Prohibition in the 1920’s banned the sale, importation, transportation, and production of alcohol. The social movement to ban alcohol in the United States was nothing new; the temperance movement started in the early 1800’s and it stood for the same values as the 18th amendment. As with most things there were distinct groups that supported either side, the individuals that sided with prohibition were nicknamed the “drys” while the people that were against it were called “wets.” The drys won many battles; on January 16th, 1919 the 18th amendment was passed, this set prohibition in law. Although the sale, importation, transportation, and production was illegal it was still perfectly legal to consume alcohol. (Keene, 637) The wets opposed this legislation, they argued that it was an infringement on their personal rights. The drys supported the legislation, they argued that crime would decrease and because of that it did not matter if it infringed on personal rights or not. Both of these perspectives are incorrect, passing this type of “moral” legislation has it’s pros and cons but it would be a gigantic warning sign to the future of America, the 18th amendment should never have been passed.
The drys focused on the positive aspects of prohibition. If stopping an alcoholic from continual drunkenness increased their productivity and aided family life it was good. I certainly agree that this would be a good thing but cases like this were most certainly a minority in the American household. Many predictions and claims that the drys made ended up to be false. Alcoholism certainly decreased but it was more likely linked to the inflated price of intoxicating beverages in turn making lower paid workers more hard pressed to come up with the funds. The drys had high hopes that prohibition would lead to a more virtuous and law-abiding society, sadly they were wrong and in the end it lead to a black market, thriving organized crime, and popularized law breaking. Alcoholism should be fought but not by amending the Constitution.
The wets focused on the less appealing side of prohibition. They argued that banning alcohol is a violation of personal rights. As it turned out, many of the arguments that that drys gave turned on them over time. Drys claimed that crime would decrease after prohibition but the opposite was the case, as alcohol became illegal a black market sprang up. With the rise of a new black market, organized crime with gangs run by people such as Al Capone prospered. Many people went to illegal bars called speakeasies, these underground places allowed for people to socialize and drink; more importantly it made light of breaking the law. As time went on, people became more and more at ease with rebelling against the 18th amendment, prohibition had the opposite effect on crime from what the drys thought it would. Organized crime gangs were certainly around before and after prohibition but they flourished in the restricted market. With a large amount of man power they were able to control the supply chain, gangs sold alcohol to speakeasies, and with their control they effectively had a monopoly on intoxicating drink. Along with these more specific issues, there were also much larger ones. Banning anything throughout an entire country as large as the United States makes it difficult for the government to keep up, tax payer dollars were used to enforce the law and even so “Congress never appropriated enough money for wide-scale enforcement, hampering Justice Department efforts to curb illegal drinking.” (Keene, 637) I think it’s fair to say that you will never fully outlaw alcohol in America.
From my perspective, “moral” laws such as banning alcohol have much bigger implications than making something illegal; it opens the door to much more legislation based off of people’s feelings. America’s government was based off of freedom, more specifically personal freedoms, being able to consume alcohol is just one freedom that we enjoy. A similar issue plaguing the present day is the debate about hate speech, much like prohibition it is a moral issue. There are two major problems with regulating hate speech; how you define it and what it means for the freedom of speech. The definitions of hate speech are founded on people’s feelings, how can you prosecute people based on feelings? Judgments based on feelings like this are not moral. Freedom of speech protects the right for anyone to speak whatever they want, hate speech laws would infringe on this freedom. As you can see moral laws such as prohibition and hate speech should not be set in place, they do the opposite of setting society at ease, society will straighten itself out on it’s own.
We took a look at prohibition from the perspective of the drys and the wets, compared it to similar legislation, and came to some interesting conclusions. Prohibition was an important time in our history because it taught us lessons that we need to apply today and through our future.
Keene, Jennifer D., Cornell, Saul, and O’Donnell, Edward T. Visions of America: A History of the United States, Volume2, 3rded. 2019.