Prohibition, in the United States, the forbidding by law of the sale—and usually also of the manufacture and transportation—of alcoholic beverages. The term refers particularly to the period between January, 1920, and December, 1933, when the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was in effect. This amendment created national prohibition.
The temperance movement led to adoption of prohibition laws by 13 states before the Civil War. By the end of the war, however, the laws in only four states remained in effect. In the next few decades the liquor business expanded vastly.
People who favòred prohibition, called prohibitionists , or drys , blamed alcohol for many of society's ills. They said that alcohol destroyed families and caused poverty, as wages were spent on liquor instead of on the necessities of life. Drinking reduced the efficiency of factory and agricultural workers. Saloons were seen as dens of vice and immorality. Many religious groups believed that drinking alcohol was inherently immoral, and that by allowing its legal use, society was sanctioning immorality.
The Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and several Protestant denominations were campaigning for the abolition of saloons when the national Anti-Saloon League was formed in 1895. The league became one of the most powerful political forces of the era. Many states were persuaded to permit local-option elections by which counties and towns could vote to be “dry" (prohibit sale of liquor). Eleven states were completely dry by 1915; the rest had local-option prohibition.
In December, 1917, Congress approved a resolution to establish national prohibition by constitutional amendment. After the 18th Amendment had been ratified, the Volstead Act (named for Congressman Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota) was passed in 1919 to provide for its enforcement. Prohibition went into effect in January, 1920.
Enforcement was difficult from the beginning. Many citizens protested that the law infringed on their personal liberties. The rebellious younger generation, and many of their elders, took pride in breaking the law. Illicit drinking places, called speakeasies, were well patronized; bootleggers thrived. ( There developed a widespread organization of gangsters known as the underworld. They dealt not only in illegal alcohol but also in gambling, narcotics, and prostitution. Many otherwise law-abiding citizens made malt liquor ("homebrew"), wine, or an alcoholic mixture called “bathtub gin" at home.
The widespread disrespect for law led President Hebert Hoover in 1929 to appoint a commission under George W. Wickersham to study law observance and enforcement. In 1931 the commission reported that prohibition was unenforceable but should be retained. Hoover, who had called prohibition an “experiment, noble in motive and farreaching in purpose," did not favor repeal. The Democratic National Convention of 1932 demanded repeal.
A resolution to enact the 21st Amendment repealing the 18th Amendment was approved by Congress in February, 1933. It was ratified by conventions in three-fourths of the states, and the amendment became effective on December 5, 1933. Mississippi retained statewide prohibition until 1966.