Prohibition : A Nationwide Constitutional Ban on Alcohol Consumption in The US

By Tanish Deepak Trisal

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 “What’s for breakfast?”, the answer In America in the 19th and 20th century would have been, “A full bottle of wine, cider, beer, whiskey and tequila.”

In the 19th century, a condition had arisen in the US, wherein everyone was going mad for alcohol. The citizens, especially the men, drank alcohol during their breakfast, lunch, dinner, parties and basically, each hour of the day was spent drinking alcohol. The situation had aggravated to such an extent that even patients were being prescribed hard liquor to cure diseases by doctors. An American drinks about 6-7 gallons of alcohol per year. This was three times the quantity of alcohol a modern-day American consumes per year!

The poor wives and children of alcoholics had enough of their husbands and pleaded with them to stop drinking as it was destroying their families. The stubborn men didn’t take heed to their requests and continued drinking, only to realize that it was a mistake, or perhaps, a blunder! To counterattack their husbands, the women started a mass protest for the ban of alcohol. The protests broke out in Ohio from 1873-74, called the Women’s Crusade. Women sang hymns, gathered outside saloons (beer shops) and prayed on their knees. They formed the WCTU i.e., The Women’s Christian Temperance Union. They established homes for the needy women, installed water fountains in public parks and launched books for small children to keep them away from alcohol.

Their efforts didn’t go in vain. This made many people rethink about consuming alcohol and they joined their protest. Men gave up drinking and saloon owners closed their saloons permanently. As a result, there were many dry laws to ban alcohol in some states. One of the states was Kansas, where alcohol had been outlawed since 1881.

However, many illegal saloons remained open and the authorities could do nothing to stop them. It was at this moment, that a woman named Carrie Nation, decided to take laws into her own hands. She went to saloons and destroyed everything in her way to stop men from drinking alcohol. She was arrested many times but was released on the pretext that she would not commit a crime again. This had shocked the members of the WCTU, but Carrie Nation assured,

“Ladies, you do not know how much joy you will have until you: SMASH, SMASH, SMASH.”

She thought that her new tactics to control alcohol consumption would spread throughout the country. Unfortunately, the Women’s Crusade died out because of an unusual condition; since the women were out protesting, there was no one at home to cook food, clean the house, and look after children. Hence, they had to return to their homes.

The movement did not end here. Immediately afterwards came the Anti Saloon League led by Wayne Wheeler, an evil genius. While the women protested on many issues, Wheeler had only one enemy: ALCOHOL! The league carried out important tasks:

  1. Those who didn’t drink alcohol were told that immigrants from Europe who tried to find a living in the USA, ended up drinking alcohol and ruining their lives.
  2. Those who drank a lot of alcohol were told that immigrants from Europe came deliberately to distract the Americans from development.
  3. The workers were told that alcohol consumption was a Capitalist ploy, while the owners were told that alcohol was making their workers lazy.
  4. Black people were told that alcohol was a hindrance in their development, while the racists were told that their alcohol consumption could make the black people superior.

Although the league divided the society, all the sections of the community were satisfied that: ALCOHOL WAS BAD!

The League members described the cycle of alcohol consumption, something like this:

“A man starts drinking alcohol and becomes rowdy. He makes new friends but then becomes homeless after spending all his money on alcohol and diverts towards committing crimes. And finally, the man commits suicide!”

Wayne Wheeler took brutal actions against those who loved alcohol. In the US Parliament, Wheeler removed those who loved alcohol. Everyone feared Wheeler so much, that those who loved being alcoholics, pretended not to be one.

The demand for prohibition arose during the first world war when German companies in the US wanted to sell their wines to earn money, but the US government didn’t allow this and labeled them as traitors. They tried to fight back. However, this increased dissatisfaction towards consuming alcohol. Now, the time had come when every citizen supported PROHIBITION!

The only task left was to make  Prohibition a law. But, there was a hindrance: Alcohol nearly made up 40% of the taxes collected in the United States of America, so the government was not ready to ban alcohol. Hence, the Anti Saloon League forced the government to impose income taxes on the people. Now, there was no need to be reliable on alcohol. Not, just as a law but Prohibition was put up before the Parliament as the 18th Constitutional Amendment in 1913. The law was finally passed in 1917, with 282 votes in favor of it and 128 against it in Parliament.


