The 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the sale, production and transportation of alcohol within the United States, was described by President Herbert Hoover as "a great social and economic experiment, noble in motive and far-reaching in purpose." However, in reality, this “noble experiment,” as many came to call it, had far reaching consequences for American society – almost none of them positive ones.
Americans have always loved to drink. Colonial Americans were known for their heavy imbibing, so much so that James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, tried unsuccessfully to ban rum from his settlements. By the mid-1800s, the average American drank seven gallons of pure alcohol a year, three times as much alcohol as we drink today. Without any effective programs for treating alcoholism, the disease created serious problems for society in terms of unemployment and broken families. In response, alcohol reform movements like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) fought to ban alcohol, with the ASL agitating for the constitutional amendment.
Passage of Prohibition
With the ASL linking beer to German brewers during World War I – thus posing drinking as an unpatriotic pastime -- Congress passed the 18th Amendment in 1917. It was ratified by all states in 13 months and went into effect at 12:01 a.m. on January 17, 1920. Just a few minutes later masked bandits stole two train cars full of whiskey from a Chicago freight yard. Since the 18th Amendment did not ban possession or drinking of alcohol, there was a real market for it, and bootleggers stepped in to fill the void. Banning alcohol was supposed to reduce crime by drunken criminals – instead it created massive organized crime movements, fatigued court and prison resources, and corrupted public officials who took bribes to look the other way as the law was flouted.
Switching From Alcohol
Prohibition was supposed to reduce drinking, but after an initial slight decrease, alcohol consumption rose. Not only that, but as homemade liquor saturated the market, the death rate from alcohol poisoning (due to adulterated substances in the alcohol) quadrupled. Those who advocated for the 18th Amendment had thought that people would stop spending money on alcohol and spend it on things like healthy food, life insurance or education, but instead people merely switched to patent medicines that contained alcohol or sometimes narcotics.
There were economic consequences to the 18th Amendment as well. Without liquor licenses, many restaurants were forced to close. Some states relied on alcohol to fund large portions of their budgets, but now that money was gone. The federal government lost $11 billion in tax revenue while spending $300 million to enforce Prohibition. And both the states and the federal government began to rely more heavily on personal income taxes to fill their treasuries. When the 21st Amendment repealing Prohibition was ratified on December 5. 1933, most Americans breathed a sigh of relief.