Prohibition in the United States

By Bryce, Jenny | History Review, December 2000 | Go to article overview

Prohibition in the United States


Bryce, Jenny, History Review


This year's Julia Wood Essay Prize Competition was again severe, with 109 entries. The Committee eventually recommended that the Prize be awarded to Jenny Bryce for the essay published below. A Lower Sixth Award was made to Emil Bielski of St Paul's School for an essay entitled `The Polish Constitution of 3 May 1791: A Reaction to the Enlightenment or an Exercise in Self-Preservation?'

In 1920 a 200-year campaign culminated in the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which stated that `the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors ... for beverage purposes, is hereby prohibited'. Prohibition struck a chord with many citizens, who believed it would transform America into `a law abiding, pure and healthy country' by alleviating alcohol's destructive effects, such as crime, poverty and low productivity. Yet earlier Prohibition statutes suggested otherwise. The 1734 Act of Georgia revealed almost all of Prohibition's failings -- including avoidance through bootlegging and moonshining, bribery and the failure of the courts to convict offenders -- and was repealed within eight years. The Maine Law was passed in 1851, and similar legislation followed in 13 other states; but again enforcement was so difficult that repeal followed, in every case but one, before the Civil War.

Hence one asks why the 18th Amendment was passed in the light of such evidence. To answer this question we need to show how different factors, such as the war in Europe and scientific, religious, economic and social arguments, were developed to motivate interest groups, mobilise public support and persuade enough politicians to support the measure. An Amendment needed to be passed by a two-third majority in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, while three-quarters of state legislatures had to ratify the measure.

Science and Prohibition

In the second half of the nineteenth century Prohibition found powerful new weapons in scientific and medical research, which substantiated the adverse physiological and psychological effects of alcohol. Particularly important was Dr Benjamin Rush, an army surgeon who accumulated evidence that alcohol, rather than having any health-giving properties, was linked to `vices, diseases ... suicide'. It was, he concluded, a `great destroyer' of lives and souls. In addition the eugenics movement, which aimed to improve the human race by selective breeding, linked drink with higher rates of infant mortality and claimed that it could produce defects for three generations. One temperance publication even claimed that the children of drinking parents would `yen for alcohol so strong that the mere sight of a bottle shaped like a whisky flask brought them whining for a nip'!

The scare tactic was widely used. Dr Thomas Seawall, for instance, drew the stomachs of six corpses, labelling them `Healthful', `Moderate Drinker', `Drunkard', `Ulcerous', `After a Long Debauch' and `Death by Delirium Tremors'. By such means people were frightened into supporting Prohibition. Dr Benjamin Richardson showed in 1866 that alcohol actually lowered the body temperature, a fact that surprised many field workers who drank to protect themselves from cold. Those still not convinced were shaken to hear that just two fluid ounces of alcohol a day could significantly increase mortality rates. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), in alliance with the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction, cajoled Congress and state legislatures into passing laws that required temperance teaching in public schools. Textbooks had to be rewritten to include medical research, and by 1902 every state except Arizona had a law enforcing such instruction. The WCTU suggested that teachers should put half a calf's brain into a jar of alcohol and, as its colour turned from pink to grey, warn pupils that alcohol would do the same to theirs.

That such notions contained fallacies is beyond doubt, and those studies which did not support the causal link between drinking and high infant mortality were ignored. …

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