Prohibition of the 1920s: Definition, 18th Amendment & Results

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  • 0:07 Protecting America…
  • 2:20 A Dry America
  • 3:52 America the Better?
  • 5:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Lobb
The 18th Amendment outlawed all alcohol in the United States. The prohibition era defined a decade and the people of a modernizing America. In this lesson, develop an understanding of prohibition and the 18th Amendment.

Protecting America from Alcohol

In 1920, millions of Americans went to the polls and cast a vote for the 'normalcy' conservative Warren Harding promised. This act represented the desire of the American public to turn away from the progressive reform of the early 1900s and presidency of Woodrow Wilson. But just as America looked for a way to regain social equilibrium, one last reform measure had gone through.

During World War I, the movement to outlaw alcohol in the U.S., or prohibition movement, finally achieved success with the adoption of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. The roots of the prohibition movement can be traced back as far as the Colonial period in American history, but in a country notorious for its consumption of alcohol, little ground was gained passing any national law banning drink.

However, around the start of the 20th century, leading temperance organizations, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League, converted their efforts from changing individuals to campaigning for the legal prohibition of alcohol. Supporters of this measure drew on the moral theme of the day; that was, alcohol was destroying the moral compass of America, making citizens less productive and destroying American families.

In addition, those in favor of a national prohibition highlighted current medical and scientific findings showing that alcohol did more harm than good. In fact, by the 1910s, the Anti-Saloon League had become one of the most effective pressure groups in American history, staging protests and mobilizing Protestant churches behind a single-minded effort to elect 'dry' political candidates.

In fact, the National Prohibition Act (known as the Volstead Act) was put forward by the Anti-Saloon League. The leader of the league, Wayne Wheeler, drafted the bill and named it for Andrew Volstead, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who helped oversee the legislation.

Even in the years leading up to the passing of the act, several states had outlawed alcohol and debate about a national law was gaining momentum. 'Wets,' or those who were opposed to the law, battled in Congress with 'drys,' who favored the federal legislation outlawing all liquor in the U.S. In fact, by 1916, both houses of Congress possessed a two-thirds majority support for prohibition.

A Dry America

Those in favor of the law drew on small-town citizens and women reformers, as well as prominent business leaders, like J.D. Rockefeller. President Howard Taft had vetoed an earlier law to make the shipping of alcohol across state lines illegal, but after the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, the concept of national prohibition became invigorated.

As America entered World War I, the concept of prohibition started to make sense to many. It was seen as a way to protect the family, promote social stability and check big business. The war actually gave the movement some validity. Grain was so crucial to the war effort, how could the government allow it to be used to make liquor? Others argued that alcohol, like brothels, undermined the discipline of young soldiers.

On December 18, 1917, Congress passed and sent to the states the 18th Amendment. One year after the ratification, in January 1919, the manufacture, sale and transportation of intoxicants in the U.S. was banned. The federal government now had the authority to pass enforcement laws. President Wilson vetoed the Volstead Act (which further defined 'intoxicants'), but Congress overturned his veto. The law stood.

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