Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform
The temperance movement, discouraging the use of alcoholic beverages, had been active and influential in the United States since at least the 1830s. Since the use of alcohol was often associated with such social ills as poverty and insanity, temperance often went hand in hand with other reform movements. From the 1850s onward, the temperance movement focused much of its efforts on Irish and German immigrants.
Temperance advocates did not always emphasize prohibiting the consumption of alcohol. But by the late 19th century, they did. The prohibition movement achieved initial successes at the local and state levels. It was most successful in rural southern and western states, and less successful in more urban states. By the early 20th century, prohibition was a national movement.
Prohibition exhibited many of the characteristics of most progressive reforms. That is, it was concerned with the moral fabric of society; it was supported primarily by the middle classes; and it was aimed at controlling the "interests" (liquor distillers) and their connections with venal and corrupt politicians in city, state, and national governments. Still, it was not until U.S. entry into the Great War that prohibitionists were able to secure enactment of national legislation. In 1918, Congress passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. States ratified the Amendment the next year.
Herbert Hoover called prohibition a "noble experiment," but the effort to regulate people's behavior soon ran into trouble. Enforcement of prohibition became very difficult. Soon, such terms as "bootlegger," "bath tub gin," and "speakeasy" became household words. Gangs of hoodlums became more powerful as they trafficked in alcohol. By the 1930s, a majority of Americans had tired of the noble experiment, and the 18th Amendment was repealed.
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