Learning from the Prohibition Failure

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America had a drinking problem in the late 1800s. If you look through old Baptist and Methodist hymnals (I’ve done this myself), you’ll find a slew of odd songs about drunkards, playing cards, praying moms and the evils of “booze.” Additionally, children’s story books from the turn of the century told tearjerkers about husbands and brothers who killed people, died on the streets, or beat their families to pulp after returning from the pub. Indeed, the connection between drunkenness and domestic violence is clear now as well. But Americans before Prohibition drank somewhere between 2–3 times as much as the average American today.1 And that number is skewed downwards by the large number of abstainers in modern society, something that was nearly unheard of in colonial America. In fact, even the Puritan leaders could not have called for the abolition of alcohol—it was often referred to as “the good creature of God.”2 

It was common for young children to be introduced to alcohol in significant quantities, something that today is known to dramatically increase the risk of alcohol addiction.3 Because there was no legal age for drinking in the 1800s, it was common for children to make runs to the liquor store to grab a bucket for their parents—and drink some on the way home. 

Fighting back

Many groups began forming in the 1800s to try to stop the societal ills coming from drunkenness, such as the Temperance Union and the extremely influential ASL (Anti-Saloon League) under Wayne Wheeler. Women especially frequented local chapters of these organizations. They had experienced the brunt of domestic abuse from drunken husbands, and they felt that it was time for a holy crusade against alcohol. They began to get men to sign cards with a “T” for total temperance (originating the teetotaler moniker). 

Actually, this phase of the temperance movement was wildly successful. Though they didn’t eradicate alcohol, many people’s lives were certainly changed for the better. Drunkenness was stigmatized more, abstinence was a great virtue, and saloon-keepers’ business actually dropped off in many areas, at least temporarily. Education against alcoholic addictions got added to school curricula across the country.4

But the fight against drunkenness took a fateful step in the late 1800s, when the ASL took on Wayne Wheeler as a lawyer and political operator. Wheeler believed that the best way to defeat drunkenness was to ban it completely, across the US. Until it was banned, it would always be a sitting temptation for those with substance abuse issues. So he launched a far-fetched campaign to topple a famous member of the House of Representatives, John Locke, who had previously declared to the body that “if you want to dig your political grave, vote for the Haskill [alcohol ban] bill.” Wheeler biked up and down Madison County and convinced clergy members to back the little-known opposition candidate, who shockingly won the election.5

Wheeler had found his calling. Over the next few decades, he deposed thousands of pro-alcohol politicians from both political parties. He helped to make Prohibition a religious issue, but also a winning political message. Plenty of corrupt, shady politicians went “dry” so that they could continue winning elections. A revolution was taking place in the formerly intoxicated country. Several states had gone completely dry by the turn of the 20th century, and many would follow. 

However, a split was happening within the temperance camp, between those who wanted to completely ban alcohol and those who wanted to simply prevent its excesses by creating a drinking age, limiting who could sell it, and making boundaries on where pubs could open (e.g. not next to a school). Legislation curbing alcohol consumption was wildly popular, but complete bans were not supported universally.

Wheeler and other influential figures within the temperance movement, however, kept pushing for complete bans, feeling that victory was just around the corner. And, as it turned out, it was. In 1919, the necessary number of states had ratified a constitutional amendment banning the manufacture of recreational alcohol, and banning its consumption across the US. 

A Shocking Reversal

As much of a victory as it seemed the prohibitionists had secured, it was very short-lived. In fact, minutes after Prohibition went into effect in Chicago, armed robbers broke into a train preparing to confiscate tons of whiskey and made off with the whole shipment. Over the next decade, entire criminal legacies and sagas were created and destroyed. As moral campaigners quickly realized, passing a law banning a popular substance was not the same as actually removing it from the market. America had traded a sub-par open market for a criminal-led black-market operation. Colorful personalities like Capone, “Lucky” Luciano, and George Remus ran criminal empires with effective monopolies on alcohol, since the small pubs and breweries couldn’t afford the risk of dealing in contraband. Prohibition had created a crime wave. Criminal operation leaders like George Remus had so many people on their side—from bodyguards to public officials who didn’t want to get mysteriously murdered—that they were able to live a fully public life with the rest of the city elite without their operations being uncovered. Remus famously built a mansion in Cincinnati and gave away a car and $100 to each dinner guest of a party to show off his wealth. 

Worse, alcohol consumption, although it initially went down to 30% of what it was pre-prohibition, quickly skyrocketed again. There were multiple ways to get around the law. One was through a doctor’s certificate proving that you “needed” a dose of brandy for medicinal purposes. Fake churches suddenly began buying crates of wine—for communion, of course, though there was reason to believe that it wasn’t the Christian version. Another way that drinking rose once again was through “speakeasies,” underground clubs where men and women would party to the new jazz tunes and drink illegal whiskey and beer. Women had previously been excluded from bars, but now they frequented the speakeasies and drunkenness became more of a problem for women as well. 

In addition to the problem of people getting around the law, the Prohibition Bureau was unfathomably corrupt. Since half of America (or perhaps more) wasn’t interested in fully banning alcohol, it was hard to find officials who wouldn’t look the other way after the offer of a bribe, and the black market was glutted with money to stuff the officials’ pockets. Americans’ confidence in their government and in democracy may have taken a permanent hit from the curse of Prohibition’s corruption.


