Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages that remained in place from 1920 to 1933. During the 19th century, alcoholism, family violence, and saloon-based political corruption prompted activists, led by pietistic Protestants, to end the alcoholic beverage trade to cure the ill society and weaken the political opposition. One result was that many communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries introduced alcohol prohibition, with the subsequent enforcement in law becoming a hotly debated issue. Prohibition supporters, called drys, presented it as a victory for public morals and health.
Promoted by the “dry” crusaders, the movement was led by pietistic Protestants and social Progressives in the Prohibition, Democratic, and Republican parties. It gained a national grass roots base through the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. After 1900 it was coordinated by the Anti-Saloon League. Opposition from the beer industry mobilized “wet” supporters from the Catholic and German Lutheran communities. They had funding to fight back but by 1917–18 the German community had been marginalized by the nation’s war against Germany, and the brewing industry was shut down in state after state by the legislatures and finally nationwide under the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920. Enabling legislation, known as the Volstead Act, set down the rules for enforcing the federal ban and defined the types of alcoholic beverages that were prohibited. For example, religious use of wine was allowed. Private ownership and consumption of alcohol were not made illegal under federal law, but local laws were stricter in many areas, with some states banning possession outright.
In the 1920s the laws were widely disregarded, and tax revenues were lost. Very well organized criminal gangs took control of the beer and liquor supply for many cities, unleashing a crime wave that shocked the nation. By the late 1920s a new opposition mobilized nationwide. Wets attacked prohibition as causing crime, lowering local revenues, and imposing rural Protestant religious values on urban America. Prohibition ended with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 5, 1933. Some states continued statewide prohibition, marking one of the last stages of the Progressive Era.
Although popular opinion believes that Prohibition failed, it succeeded in cutting overall alcohol consumption in half during the 1920s, and consumption remained below pre-Prohibition levels until the 1940s, suggesting that Prohibition did socialize a significant proportion of the population in temperate habits, at least temporarily. Some researchers contend that its political failure is attributable more to a changing historical context than to characteristics of the law itself. Criticism remains that Prohibition led to unintended consequences such as the growth of urban crime organizations and a century of Prohibition-influenced legislation. As an experiment it lost supporters every year, and lost tax revenue that governments needed when the Great Depression began in 1929.
Map showing dry (red), wet (blue), and mixed (yellow) counties in the United States as of March 2012. (See List of dry communities by U.S. state.)