Prohibition and the temperance movement
When the 18th Amendment was ratified the members of the temperance movement were ecstatic in the United States. Senator Morris Sheppard of Rhode Island, who wrote it, claimed, “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.” Temperance movement proponents, having achieved their cherished goal, had to find a new moral cause to impose upon their fellow citizens. Many turned their attention to the UK, eagerly hoping to secure a similar law there.
Almost immediately, medical professionals questioned the wisdom of prohibition, since much of the medicines of the day contained alcohol and prescribing distilled spirits had been a large part of their profession. Doctors recognized the therapeutic uses of alcohol, including beer, and were staunchly supported by the brewers. During the 1920s doctors wrote $40 million worth of prescriptions for “medicinal” alcohol, equivalent to about $500 million in the early 21st century. Doctors also expressed concern over the unsafe drinking habits which developed, as well as the dangers of bootleg spirits such as bathtub gin which were soon being consumed.
Some industrialists tried to claim that prohibition was working, measured by a decline in absenteeism among their workers, but others pointed to the ever increasing crime rate, the emergence of organized crime in the illicit liquor industry, and the increase in government corruption, as clear indications that it was not. The temperance movement began to lose its influence, despite the passage of the nineteenth amendment and the award of the vote to women. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began to lose influence with both voters and the politicians they supported. By 1925 it was clear that Prohibition was a failure, but the wets lacked the votes to repeal the eighteenth amendment.
No amendment had ever been repealed in the history of the United States, although several had failed ratification, and the wets bided their time. As the 1920s wound down the national economy thrived, though it was fueled by a stock market which was out of control, funded with largely borrowed money. When the economy collapsed and the Great Depression began the government faced the need to stimulate the economy and support the banking system, neither of which it had the funds to complete. With a large portion of the American work force idle, the taxes formerly paid by alcohol sales, supplanted by the income tax, dried up.
The temperance movement and its allies opposed the return of alcohol production and sales in the United States with renewed vigor, but the failure of their so-called “Noble Experiment” was obvious to all but the most fervent of their devotees. In the Deep South the Anti-Saloon League had allied itself during the 1920s with the Ku Klux Klan to enforce prohibition, which significantly reduced its influence in the northern and western states. The temperance movement was unable to stem the growing demand for the return of alcoholic beverages, which as even they had to admit, never went away, but simply went underground.