Justice and Injustice in Prohibition in the United States

The prohibition on the sale and supply of beer, wine, and spirits which was experimented with in America between 1920 and 1933 was not just about trying to drastically reduce the consumption of alcohol in the United States. There was a wide range of other issues attendant to it. From a political perspective, a lot of the motives for prohibiting alcohol sales were tied up with the suffrage movement which sought to obtain the vote for women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Prohibition in the United States: Causes and Problems

We are all broadly familiar with the story of Prohibition in the United States. Between the late 1910s and early 1930s, America undertook an experiment to develop a more sober society, one which failed in a haze of jazz, whiskey, bootleggers, and criminals armed with tommy-guns. That at least is the surface exterior of Prohibition.

However, look deeper and we see that there was a vast array of other social, political and economic issues in play when it came to Prohibition. Many of these were the most significant political movements or economic issues of the day, including the fight for women to acquire the right to vote in the US or the economic crisis which gripped America and then the world at the very end of the 1920s.

Yet others are still concerned about the dark underbelly of American life in the interwar period. Prohibition was too big a political issue for it to not be exploited by different groups toward their own ends. And some of those groups did not have altruistic movements, notably the Ku Klux Klan and a wide range of different anti-immigration groups. Here we explore the various strands of justice and injustice which were attendant to Prohibition in America. [1]

The Temperance Movement

Prohibition did not come about because some purist elements in Congress suddenly managed to convince enough of their colleagues to adopt an ill-conceived plan in the late 1910s. Rather it was the work of decades. The first major temperance movements emerged in the 1830s and 1840s owing to concerns about the effects of alcohol and public drunkenness on the moral fiber of America. At this time the average American drank three to four times as much as the average American today.

This created a major social problem. Most over-indulgers were men and there is no doubt that issues such as public drunkenness and domestic abuse of both spouses and children were major factors in American life in the nineteenth century as a result of excessive drinking, particularly so as women had very little rights compared to today and divorce was still considered anathema to most people.

Moreover, with industrialization and the growth of a consumer society, alcohol became cheaper and men had more reason to drink as they were having to work seventy or eighty-hour weeks just to earn a living.

In response to these social developments, temperance movements began to proliferate in the mid-century. The most significant was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, formed in 1873, while the Anti-Saloon League was established twenty years later. These succeeded in having numerous states introduce regional prohibitions on alcohol, but their end goal was a national ban imposed by the federal government. In doing so they would soon involve many other groups.[2]

The Suffrage Movement

In the early twentieth century, the temperance movement became intrinsically associated with another major political lobby. This was the suffrage movement or suffragists, who aimed to acquire the right to vote for women in the United States. By the turn of the twentieth century, many suffragist movements had emerged not just in the US, but in Britain and other western countries.

While the temperance movement was rooted in social issues, it soon allied itself with the suffrage movement. After all, both were effectively fighting similar fights. The enemy was primarily male, whether because he was drunken and violent, or because he wouldn’t let his wife vote. The persons that needed to be lobbied occupied buildings in Washington D.C. in both instances and both movements felt they could promote their agendas by appealing to the same institutions such as various churches and by using the same methods, namely lobbying, rallies, and in some instances violent opposition.

It’s perhaps unsurprising then that both campaigns on what were justice issues came to fruition at virtually the exact same time. The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which banned the sale and supply of alcohol (some allowances on domestic wine production and other measures aside) was ratified on the 17th of January 1919 and came into law a year to the day later in 1920.

The Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote in America, albeit with some major qualifications and restrictions around age and wealth, was passed through Congress in the summer of 1919 and became law in August 1920, just months after Prohibition had taken effect. [3]

Prohibition and the Immigrant Issue

The alliance of the temperance and suffrage movements made sense. Two issues of social and political justice had combined in order to try to right American society in significant ways, albeit it would soon transpire that Prohibition was unenforceable and the way to bring an end to public drunkenness and issues around domestic abuse was to better regulate alcohol consumption, rather than try to ban it outright.