By 1919, every state in the USA had ratified Prohibition. The Anti Saloon League had led to the closure of the 5th Largest Industry in The US, throwing thousands of immigrants jobless. Initially, many Americans supported prohibition. However, the citizens and also some supporters of prohibition had believed that the law would ban only hard liquor and alcoholic drinks like beer would remain. Shocking for them was the fact that Wayne Wheeler had decided to bring a new law: The Volstead Act of 1919, which banned anything that contained more than 0.5% alcohol!

The Volstead Act had some loopholes, which were exploited, like:

  1. The sale and manufacture of liquor were illegal, but the consumption of alcohol was not ILLEGAL!
  2. The act allowed people to keep alcoholic drinks that they bought before the law was put into action.

As a result, before the Volstead Act was passed, private companies started selling beer and liquor as fast as possible! The situation looked as if an epidemic had broken out- An epidemic of drinking alcohol!

There was an incident when ‘Vine Glo’, a brick or dehydrated grape juice was being sold. This was legal. But, there were warnings written on the wrappers which told, “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.” Now, this was not a warning, but a hint for alcoholics to buy ‘Vine Glo’ and drink wine to their heart’s content.


Wayne Wheeler took stock of the situation and formed the Bureau of Prohibition comprising 1500 agents to cover the entire country. This meant that 1 agent covered 70,666 Americans! These agents found wine making machines in parking lots, cafeterias, caves of Arizona, hills of Kentucky and also in the homes of some Prohibitionists! To counter winemaking, the government added toxins to the raw materials used for making wine, which resulted in severe illness and even death!

There was smuggling at the sea too. A floating supermarket called Rum Row brought alcohol up to the limits of the American coastline, whereafter smugglers in small boats came to them and imported alcohol. These smugglers were seen selling alcohol even to some congressmen! Even President Harding served wine to his colleagues. Smugglers became billionaires and corruption sky-rocketed. The policemen were bribed too and there was no one to stop the crimes! Once, at a press conference, a Congressman drank alcohol and asked a nearby policeman whether he would arrest him. The policeman replied that he wouldn’t!

One of the bootleggers was George Remus, originally a lawyer who had a big brain. Before prohibition was passed, there were gallons of wine made. He knew that to get them, he would need the government’s permission. So, he set up his drugs and transport company. He borrowed gallons of wine, sent his men dressed as government officials to intercept his vehicles carrying wine and then distributed it among the people!

Remus was arrested by a smart prohibitionist, who rejected his bribes. The court found him guilty of violating the Volstead Act 3000 times and was sent to jail for two years. Such was the condition in the USA!

During the 1920s, ‘Speakeasies’ became popular throughout America, which were bars and clubs set up for drinking wine but looked like an ordinary house from the outside. People partied there all night defying the laws and if one ‘speakeasy’ was closed down, three more would come out.

All this meant that Wayne Wheeler’s law wasn’t working! The government lost valuable money to enforce these laws and the United States of America had turned into The United States Of Criminals! Wheeler tried to curb these crimes, but it was pressuring the judiciary so much that the judges freed the criminals just by fining them!

On seeing the ruckus that had been created, a rich and influential woman named Pauline Sabin, protested against prohibition, even though she had supported it initially. She founded the ‘Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform’ and gathered 1.5 million members in two years. She protested against the WCTU and requested president Hoover to take back the Prohibition law, but he didn’t listen to her.

The final nail in Prohibition’s coffin came in 1929 when the US was hit by the Great Economic Depression of 1929-33. It was a time when 15 million people lost their jobs and half of the nation’s banks failed to work. Many more came in favor of prohibition’s removal which would provide more employment opportunities.

The elections for the president’s seat arrived in 1933. Hoover faced Franklin D. Roosevelt, who promised the citizens that he would repeal prohibition. Pauline Sabin, a lifelong Republican, gave her total support to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Consequently, he won in 42 states out of 48! Even before being elected as president, he began the process of repealing prohibition. His first job as president was to pass the ‘Beer Permit Act of 1933.’


Thus, Prohibition was a very crucial moment in the history of the United States of America from 1920-33, as it taught the people to remain within their limits while being an eye-opener for politicians who believed in forcing laws ruthlessly. After Prohibition was over, the citizens realized that alcohol consumption was not good and they controlled themselves from becoming drunkards to such an extent that today, modern Americans drink only 2 gallons of alcohol per year compared to those who drank before and during Prohibition!

By Tanish Deepak Trisal

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