Thursday, February 4, 2016

American History 101: Prohibition and the 18th Amendment

Alcohol has been ever present throughout American history.  And from the mid-18th century through the early 20th century, alcohol was a cancer in the culture.  They did not call it alcoholism at that time, but it was rampant and pervasive throughout America.  In the mid-19th century the Temperance Movement began, and extolled the evils of alcohol and tried to remove the disease from America.  Several attempts were made to make alcohol illegal, and to drive it out of towns -- these all ultimately failed.

But in 1919 the 18th Amendment was ratified.  The 18th Amendment forbade the manufacture, sale and transportation of “intoxicating liquors” within the United States and its territories.  And while it did not specifically prohibit drinking liquor, if you could not make it, transport it or sell it then you could not drink it either.  This distinction between making the sale and distribution illegal and not the consumption of it made it palatable to many who had previously opposed the idea.

In the decades leading up to the final passage of the 18th Amendment, America had steadily become a nation of drunkards.  The trials and tribulations of immigration and the Industrial Revolution created an entire class of working men who worked long days and spending their nights drinking themselves to excess.  And if their families were lucky, they would stagger home and fall into bed only to repeat the same exercise in futility the next day.  If the families were not luck, he would stagger home and physically take out his frustrations on his wife and children, if he went home at all.  In the years before prohibition, American men over the age of 15 were consuming as much as seven gallons of liquor each year.  This is more than three times what is consumed today.  And the rate at which families were abandoned by men, the sole wage earner, was alarmingly high.  The temperance movement, and subsequent 18th Amendment sought to put an end to all of that.

While on the surface the aim of the 18th Amendment was to create an alcohol free America, that wasn’t the compelling issue that needed to be addressed.  Alcohol, in and of itself, was not the problem.  The bigger issue was

the American family, and the damage that alcohol was causing to the American family unit.  The laws that governed the prohibition of alcohol were largely unenforceable.  There were too many "private stills" and back alley speak easy's, and too few enforcement officials.  Add to that the newly created black market for alcohol, which in turn spawned the mafia and mobster era in America.  This created a seemingly endless amount of work for local and federal law enforcement.  So even though Prohibition, itself, was unwieldy, the efforts to limit the circulation of alcohol to the lower classes and general public were spot on.  And by the time the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 22nd Amendment, the law would have an undeniable impact upon American society.  The rate of what we consider alcoholism dropped significantly.  The number of men who were abandoning their families is thought to have dropped by two-third, and it was no longer socially acceptable to drink ones self into a stupor every day in the way that it was in the 19th century.

One could easily say that Prohibition was a failure because it was repealed, and because of all of the violence and crime that it created.  Plus, today we can go have a beer with friends whenever we want.  Personally, I chalk that up to a responsible use of liberty.  However, the secondary purpose of creating a dry period in American history in which the men of America would have to stop drinking and spend more time and money on and with their families was a glaring success.

Bruce holds a degree in Computer Science from Temple University, a Graduate Certificate in Biblical History from Liberty University and is working towards a Masters Degree in American History at American Public University.  He has worked in educational and technology for over 18 years, specializes in building infrastructures for schools that work to support the mission of technology in education in the classroom.  He also has served as a classroom teacher in Computer Science, History and English classes.  

Bruce is the author of five books: Sands of TimeTowering Pines Volume One:Room 509The Star of ChristmasPhiladelphia Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel and The Insider's Story: A Lance Carter Detective Novel

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