But there were also alliances that the temperance movement formed which were less amiable. When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed in 1919 it was also the result of an intense undercurrent of anti-immigrant sentiment amongst certain sections of the American populace. While the words on the Statue of Liberty may declare for Europe to “Give me you’re tired, your poor [and] your huddled masses,” the reality was that many Americans were extremely unhappy about the arrival of millions of migrants from the Old World in the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Irish and the Italians were particular targets, both because they had arrived in such huge numbers in the US since the 1840s and because they were Roman Catholics. Upon their arrival stereotypes began to develop about the Irish in particular being a nation of drunkards who were now invading American shores. There is little doubt that the temperance movement contained a significant undercurrent of anti-migrant sentiment within it and especially towards the Irish and Italians. [4]

Moreover, the fact that the temperance movement succeeded was in part owing to male business owners and male politicians, who were overwhelmingly Protestants with English, Scottish and Dutch heritage, agreeing to it in the 1910s. Many of them would have seen it as a way of striking at migrants. After all, there were over 200,000 saloons in America in the 1910s, a great proportion of which were owned by Irish, Italians, Germans, or migrants from other countries.

Prohibition was an excellent way for lawmakers and business people with an anti-migrant stance to hit at these newcomers to the US. There was very thinly veiled xenophobia in the entire temperance movement. [5]

Ku Klux Klan

Indeed in one particular instance, there was no veil at all. In the late 1910s, the temperance movement effectively allied with the Ku Klux Klan for the last push to bring about Prohibition. The Klan had re-emerged as a major factor in American life since 1915 and the head of the Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheeler, soon brought them into the temperance coalition.

When this peculiar alliance of temperance movements, suffragists, xenophobic industrialists and politicians, and the Ku Klux Klan all combined together it quickly led to the success of the Anti-Saloon League’s long-held mission. The sale of beer, wine, and spirits was prohibited in 1919 and the law came into effect early in 1920.

If one wants to understand the hypocrisy which underlay Prohibition, though, one needn’t look very far. Wine, for instance, could still be made within one’s home in huge quantities. Presumably, the law was structured in this way in the understanding that the average Irish or German migrant in the late 1910s was not exactly a wine drinker.

Moreover, in the course of the 1920s, a person wouldn’t have had to look very far in Washington to find a politician who was drinking. Warren Harding, who was president from 1921 until his death in office in 1923, kept a liquor cabinet in the Oval Office, despite having voted in favor of Prohibition as a senator some years earlier.

Equally, Prohibition created a very useful smokescreen for the Ku Klux Klan to attack Irish, Italians, Germans, and African Americans across the country throughout the 1920s under the guise of enforcing the law, but in reality as part of their xenophobic mission to purify America racially. Thus, the alliance which came together in the 1910s to ensure Prohibition came about contained a bizarre mixture of justice and injustice. [6]

Organized Crime

In the years that followed the agents against which Prohibition was primarily aimed at retaliated. When alcohol was criminalized it made it extremely lucrative. Major breweries and distilleries had to close their doors, but people kept drinking, and as they did migrants or second and third-generation Americans with their roots in Ireland, Italy, Germany, and even Russia emerged as the bootleggers of the day. Many were Jews with roots in Eastern Europe who had discovered that America was just as unwelcoming of Jewish people as most European states.[7]

Many of their names are familiar. In New York and New Jersey figures like Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky first made their fortune in the 1920s and used it to build criminal empires which lasted decades. In Boston, it was Charles Solomon, a Jewish immigrant from the Russian Empire who controlled the city’s bootlegging. To the west in Chicago, the bootlegging capital of America, figures like Johnny Torrio and Dion O’Bannion were prominent in the city’s illicit liquor trade in the 1920s, but all paled in comparison to Al Capone. [8]

As with the modern drug trade, if it is illegal there will be large profits to be made, but violence and homicide will also ensue. This was very much what happened as the 1920s went on. There were over 1,000 murders alone in New York City which were directly attributable to clashes between rival bootleggers.

Chicago was possibly the most violent of all destinations as Al Capone became determined to dominate the city’s bootlegging industry. And it wasn’t just bootleggers. By the end of the 1920s, hardened criminals were robbing trains of whiskey and wine made legally for medicinal and religious purposes across the country.

The end result of all of this was a growing belief that Prohibition needed to be repealed. By the end of the 1920s, the suffrage movement was winding down and was no longer an element that supported the ban on alcohol. Excessive violence by the Ku Klux Klan in states like Alabama in the late 1920s had made it impossible for the advocates of Prohibition to remain associated with them.

