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History of alcohol legislation

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History of alcohol legislation

The beginning of mark efforts to address alcohol in society using political legislation is essentially the same as the beginning of the modern temperance and prohibition movement. Beginning around the 1840s, the grassroots organizations that brought forward issues of temperance were religious and pietist groups, in particular Methodists. Despite some early successes (Maine was one of the first states to expressly ban the sale of liquor, doing so in 1851), the issue was severely marginalized leading up to and eventually totally bracketed after the beginning of the American Civil War.

It was revived by the dual formation of the Prohibition Party in 1869 and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in 1873. It was here that marked the move from temperate moderation (most often advocated for to sensibly combat rampant drunkenness) to outright barring the consumption of alcohol. The movement was able to gain strength in the coming decades by focusing on children education on social issues revolving around alcohol. In 1881, Kansas became the first state to place a state constitutional amendment to ban alcohol. From here, several other states followed suit, particularly in the South.

During the Progressive Era (which is generally said to have gone from 1890-1920), prohibition efforts were amped up, with many bars and saloons violently targeted for their perceived fault for dispensing drink seen as evil. One woman, Carry Nation, gained fame for going into saloons, scolding customers and using a hatchet or axe to destroy whole shelves of liquor. She led a group called "The Carry Nation Prohibition Group" to do just this, as well as advocate for other groups to do the same.[1] There was also formed the Anti-Saloon League, which despite coming from humble beginnings by merely targeting saloons, would eventually rise to be the most powerful and influential prohibition group, pushing aside the Prohibition Party and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union en route to helping push federal prohibition.

These stronger groups acted as testaments to the fact that the prohibition movement was still largely a religiously motivated endeavor. There consisted for the most part by devout Protestants (which included Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Quakers), and were opposed by other Protestant sects (mainly Episcopalians and German Lutherans) and Catholics. The latter were against it largely on the grounds that the government should not have the ability to legislate morality and intimately personal conduct.[2]

Near the tail end of the Progressive Era, December 1917, a congressional resolution was presented and quickly passed which called for a constitutional amendment to enforce prohibition nationwide. Just over a year later, in January of 1919, the thirty-sixth state, the last statistically necessary to implement an amendment, ratified the resolution. Later in the year, the Volstead Act was drawn up as a supplement to the amendment. It laid out a concrete definition of what qualified as an "intoxicating beverage," which was anything containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume. A diverse collection of social institutions and figures comprised the pro-prohibition bloc: political Progressives for the imagined societal improvements, the Ku Klux Klan for its strict law enforcement, women, southerners, the rural population and African-Americans. Despite the technical illegality of alcohol, the Volstead Act allowed for the home-making of wine and ciders from fruit, permitting the production of up to two-hundred gallons a year.

With Prohibition came those who could profit off the illegal production and distribution of alcohol, particularly during the Twenties. Large cities, especially New York and Chicago, became havens for Prohibition dodgers and bootleggers. Speakeasies (converted stores which secretly sold alcohol) started popping up everywhere. Some estimates show that New York City at its peak could have had up to 100,000 speakeasies, with its historically confirmed number of 30,000 already twice as much as the next closest city, Detroit. Most of these were owned by criminal organizations, and Chicago became famous for their notorious gangsters such as Al Capone and Bugs Moran. Theft and murder were frequently connected to prohibition violations, as competing entities generally had little regard for the law.

By the beginning of the Thirties, Prohibition had become quite unpopular and its repeal was anticipated by many. In March of 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an amendment to the Volstead act, called the Cullen-Harrison Act. It allowed the manufacture and sale of beer with approximately four percent alcohol by volume, along with certain wines.[3] Later that year, the Eighteenth Amendment was officially repealed by the Twenty-First, which provided states with the right to restrict or even ban the purchase and sale of alcohol. This has led to a patchwork of laws throughout the country, with some counties outright banning alcohol production. Immediately following Prohibition, many states continued to enforce its laws. Mississippi was the last to repeal Prohibition state-wide, in 1966, and Kansas did not allow the sale of liquor by the drink (in bars, restaurants, etc.) until 1987. Even in the counties where one can't purchase alcohol, however, they generally allow the consumption of private alcohol bought elsewhere.


  1. Carry A. Nation: The Famous and Original Bar Room Smasher
  2. Lerner, Michael A. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City, Harvard University Press, 2007
  3. "Beer: A History of Brewing in Chicago," Bob Skilnik, Baracade Books, 2006 and The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health