When federal prohibition was introduced in America with the 18th Amendment to the constitution in 1919 and the Volstead Act in 1920, it was often termed ‘The Nobel Experiment’. It didn’t take long for most people to recognise that the experiment had gone terribly wrong and that it was fostering what it was supposed to eradicate, crime, excess and corruption.
But the question is why it was introduced in America in 1920 and to understand this issue, one has to look at the groups that campaigned against the American drinking culture, such as the Anti-Saloon League, as well as the general situation and the public opinion in America, including the fear of immigration. One of the groups that campaigned against alcoholic drinks in America were business executives.
Including names as important as Ford and Rockefeller, they believed that alcohol undermined workers’ discipline and productivity and they even invested in scientific research in order to prove the negative effects of alcohol on the body’s health. Thus, they feared that drinks impeded profits and prosperity, which even led some employers to form the American Anti-Saloon League, which actively supported prohibition. Moreover other groups, such as soda manufacturers and tea merchants, tended to support prohibition as they hoped for increased sales as a result of people not being able to obtain alcohol.
Therefore the business executives contributed to the federal prohibition by campaigning against it and they were heard as they were significant in order to keep the American economy going. Furthermore there was a great deal of political opposition to alcohol in America. The majority of supporters of the Republican Party were from rural small town America and they were traditionally anti-drink, which meant that the Republicans supported prohibition in order to keep their voters happy.
But both Parties had members that saw alcohol as an obstacle to improving society. Moreover the Senate was biased towards rural America, which supported prohibition and from 1917 onwards all Senators had to be publically elected, which made them more inclined to follow public opinion. This helped prohibition as public opinion tended to support it. Thus the political opposition was the most significant reason for prohibition, especially as the Republican Party, which was in power at the time tended to support prohibition.
Furthermore Protestants campaigned for prohibition and against drunkenness and violence. Particularly with the revival of protestant fundamentalism and extreme groups, like the Ku Klux Klan, in many areas particularly the rural and small town ones alcohol was blamed for morally corrupting the nation. They saw the drinking culture as the main reason for problems, such as crime, poverty and prostitution. These groups were large and often very influential, e. g. the Indiana Klan, which was a branch of the KKK, controlled large parts of the local government in Indiana.
This meant that the revival and ideologies of protestant fundamentalism were a major reason for the federal prohibition. Additionally many women and feminists in particular blamed drinks for domestic abuse, family poverty and deprivation. They formed groups like the Women’s temperance league and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which campaigned against it and they were taken more seriously than ever after the female suffrage had been introduced in 1919.
They also contributed to the establishment of prohibition by actually supporting pro-prohibition candidates. This makes them an important group to consider when looking at the reasons for the introduction of prohibition in 1920, however not as influential as other groups seeing that many women still opposed prohibition. Another reason for the introduction of prohibition was the issue of immigration and race. Many Americans and WASPs in particular associated immigrants with the drinking culture, especially the Irish and immigrants from the South, like Italians.
This made them support prohibition as they feared that immigration would have negative economic effects and that immigrants would import revolutionary ideas, such as communism. Also Southern landowners wanted to prevent black labourers from getting distracted by drinks. And in addition eugenics became popular in US in the 1920s and their idea was that alcoholic genes could be passed down to the next generation, thus weakening the American race.
Finally the situation after World War I created the perfect environment for such a radical change introduced on a federal level. Government interventionism and limiting the people’s freedom seemed more acceptable as there had been many restrictions. This meant that prohibition on a federal level would have probably been seen as too interventionist a measure, if it had been proposed at a different time making the First World War a necessary condition for the introduction of prohibition.
Therefore the reason for the introduction of federal prohibition in America in 1920 was the fact that on the one hand there was a wide range of groups campaigning for temperance and against alcohol, the most important being business executives and politicians. On the other hand it being introduced directly after the First World War was also essential as it created the environment and the mindset necessary to introduce Federal Prohibition.
Courtney from Study Moose
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