Finally, many of those politicians and businesspeople who had supported Prohibition as a means of hitting at migrant communities could see that the ban had allowed Irish, Italian, German and Jewish bootleggers to simply make more profit, but with an increase in the level of violence in American cities. As such, while the late 1910s had seen a curious alliance of groups advocating on justice and injustice issues combining to bring about Prohibition, by the late 1920s there was no such alliance left to promote the continued retention of the ban. [9]

The Great Depression

The primary problem associated with Prohibition was economic. There was too much money to be made from making, transporting, and selling illegal wine, beer, and spirits for it to not generate a large number of people who were willing to break the law in order to make that money, and this in turn led to the explosion of violence which occurred in cities like Chicago.

Similarly, the economics of Prohibition were central to its coming to an end. In the autumn of 1929, the economic boom which had characterized the 1920s came to a shuddering halt with the Wall Street Crash. The Great Depression followed, with the banking system nearing collapse and millions out of work.

In this context, many people began to argue that ending the Prohibition on alcohol in America could contribute greatly to America’s economic recovery. For instance, August Anheuser Busch, the head of Anheuser-Busch, the brewer of Budweiser, petitioned widely to this effect, even taking out an editorial in The New York Times.

The argument Busch and others put forward were simple. Bootleggers were acquiring the proceeds of the alcohol industry as America continued to drink. Prohibition had failed and should be brought to an end, thus rechannelling the money from the alcohol industry into legal entities which the federal government could tax. In tandem, the crime issue would decline. [10]

This argument was not the only reason why Prohibition was finally repealed in 1933, but it was a considerable factor. And Busch was correct. Studies have suggested that over 80,000 new jobs were created in the beer industry alone within weeks of Prohibition ending.

This employment boon continued as winemakers in Napa Valley got back to business and alcohol once again became a legal industry in the US. By 1934 and 1935 the excise and tax from alcohol production and sales were contributing much of the funding to the New Deal program which lifted the United States out of the Great Depression. [11]


By the time Prohibition was brought to an end in 1933 in the US it had come to encapsulate a wide range of issues. The movement to ban the sale and supply of alcohol in America had first gained major support in the late nineteenth century owing to social issues of injustice, specifically public drunkenness and the more insidious issue of domestic abuse of women and children by drunken spouses.

Part of the reason why it was implemented in 1920 was that the leading temperance organizations allied with one of the major political movements of the day: the suffragists and their drive to obtain the vote for women. This was a relatively benign alliance.

Far more malicious was the association between supporters of Prohibition and other groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and those with anti-immigration platforms. As such there was both justice and injustice involved in the adoption of the ban on beer, wine, and spirits in America.

Nor did the issues which Prohibition spawned end there. There was big money in Prohibition, for criminals in particular. Consequently, a policy that was designed originally to end the violence attendant on excessive drinking begot a wave of much more extreme violence in the shape of organized criminals like Al Capone, Dion O’Bannion, Lucky Luciano, and Charles Solomon.

Disgust at the criminality that had been created by Prohibition and the impossibility of effectively enforcing the ban led the government to eventually relent in 1933 in a move that had the beneficial effect of funding much of the New Deal in the mid-1930s in a move that saw the federal government once again begin to collect the revenue which pertained from alcohol production and sale. [12]

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On this Day

19 July 1848 – On this day in 1848 a pioneering women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls in upstate New York. Organized by local Quaker women led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the convention aimed to discuss the position of women within American society and what reforms they should be looking for in the political and economic spheres to better their position. The Seneca Falls Convention, as it has become known, lasted for two days and involved separate sessions and lectures on a range of topics. Throughout the two days, two of the issues which arose repeatedly were the issue of male drunkenness and also that women should be given the right to vote in elections in the United States. As a result, the Seneca Falls Convention has been viewed as a pivotal moment in the development of both the temperance and suffrage movements in America, which would culminate in 1919 and 1920 in the Prohibition on the sale of alcohol and women being given the right to vote through the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

