies became a popular place for people to go and enjoy drinks. Even though there were laws against alcohol, people still drank liquor. The number of people still consuming alcohol was never and will never be reported correctly because illegal activities were surrounding many of the liquor people consumed.

Another effect of prohibition was the increase of moonshine. Moonshine is homemade alcohol. Moonshine became popular during prohibition. When anyone drinks moonshine there are extreme risks including blindness, poisoning, and even death. During prohibition, over ten thousand people died from alcohol-related causes. If the US would have kept alcohol legal and raised the taxes on drinks, they could have made more money and would have had fewer alcohol-related deaths.

Another effect of prohibition was the decrease in income in the government. This along with the Great Depression was difficult on the government. Since saloons were illegal, the United States lost all of the taxes that they could have received from saloon owners. The United States lost around $11 billion over the years that the 18th Amendment was active in taxes. The final major effect of the 18th Amendment was the increased work on the police and law enforcement. 

The enforcement of the 18th Amendment cost around $300 million to the United States. The law enforcement agency had to create specific units to search for speakeasies because there were a plethora of them and all of them were hidden in cities. When they were caught, they had to be taken to jail and held until trial. This backed up the legal system with the number of people in custody. Holding people in jail cost the city money, but the government was suffering from the loss of money from the decrease in taxes received. This meant that the cities were functioning with less money than normal.

Overall, prohibition was a failure. The 18th Amendment did not stop the consumption of alcohol like the government hoped. Instead, people turned to moonshine, bootleggers, and speakeasies to drink liquor. Moonshine is homemade alcohol. Bootleggers brought alcohol into and around the United States illegally and that hurt the economy, as well as speakeasies. The income that the owners of speakeasies and the bootleggers made were not taxed because they were illegal and hidden.


Others might argue that the 18th Amendment was a success because some states and counties remained dry after the 18th Amendment was repealed. Mississippi remained a dry state until 1966. Around one-fifth of the nation still has counties that ban the sale of alcohol. Even though these statistics are true, prohibition did not create a dry nation. The United States was a dry country by law; however, alcohol continued to flow in the United States regardless of the law.

Causes and Effects of Prohibition Laws
Causes and Effects of Prohibition Laws; Image by Martin Büdenbender from Pixabay.

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