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The Rise of Temperance and Fall of Prohibition

In todays society, alcohol is in abundance pretty much wherever you go. You could walk into a supermarket, pub, bar, restaurant, nightclub, even in a theme park and buy a drink of your choice without the worry of being judged or arrested for just drinking with friends or to just unwind after a hard day’s work. If we could rewind back in time to the 20th Century between 1920-1933, this would of happened in the U.S. known as the Prohibition Era.

Now, as I am not a native to the U.S., I had little knowledge to go by of this Era; what little knowledge I had I got from old black & white movies - even a Simpsons episode - and could make out that this was the Era of American Gangsters, such as Al Capone and ‘bootlegging’. This wasn’t enough to go on, so I wanted to look further into understanding When, How and Why the Prohibition Law came into place. For this to be understood, we will have to go back as far as the 18th Century to find the root of it all.

n 1784, a physicist known as Benjamin Rush published a pamphlet called An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, that explained what the dangers of excessive drinking of distilled spirits can do to an individual’s physical and psychological health. Although his work into discovering the effects of alcoholism (which he developed the concept of) would now be seen as a great achievement to the medical world, he did believe though that drinking beer and wine was still okay to consume as he believed they carried “no alcoholic equivalence” to spirits. Today, we now know that drinking in excess of all alcoholic beverages can do harm and moderation is key to making sure that no damage is caused to oneself.

Inspired by Benjamin Rush’s work, 200 farmers from Connecticut formed the movement known as the Temperance Movement in 1789, with a goal on calling on people to drink less. By 1826, the movement changed its name to the American Temperance Society and had a new goal: urging people to completely stop from drinking and be abstinence.

The change of goal was inducted by two Presbyterian ministers: Lyman Beech and Dr. Justin Edwards. The purpose of the movement was, as Dr. Justin Edwards put it: to promote temperance while letting drunkards “die off and rid the world of an amazing evil”. The movement was now heavily influenced by religion, believing that spirits were seen as sinful, but also saw them as the root of corruption, domestic abuse and moral degradation. Ten years after the movement formed, over 8,000 local groups were established with a total of 1.5 million members taking the pledge of complete abstinence.

Other groups started to spring up across the nation, carrying the same ideas and goals as the American Temperance Society; one especially had ideas opposite from them: The Washingtonian Movement.

The Washingtonian Movement was founded by six drinking buddies in 1840. Their goal was total abstinence from alcohol, but the difference between the two movements was that the Washingtonians focused more on helping the individual with their alcohol problems rather than focusing on all of society’s problem with alcohol. They were a non-religious and non-spiritual movement that had religious critics dislike the movement, accusing them as ‘placing themselves before the power of God’.

Although the movement had great intentions into helping people, the name they chose might have not been their best choice (George Washington was known to own a Distillery).

When the Civil War broke out, the nation turned its attention to the war effort and all movements were put on hold. After the war had finished, a second wave of temperance groups flourished: The Prohibition Party (1869) and The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1874).

The Prohibition Party was the first to accept women as party members and the first to allow women the right to vote. This gave the platform needed for women to discuss what the effects of alcohol had on women, i.e. domestic abuse. In 1874, The Woman's Christian Temperance Union was formed with a goal to create ‘a sober and pure world’ with, again, religion at the centre.

As the 19th Century came to a close, more movements formed and more prohibition laws were accepted in states across the U.S. (Kansas being the first state to accept the prohibiting of use and sale of alcohol). This wasn’t enough for those who were anti-liquor. The groups continued to push Congress for a prohibition law for the whole nation to go dry and it came on December 18th 1917. The 18th Amendment had passed. It wasn’t until January, 1920 the amendment came into effect.

The manufacture, importation, sale, and transport of alcohol had now become illegal all across the U.S.

With the Prohibition came the dividing of the people into two groups: Wets and Drys.

The Wets, mostly from a Catholic background, supported the sale and consumption of alcohol and believed the government should not dictate morality. The Drys, made up of Protestant and Christian groups, opposed against it.

Making alcohol illegal brought problems such as:

  • Prohibition agents at the time were poorly paid and could easily be persuaded to ‘turn a blind eye’ with bribes.
  • Smuggling was harder for the agents to control due to the size of America’s boundaries.
  • Organised crime rose during the Prohibition period. Al Capone became well known in smuggling alcohol in from Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean to provide the ‘speakeasies’ (saloons or nightclubs that sold alcohol, illegally).

But the one thing that brought the Prohibition tumbling down was the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. Seven of Moran’s men were killed by Al Capone’s men, which, at the time, was the biggest gang fight.

This was enough for the people to call on a repeal on the Prohibition Law so on December 5th 1933, President Roosevelt made alcohol legal again.

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