Why Prohibition Failed

Alleged "speakeasy map" of the National Capital, 1932Alleged "speakeasy map" of the National Capital, 1932. (Photo: USC Libraries)

On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified, repealing Prohibition and ending a thirteen-year experiment in legislated morality. Since the nineteenth century, temperance reformers had argued that alcohol debased people’s characters, destroyed domestic happiness, filled the nation’s prisons, ruined moral sensibilities and physical vitality, and brought millions to poverty, misery, and premature death. Prohibition, authorized by the Eighteenth Amendment and enforced federally by the Volstead Act, sought to bring a utopian future of unprecedented health, morality, and productivity into being by prohibiting the manufacture, sale, transportation, importation, and exportation of intoxicating liquors. The Volstead Act did not ban the actual consumption of alcohol, but reformers believed that once it was no longer aggressively marketed by the liquor industry Americans would lose their taste for it. Certainly many did, as consumption declined considerably and remained lower even after repeal. But not nearly as many Americans gave up drinking as temperance advocates expected, and the rosy predictions of Prohibition’s supporters hobbled the law from the start. They insisted that the resources needed to enforce the law would be minimal and would diminish as demand for alcohol disappeared. In this especially, they were mistaken.

By attempting to restrict the supply of alcohol rather than the demand for it, supporters of Prohibition virtually guaranteed the growth of a vast black market in booze. By 1930, the National Commission on Law Enforcement and Observance reluctantly conceded that illicit alcohol continued to flow freely from three primary sources: industrial manufacturers who diverted production to bootleggers; household and backwoods distillers; and smugglers who brought liquor to the United States from nations where alcohol was legally produced, sold, and exported. Indeed, at the outset of Prohibition, European and British distillers, loathe to lose their American market, flooded Caribbean islands like the Bahamas and Cuba with their wares, knowing that rum runners would “land their cargoes on a thousand thirsty beaches from Cape Breton to the sunny shores of Florida.” Smuggling syndicates supplied the liquor markets of New York, Chicago, and other northeastern cities and protected their turf with violence, while in the South entrepreneurial locals participated in the liquor trade without much violence at all. Enterprising compatriots, meanwhile, chartered schooners to bring cargoes of liquor to the edges of territorial waters or used small boats to import cases of illegal booze for themselves or for larger syndicates. With so much illicit supply available, liquor could be had well beyond the underworld of liquor joints: the speakeasies, “blind tigers,” and “blind pigs.” Cafes, boarding houses, hotels, filling stations, and even hot dog stands and candy stores often sold liquor by the drink or by half-pint. Instead of curing social ills, Prohibition ultimately spawned organized crime, corruption, and disdain for law observance even among ordinary Americans.

It was not uncommon for Prohibition agents to be on the take, but even honest officials who did their best to enforce the law were hampered at the outset by insufficient resources. The initial appropriation for enforcement was a paltry $2.1 million. Six years later, in 1927, the head of the Prohibition enforcement asked for at least $300 million per year to enforce the law effectively and he received only $12 million. By the end of the 1920s, meanwhile, the Coast Guard had tracked, trailed, boarded, and seized hundreds of suspected smuggling schooners and motor boats, but realized that it faced a losing battle. “To keep out all smugglers,” it reported in 1929, “it would be necessary to have vessels stationed every 500 yards along the coasts.”

Inadequate resources at the federal level were matched by a lack of commitment to the law at the state and local levels. Several states refused to pass state-level prohibition laws, which meant that their law enforcement personnel had no authority to enforce federal prohibition laws. Other states passed Prohibition laws but refused to allocate state funds to enforce them, again tying the hands of state forces. Still other states faced persistent corruption among the very state and local officials assigned to make sure Prohibition laws worked, and local law enforcement officers, no less than their federal counterparts, sometimes participated in smuggling organizations themselves or received payments from smugglers and bootleggers to turn a blind eye to their activities.

By 1930, the failures of Prohibition were hard to miss. Despite an effort of nearly a decade, the federal government had been unable to stem liquor traffic, and indeed found itself in the midst of increasing complaints about corruption, crime, casual disregard for the law, and diminishing support for Prohibition itself. While the numbers of drunks staggering in the streets had reportedly declined, the character of drinking had changed. Prohibition encouraged the popularity of the cocktail as a mark of modern sophistication by encouraging mixers that disguised the foul taste of low-quality spirits. Drinking moved away from the dinner table into the public world, and women joined men at speakeasies and nightclubs. Alcoholic beverages accompanied college men and women on their dates. Even Americans who might be leery of indulging in alcohol near their neighbors were more willing to do so far from home. American tourists sought out destinations like Miami and Havana where alcoholic beverages were readily available. As one law enforcement officer wryly noted, in Miami every bellhop served as a bartender.

Liquor flowed, of course, because, despite the fervent hopes of temperance activists, Americans never lost their taste for booze. Many of them expressed little real concern about violating the law to quench that thirst, and despite the concerted efforts of the Coast Guard, federal Prohibition agents, and local police to deprive them of alcoholic beverages, Americans continued to drink. Repealing the Prohibition amendment in December 1933 ended bootlegging and the free-for-all that was so profitable for the bootleggers, and brought back a legal trade in alcohol controlled through government regulation. The timing was no accident. Tax revenues from the sale of booze helped support government programs during the Great Depression, making the song “Happy Days Are Here Again” doubly appropriate.

About the Author

Lisa Lindquist Dorr

Lisa Lindquist Dorr is the author of White Women, Rape and the Power of Race in Virginia, 1900-1960 (UNC 2004). She is an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Alabama and is currently writing a book about the smuggling of booze from Cuba to the southern coast during Prohibition.

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