In December 1917, and at the behest of powerful Protestant Evangelical groups such as the Anti-Saloon League, the U.S. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment and asked states to begin ratification. Within two years’ time the amendment was ratified and the National Prohibition Act, commonly known as the Volstead Act, was enacted to prohibit the sale, transportation, and manufacture of alcohol in the United States.
While President Wilson did direct a temporary prohibition in 1917 to conserve grain, it is a myth that America’s entrance into WWI caused Congress to submit the Eighteenth Amendment. What is true however, is that the war provided unique opportunities for the already powerful dry movement to produce emotionally charged wartime propaganda in support of their cause.
Dubiously nicknamed a “noble experiment” by President Hoover at the height of its failure, prohibition marked the first time in American history that, instead of being used to exclusively guarantee the rights of citizens, the Constitution was used to restrict personal freedoms. During this experiment, millions of dollars were expended to administer an unenforceable, and deeply unpopular law, that brazenly attempted to legally regulate the morality of an entire country. Tens of thousands of Americans were arrested, homicide rates increased, and bootlegging helped to empower American organized crime, a problem that would persist long after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933.
Despite the very real, observable increase in human suffering that prohibition caused, it is romanticized and ingrained in our popular culture with what borders on nostalgia. America remembers the 1920’s as the “Roaring Twenties”, an era that inspired American art and culture for generations, bringing us the setting for classics like The Great Gatsby, and iconic figures like Al Capone and the “Untouchables” that chased him. If nothing else, and like the wars that preceded and followed, the American public’s response to prohibition is a testament to American resiliency, and dedication to personal freedom.