It would be only a little over a decade after the 18th Amendment was ratified that another amendment got the necessary votes and became law. This 21st Amendment finally ended the disaster of Prohibition by voiding the 18th Amendment and therefore legalizing alcohol once again. Prohibition parties were celebrated all over America at the stroke of midnight, December 5th, 1933. The black market, propped up through a decade of Prohibition, immediately ended—and the extensive criminal activity that came with it also lessened. 6

A nationwide prohibition law was never again considered. Instead, after alcohol was legalized, a universal minimum drinking age was set, alcohol was taxed, and public health education on the dangers of drinking heavily was widely propagated. America’s drinking problem has had its ups and downs since prohibition—actually, the highest per-capita drinking point was in 1980. But consistently, public health education programs have been the most effective thing to stop alcohol abuse. Take 1995, for instance, which was the lowest year for per capita alcohol consumption in America.7 This came on the heels of a widespread information campaign showing the damages of excessive alcohol consumption.

Learning from Prohibition

First, an unpopular law didn’t work. With any government or policy, their success is predicated on having the support of the majority of the people. It may work to ban something popular in one part of the country that is unsupported in the rest of the country (think civil rights legislation, for example). But given the history of prohibition, it would seem that if a law is not honored by a strong majority of the population, it is unlikely to succeed. Consider the abortion debate. Currently, only 13% of Americans think that abortion should be completely outlawed! 51% of Americans think that abortion should be legal under most circumstances.8 Considering what prohibition teaches us about the failure of unpopular laws, perhaps approaches to combating abortion should be considered that are more incremental and put in the work socially rather than merely legally.

Second, unpopular bans resulted in a massive criminal black market. A modern example might be the drug wars in the US. Modern policy has been to dole out massive sentences to people with minor drug offenses (having a soft drug like weed on their person). This has resulted in the overfilling of prisons with low-risk offenders, and is probably fueling Mexican cartels.9 Banning a popular substance can result in money and taxes going from running the government to lining the pockets of those willing to kill, cheat, and fraud their way to a successful black market operation. Everyone agrees that a drug like marijuana can massively harm users. The question is how best to curb something that is a health risk for the population, and the best answer historically is probably found more by informing the public of the risks than by relying on legislation.

Third, for Christians wanting to impact society for good, the story of Prohibition’s failure should give us pause. We have incredible potential, by example and witness, to impact society on issues like substance abuse, abortion, or the decay of social connection. In the pre-Prohibition era, Christians actually had great success in helping alcoholics get free from their addiction. One may suspect that if the church chooses to focus more on fixing the social problems leading people to addictions, and by contributing to organizations designed to help inform the public of risks from addictions (or of the moral blight of abortion), and less on merely legislative fixes, we can maximize our potential for positive change. Ultimately, our focus should be living as winsome image-bearers taking the gospel to those around us and working to better the ills around us through reasonable social action.


  1. https://daily.jstor.org/a-brief-history-of-drinking-alcohol/
  2. Edward Behr. 2011. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Pub. (p. 15)
  3. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamapediatrics/fullarticle/189961
  4. https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/prohibition/roots-of-Prohibition
  5. Behr, Edward. 2011. Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America. New York: Arcade Pub. (p. 15)
  6. https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa157.pdf
  7. https://thehill.com/policy/healthcare/4043030-hard-liquor-consumption-is-up-60-percent-since-the-1990s/
  8. https://news.gallup.com/poll/321143/americans-stand-abortion.aspx
  9. https://www.cato.org/blog/senators-tacitly-admit-prohibition-benefits-mexican-drug-cartels
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About the Author:

Elijah Lloyd is a speaker and writer interested in theology, history, and cultural issues. He reads the Dispatch news every morning, enjoys listening to podcasts and audiobooks, and works as a self-employed remodeler. Elijah and his wife Verna find themselves traveling internationally often, but enjoy their neighborhood and home in Lancaster, PA even more. Mostly, they enjoy getting to know their son Theodore, who is in his first year of life.

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3 thoughts on “Learning from the Prohibition Failure”

  1. Well done Elijah👍. I appreciate the research you put into that and agree that the modern church’s political agendas have done a little to actually change people or society in general. (Not to mention turning off the onlooking world from the hypocrisy and compromise that politics inevitably embraces.) I appreciate your positive suggestions as well.

  2. Elijah, I have a suggestion for the title of your next article. “Learning from the Abolition of Slavery.” That would be a MUCH more suitable comparison, because both are moral evils, not merely a dissipation (as in the case of Prohibition).

    I hope that someday people will look back on this time in American history with the same horror that we feel when we open our history books and read that before 1865, slavery was not only legal, but normal and fashionable and even endorsed from many pulpits. What the polls currently say is 100% irrelevant on moral issues. I’d venture to guess that polls in the 1800s were quite comfortably in favor of legal slavery.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but there aren’t any doubts in my mind that killing babies should be every bit as illegal as owning another human being as a slave.

    • Ezra, thanks for your thoughts here.

      You’re right, of course, that polls are completely meaningless to determine what is moral or immoral. I haven’t at all stated that I think abortion is remotely moral. The question of governance and of a Christian’s role in shaping societal change requires more nuance. It would be a moral choice to completely ban abortion tomorrow, but also a choice doomed to backfire, which is the underlying point of this article.

      Instead, working for incremental changes (starting from our witness and a consistent pro-life ethic in every part of our lives) that result in fewer abortions and that change societal norms on a cultural level will produce a greater anti-abortion effect, ironically enough.


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