The production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages was constitutionally outlawed in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933. Join Active Minds as we review the origins and history of prohibition, the rise of bootleggers and organized crime, and the persistence of “dry” counties in the U.S. that still exist to this day.

Key Lecture Points

  • January 2020 marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the Prohibition. The 18th Amendment, which outlawed the “manufacture, sale, or transport of intoxicating liquors” was passed by the Senate in 1917 and ratified by the necessary amount of state legislatures in 1919; the amendment’s implementation did not begin until the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 (over President Wilson’s veto) going into effect in January 1920.
  • Prohibition traces it routes to moral panics and temperance movements in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The temperance movements intersected with other significant strains of American political life including religious revivalism, woman’s suffrage, and anti-immigrant sentiment.
  • Prohibition came about as part of the Progressive Era. This era of intense social reform had lasting impacts on the United States; Progressive amendments established the right to vote for women, a national income tax, and the direct election of US senators.
  • Enforcing Prohibition proved too tall a task for the government. Underpaid Prohibition agents and recalcitrant state governments combined to undermine the provisions of the Volstead Act. Organized crime received a major boon from Prohibition. One Prohibition historian has said “the mafia was a creation of Prohibition”. Gangsters like Al Capone became nationally known figures as a result of their bootlegging activities during Prohibition.
  • The “Noble Experiment”, as Prohibition was called by President Herbert Hoover, wound up resembling something close to “an affront to the whole history of mankind” as Winston Churchill called it.
  • The movement to repeal Prohibition gained support in the midst of the Great Depression. The national government was eager for taxable products during the Great Depression, and many prominent figures began to call for a repeal of Prohibition so as to allow taxes on alcohol to supplement the loss of income tax revenue. 
  • In February 1933, Congress the Blaine Act which proposed the 21st amendment for ratification by the states.  The 21st Amendment reads: “The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.” On December 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the amendment, fulfilling the ¾ of the states required for the amendment to pass, thereby ending Prohibition.

Exploration Questions

  • What are the lessons, if any, to be learned from Prohibition? Is there a cautionary tale in a social movement that began with positive intentions and produced negative consequences?
  • Do you think the United States would ever try to amend the constitution to prohibit something as common as alcohol again?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you have any memories or family stories of the impact that Prohibition had (either good or bad)?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, 2010. 480 pages.  Okrent reveals how Prohibition marked a confluence of diverse forces in American society.
    Click here to order
  • Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Harvard University Press, 2007.  351 pages.  Lerner reveals Prohibition to be the defining issue of the era, the first major “culture war” of the 20th Century, and a harbinger of the social and moral debates that divide America today.
    Click here to order