How the heck could this happen?

The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect on January 16, 1920. It wiped out the beers, the breweries and the culture that had come to define American social life. We look back on the Noble Experiment called Prohibition today and we 

can’t even understand how that could happen. What were people thinking? Well, ironically, things weren’t too different than they are today in a number of ways. Economic turmoil, corporate greed, a widening gap between rich and poor, scandal-filled tabloid headlines, a middle class worried about the direction of the country. Sounds like yesterday’s paper but these were the problems facing American society at the turn of the 20th century.

Over the last few decades of the 1800s, rapid industrialization and unprecedented immigration in America created a country of big cities and booming growth. Lots of reforms were undertaken in the early years of the twentieth century—the eight hour work week, labor unions, child labor laws, minimum wages—but the times also gave rise to many of the ills associated with poor, underpaid, undernourished workers building the infrastructure of America. Prostitution, gambling, and….saloons.

Powerful Women and Sleeping Brewers

There were a number of factors that contributed to Prohibition, but perhaps the most important was the rise of a few powerful, well organized and well funded groups with a single minded purpose—the elimination of

 alcohol. The two most prominent were the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union) and the ASL (Anti-saloon League). In the face of a growing and changing society, these groups saw alcohol as the primary factor in the degradation of society—particularly in the cities. And it was true—saloons were everywhere, often four or five on the same block, and many were rowdy, unruly places. Over the course of almost 40 years, beginning in the 1880s, these groups 

worked to affect public opinion, elect local politicians who helped turn their counties dry, and eventually elect Congressmen who supported their cause. Through their efforts, by late 1914, 50% of the America people already lived under total Prohibition.

Another major factor was that brewers were asleep. They didn’t see Prohibition as a significant threat and so they mounted almost no opposition. Taxes collected on beer, wine and spirits (with beer by far the biggest contributor) made up 20-40% of the federal government’s income. The Brewers just assumed that neither the people nor the government would ever be able to give up the revenue.

And then, a different Amendment changed the game. In early 1913, Congress passed the Sixteenth Amendment, introducing the income tax, and suddenly brewers were vulnerable. Alcohol tax revenue was no longer necessary for the government to function.

Game Over

In January 1917, the 65th Congress convened, in which the dries outnumbered the wets by 140 to 64 in the Democratic party and 138 to 62 among Republicans, thanks largely to the efforts of the WCTU and ASL. With America's declaration of war against Germany in April, German-Americans–a major force against prohibition, and many of the prominent brewers of the day–were widely discredited and their protests subsequently ignored.

A resolution calling for an amendment to accomplish nationwide Prohibition was introduced in Congress and passed by both houses in December 1917. On January 16, 1919, the Amendment was ratified by thirty-six of the forty-eight states. Prohibition began on January 16, 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect. And a nation of criminals was born.

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