Law of the Land

by Spencer Howard

When President Herbert Hoover entered the White House in 1929, Prohibition was the law of the land.  For decades, social reformers – at first mostly women – had argued that alcohol was a scourge on society, linked to wife-beating and child abuse.  Over time, business interests joined the cause, concerned about the effect of drinking on labor productivity.  The “saloon” was perceived by some as a den of iniquity and political corruption, where candidates could buy votes with beer.  Laws regulating alcohol were enacted piecemeal at the state and local levels; by 1916, 19 states banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages within their borders, and 65% of the nation lived under some form of Prohibition.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, nationwide Prohibition was touted as a war measure, to conserve grain to feed the fighting men and the Allies.  In December 1917, Congress passed the 18th amendment banning the production and sale — but not consumption and possession — of most alcoholic beverages.  While waiting for the states to ratify the 18th Amendment, President Woodrow Wilson instituted partial Prohibition, limiting beer to 2.75% alcohol content, and placing strict caps on total production of alcoholic beverages.

In 1920, the 18th Amendment went into effect.  Proponents of Prohibition, expecting widespread compliance and the resulting social benefits, were shocked when crime increased as people rebelled against Prohibition.  Illegal bars called speakeasies opened to sell drinks, and some people manufactured alcohol at home — “bathtub gin” and “moonshine whiskey.”  By 1927, there were an estimated 30,000 illegal speakeasies across the country, twice the number of legal bars before Prohibition.   While only a minority of the population participated in the illegal activities, popular culture glamorized partying and disregard for the law.  Organized crime had existed long before Prohibition, but the “mob” thrived on bootlegging, and the “gangster” became the anti-hero of the time.  Gangsters used their vast profits to buy off police and politicians, making the alleged corruption of the saloon appear quaint by comparison.

Prohibition became the hot-button political issue of the decade, pitting “wets” who wanted partial or full repeal of Prohibition against “drys” who wanted strict enforcement.  As a Presidential candidate in 1928, Herbert Hoover called Prohibition a “noble experiment,” and announced that he favored enforcing the law — until the people decided to change it.  Straddling the fence, he hoped “drys” would interpret that to mean he would strengthen enforcement and that “wets” would believe he was open to change.  After his inauguration in 1929, he established a commission, chaired by former Attorney General George Wickersham, to investigate Prohibition enforcement.  The commission’s report, which concluded that Prohibition was a good idea but unenforceable at the Federal level, pleased no one.  However, by reorganizing the Prohibition Bureau on more efficient lines and going after big-time gangsters like Al Capone, Hoover’s administration actually did make some progress on enforcement.

By 1932, as the nation sank into the Great Depression, Prohibition was no longer the central issue on voters’ minds.  Unemployment and social problems were not so clearly linked to alcohol, and the money spent on enforcement might be better used to help the destitute.  Furthermore, legalizing and taxing booze might actually increase sorely-needed government revenues, and deprive the gangsters of their lucrative monopoly.  As the election approached, the Democratic Party called for repeal of Prohibition and resubmission to the states, basically returning to the previous model where the individual states and local governments decided whether to be wet or dry.  The Republican Party was split on the issue, but stood for continued Federal enforcement with the vague possibility of turning some responsibility back to the states.

With Franklin D. Roosevelt’s landslide victory in the 1932 election, Prohibition was swiftly ended.  On March 22, 1933, less than three weeks after the inauguration, President Roosevelt signed into law the Cullen-Harrison Act, which allowed the production and sale of beer and wine.  Nationwide Prohibition was completely repealed later that year by the 21st Amendment, which was ratified on December 5, 1933.

Opening April 23 at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library-Museum is the new temporary exhibit – Ain’t Misbehavin’? The World of the Gangster.

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