An Historical Look at Prohibition

Prohibition is defined as “forbidding by law of the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages.” In US history, the Prohibition period refers to the years from 1920 to 1933 when the sale and consumption of alcohol was considered an illegal act under the National Prohibition Amendment.

Although just about all societies have made some attempt to limit the consumption of alcoholic beverages, widespread activism designed to bring this about in a country as a whole did not occur until the 18th century in the Prohibition Movement. At this time, cheap and easily produced beverages containing a high amount of alcohol began to replace the wines and other alcoholic beverages used in Northern Europe and in the US. Reformers became increasingly concerned about the immoral behaviour displayed by those who had imbibed too much alcohol as well as fights and domestic violence that started to escalate as a result. They began organizing temperance movements to exert pressure of governments to restrict the manufacture and sale of liquor.

In the United States, prohibition in the decades of the late 18th century took the form of regulations concerning the traffic of alcoholic beverages, especially liquor. In order to manufacture such products, the manufacturer or vendor was required to hold a licence. The first temperance society in the country was formed in Saratoga, New York in 1808 and by the 1830`s such societies were also found in countries of northern Europe.

The first National Temperance Society in the US was formed in 1836 and by this time there was widespread interest in pushing for full-fledged prohibition. The first half of the 19th century saw the passing of laws in the Northern States that restricted the manufacture, sale and general consumption of liquor. The majority of these laws restricted the issuing of licenses to manufacturers and vendors.

Oregon was the first state to enact statewide prohibition laws in 1843. Although this action was quickly repeated in other states, the laws were repealed shortly after.

In the middle of the 19th century, national groups of prohibitionist developed and they attained levels of political importance within the federal and state governments. In the UK, the United Kingdom of Alliance was formed in 1853 and the Church of England Temperance Society was formed in 1862. In the US,  a political party known as the Prohibition Party came into being in 1869 and ran candidates in the Presidential elections. Other influential groups that developed in the US were the Women`s Christian Temperance Union in 1874 and the Anti-Saloon League in 1894.

The main form of support for prohibitionist groups came from those living in the rural areas, church groups and business. Drunkenness had become a problem in the cities leading to high incidences of crime, although the majority of those living in cities were opposed to prohibition. By the turn of the century, though, prohibition had become a hot issue in politics and saloons were outlawed in many parts of the US.

During World War 1, prohibition forces gained strength. In 1914, Sweden and Denmark adopted laws that put rigid controls on the sale and consumption of liquor in place. National ordinance were put in place in Iceland and Finland and in Canada, most of the provinces had prohibition laws in place by the end of the war.

When the US entered the war in 1917, support for prohibition increased because since many of the establishments were owned by German immigrants, support was seen as being patriotic. Federal laws were passed with very little opposition and were replaced by the 18th amendment in 1919. This amendment was also known as the National Prohibition Amendment. It forbade the import and export of liquor as well as the transportation and sale of the products throughout the country. This law passed in spite of the veto of Woodrow Wilson, who was President of the United States at the time.

The law allowed for enforcement of the act, but authorities soon realized that this was an impossible task. Home distilleries were set up and the illegal importation of rum from St. Pierre, a French island off the east coast of Canada, became commonplace. Crime multiplied in cities and towns and illegal establishments were widely patronized in the cities.

The prohibition movement in the US is credited with bringing about the prosperity of the 1920`s but public opposition to the movement increased, especially during the Great Depression. The promise to repeal the prohibition laws helped Franklin D. Roosevelt win the Presidential Election in 1932 and in 1933, the National Prohibition Amendment was repealed. In this same year, national prohibition regulations were also lifted in countries of Europe.

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