What was Prohibition? Was it part of a nativist campaign by Protestant America to control the immigrant city?
The 19th century was a period of great change in the United States of America. Industrialization had changed the country’s economy, and urbanization and immigration were significantly reshaping American society. People were then faced with the negative consequences of progress: Crime, prostitution and gambling flourished in the new climate of anonymity of the cities, poverty increased and sexual immorality became more of a problem. In this situation the importance of religion, morals and education increased, and as a consequence a strong counter movement developed in order to put an end to the moral decline that took place in American society. This may be the reason why the temperance movement that had existed in the United States since its very beginnings, suddenly augmented into the call for nationwide prohibition.
In this essay, I want to outline the background of that movement followed by its development in the course of time. The most important factors when dealing with prohibition will be to investigate the forces behind the campaign as well as their motivation. I will then continue by describing the notion of nativism and point out its connection to the movement for a dry America. This way I want to show that, although the motives of prohibition were various, nativist propaganda against immigrants did play a major part in the success of the movement among white protestant middle class.
The call for nationwide prohibition developed in the 1840s when pietistic religions like the Methodists or Presbyterians began to argue that the only way to avoid the vices of alcohol is to avoid alcohol at all. While in earlier times these people had advocated moderation and temperance, the moral situation of the American population led them to the conclusion that this would not be enough. Social patterns began to change drastically, as the progress of industrialization entailed increasing poverty, a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor, and an explosion of the urban population. Life in the cities became more and more anonymous, and the old patterns of moral care declined as young people became independent to a greater extent. These conditions – especially in the ghettos of the working class or ethnic minorities – seemed to favour the spread of such vices as violence, unchastity and gambling. And all of these were closely related to alcohol, so in the following years several organisations came into being that aimed to restrain the consumption of alcohol, as for example the Abstinence Society or the Sons of Temperance. But while it did not have the force to become a national movement at that time and was interrupted by the Civil War, it revived more strongly at the end of the 19th century, above all with the foundation of the Prohibition Party (1867) and the Anti-Saloon League (1893). Generally, the fight for a dry America “had a strong appeal for middle class reformers” during the progressive era, as it fit very well into the concept of social reform and moral uplift. The commitment of women in this fight is especially worth mentioning, as they played a major part in this moral battle. One of the most powerful organisations in this area was the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, which was founded in 1873. This organisation did not, as the name suggests, advocate temperance, but rather fought for total prohibition and largely focused on education as a means to combat alcoholism.
Kansas was the first state to enact prohibition laws in 1881, and during the next years many states followed this example. Still, state laws banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages proved largely ineffective, since transportation across state borders was not affected at all by these laws. This finally changed when the Webb-Kenyon Act was passed in 1913, which prohibited the transport of alcohol into dry areas and thus put an end to legal interstate liquor trade. Prohibitionists then turned their attention to the state level and tried to achieve a solution for the whole of the United States. This turned out to be more difficult, but due to the circumstances the dries could achieve another victory: In 1917, the Lever Act prohibited the manufacture of alcoholic beverages for the duration of the war, as the production required grains that America needed as food. At the end of that year, congress adopted the 18th amendment, which determined prohibition of sale, transportation, manufacture and importation of liquor to be illegal one year after its ratification. When the 36th state confirmed the amendment in 1919, the next step towards legislating prohibition followed with the Volstead Act. This law defined all beverages of more than 0.5 % of alcohol to be illegal to trade and produce. However, the consumption of alcoholic beverages was not outlawed.
 Mintz 1995, p. 7 f.
 Cf. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9061510/prohibition
 Mintz 1995, p. 13
 Shannon 1979, p.74
 Cf. http://www.druglibrary.org/Schaffer/LIBRARY/studies/nc/nc2a.htm
- Quote paper
- Elena Kramer (Author), 2007, What was Prohibition? , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/132822