January 16, 1919: A Historical Date That Marks The Ratification Of Prohibition, Which Outlaws Alcohol In The US

This day in history, January 16, 1919, saw the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, also known as Prohibition. It was a progressive attempt to impose social reform through increased government power.

January 16, 1919 A Historical Date That Marks The Ratification Of Prohibition, Which Outlaws Alcohol In The US

“The manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited,” the amendment reads.

Among the 27 amendments, prohibition is still distinct in three respects.

It is the only amendment that, contrary to what the Bill of Rights originally intended, restricted the rights of the people of the United States rather than the government’s authority.

Despite the state assemblies’ initial overwhelming approval, it quickly became extremely unpopular.

And it turned out to be so awful that the 21st Amendment repealed it in 1933.

The American Issue, an Ohio-based temperance weekly, said in a bold-faced front-page headline in January 1919 that “The U.S. is voted dry.” “Thirty-sixth state ratifies dry amendment.”

With Wyoming, Wisconsin, and Minnesota right behind them, Nebraska easily defeated Missouri for the “honour of completing the job of writing dry act into the Constitution,” according to the publication.

The American Issue rhapsodizes January 16 as a “momentous day in world history.”

To establish the framework for enforcing the amendment, Congress subsequently passed the Volstead Prohibition Act on October 28.

“Prohibition greatly expanded federal law enforcement powers and turned millions of Americans into scofflaws,” states PBS News Hour.

From 1920 to 1930, federal investigators detained over 577,000 individuals; of these, roughly two-thirds were found guilty of different offences, as detailed in John Kobler’s 1973 book “Ardent Spirits.”

“The act called for the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (in the Treasury Department) to oversee enforcement and make adjustments to the regulations as needed,” according to the website of the Mob Museum of Las Vegas.

“The IRS subsequently established the Prohibition Unit, staffed by agents who were not required to take Civil Service exams, leaving the door open for members of Congress and local pols to appoint their cronies, including applicants with questionable backgrounds.”

The museum adds, “The government provided funds for only 1,500 agents at first to enforce Prohibition across the country. They were issued guns and given access to vehicles, but many had little or no training.”

On January 16, 1920, one year after it was ratified, the 18th Amendment and the commission charged with enforcing it came into operation.

Volstead’s ability to be effectively enforced was virtually guaranteed to fail.

One of the most well-known Fed enforcers of Prohibition, Eliot Ness, remarked of the act, “Doubts raced through my mind as I considered the feasibility of enforcing a law which a majority of honest citizens didn’t seem to want.”

In addition to a host of other societal evils, the country undoubtedly had a drinking issue in the 19th century.

The 1800s saw far higher alcohol consumption rates among Americans than they do now.

Due to the significant growth of distillers over the century, a large portion of it was hard alcohol.

The widespread inebriation gave rise to temperance movements, which in turn garnered broad political support, as demonstrated by the majority of states’ acceptance of the amendment.

“By the late 1800s, support for prohibition was strong, particularly among progressives who favoured social reform and a greater nationwide morality,” writes the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History.

“The Anti-Saloon League, backed by many women and Protestants, was a driving force in abolishing alcohol manufacture. After a temporary wartime prohibition to save grain during World War I, the Eighteenth Amendment was submitted by Congress for state ratification. It was quickly ratified within a year and would stand as law for the next 13 years.”

Aside from other unforeseen repercussions, Prohibition led to a sharp increase in organized crime, political corruption, and related violence as gangsters fought for dominance of the illicit alcohol industry.

“Organized criminal gangs illegally supply America’s demand for liquor, making millions and influencing the country’s largest financial institutions,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives notes in its history of the amendments.

“Vast criminal fortunes corrupt enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, juries and politicians.”

Prohibition established an underground liquor industry that gave rise to many of the most legendary gangsters in American history, such as Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly, and Bugsy Moran.

A Prohibition turf war broke out in Chicago, which included the notorious Valentine’s Day Massacre, where suspected members of Al Capone’s gang murdered Moran’s followers.

The progressive Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan were among the many groups pushing for a legislative mandate to change behaviour, which gave rise to the amendment, according to numerous historians.

“The relationship between the Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan in support of prohibition has been a source of controversy since the 1920s,” Loyola College professor Thomas R. Pegram wrote in 2008 for the peer-reviewed Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,

“Both the ASL and the KKK acted to enforce prohibition, the ASL through legal and political means, the KKK through grassroots political pressure and extralegal vigilante methods.”

Still, Prohibition was not a complete failure.

The first objective of the reformers, to lessen the country’s alcohol addiction, was achieved.

“Deaths from alcohol-related cirrhosis declined, as did arrests for public drunkenness,” according to the PBS News Hour.

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