25 November 1915 – On this day in 1915, which was Thanksgiving in 1915, William Joseph Simmons, an American preacher, from Harpersville, Alabama, oversaw a formal ceremony to re-found the Ku Klux Klan by burning a cross on Stone Mountain near the city of Atlanta in Georgia. Simmons would lead the clan until 1922, at which time he was replaced by Hiram Wesley Evans. By that stage, the Klan had grown to become an enormous institution throughout the United States, with at least two million people being members. Much of the newfound support that the Klan acquired in the 1910s and 1920s was based on its support for the Prohibition of alcohol and its alliance with the Anti-Saloon League and other temperance groups. The Klan used opposition to the sale and supply of alcohol to co-opt hundreds of thousands of members from the temperance and anti-saloon movements. The Klan’s anti-immigrant anti-Catholic stances were also attractive to many supporters of Prohibition in the 1920s who viewed the primary impediment to the successful ban on alcohol as being Irish-American and Italian-American criminals and bootleggers, most of whom were Catholics and many of whom were either first or second-generation immigrants. Indeed the Klan’s support for Prohibition was so extensive that it engaged in widespread vigilante violence against bootleggers, often attacking speakeasies and saloons across the country. Thus, the rise of the Klan to a position of unprecedented popularity in the 1920s must be viewed as being intrinsically associated with the ban on the sale and supply of beer, wine, and spirits across America at that time.

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[1] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York, 2011).
[2] K. Austin Kerr, ‘Organizing for Reform: The Anti-Saloon League and Innovation in Politics’, in American Quarterly, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp. 37–53; https://prohibition.themobmuseum.org/the-history/the-road-to-prohibition/the-temperance-movement/ [accessed 15/8/22]; Sarah W. Tracy, Alcoholism in America: From Reconstruction to Prohibition (Baltimore, Maryland, 2005).

[3] https://www.history.com/topics/womens-history/the-fight-for-womens-suffrage [accessed 15/8/22]; Jack S. Blocker, ‘The Politics of Reform: Populists, Prohibition, and Woman Suffrage’, The Historian, Vol. 34, No. 4 (August, 1972), pp. 614–632; Jack S. Blocker, ‘Separate Paths: Suffragists and the Women’s Temperance Crusade’, in Signs, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Spring, 1985), pp. 460–476.

[4] Patrick J. Blessing, ‘Irish’, in Stephan Thernstrom (ed.), Harvard Encyclopaedia of American Ethnic Groups (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1980), p. 528; Frank J. Cavaioli, ‘Patterns of Italian Immigration to the United States’, in The Catholic Social Science Review, Vol. 13 (2008).

[5] Charles Jaret, ‘Troubled by Newcomers: Anti-Immigrant Attitudes and Action During Two Eras of Mass Migration to the United States’, in Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 18 (1999), pp. 9–39; Roger Catlin, ‘The Bitter of Aftertaste of Prohibition in American History’, The Smithsonian Magazine, 8 June 2018.

[6] Kat Eschner, ‘Why the Ku Klux Klan Flourished Under Prohibition’, The Smithsonian Magazine, 5 December 2017; Thomas R. Pegram, ‘Hoodwinked: The Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Prohibition Enforcement’, in The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January, 2008), pp. 89–119.

[7] https://forward.com/culture/143791/prohibition-tells-changing-story-of-jews-in-americ/ [accessed 14/8/22].

[8] https://prohibition.themobmuseum.org/the-history/the-rise-of-organized-crime/the-mob-during-prohibition/ [accessed 14/8/22].

[9] Michael Conlin, Stacy Dickert-Conlin and John Pepper, ‘The Effect on Alcohol Prohibition on Illicit Drug-Related Crime’, in The Journal of Law and Economics, Vol. 48, No. 1 (April, 2005), pp. 215–234; https://www.history.com/news/prohibition-organized-crime-al-capone [14/8/22]; Jeffrey A. Miron, ‘Violence and the U.S. Prohibitions of Drugs and Alcohol’, in American Law and Economic Review, Vol. 1 (1999), pp. 78–114.

[10] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89441573&t=1660248127476 [accessed 16/8/22].

[11] https://www.history.com/news/great-depression-economy-prohibition [accessed 12/8/22]; John Joseph Wallis, ‘The Birth of the Old Federalism: Financing the New Deal, 1932–1940’, in The Journal of Economic History

Categories: This Day in Wine History | Articles, Wine History In-DepthTags: , , , , By Published On: October 20, 2022Last Updated: November 27, 2023

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