Political and Social Movements

Temperance Movement

What was the temperance movement?

Temperance was an American movement that began in the mid-1800s to outlaw the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages, which were viewed by many to be a corrupt influence on American family life. By 1855 growing public support to ban liquor resulted in 31 states making it illegal to some degree. But a national policy of temperance was still sought by many. During the 1870s temperance became one of the cornerstones of the growing women’s movement. As the nation’s women, joined by other activists, mobilized to gain suffrage (the right to vote), they also espoused sweeping cultural changes. In 1874 a group of women established the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU); in 1895 the Anti-Saloon League was formed. Such societies, which grew out of a fundamentalist spirit, found an increasing voice and eventually influenced legislators, many of whom were “dry” candidates that the societies had supported, to take federal action. Even President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) supported prohibition, as one of the domestic policies of his New Freedom program.

The movement met with success in January 16, 1919, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (1788) was ratified, forbidding people to make, sell, or transport “intoxicating liquors” in the United States and in all territories within its jurisdiction. Though Congress, which proposed the amendment on December 18, 1917, provided states with a period of seven years in which to ratify the amendment, it took just over a year for it to be approved, such was the prevailing spirit among lawmakers. After the amendment was made, Congress passed the Volstead Act to enforce it. But government nevertheless found prohibition difficult to enforce. Bootleggers (who made their own moonshine—illegal spirits, often distilled at night), rum runners (who imported liquor, principally from neighboring Canada and Mexico), and speakeasies (underground establishments that sold liquor to their clientele) proliferated. Soon organized crime ran the distribution of liquor in the country, whose citizens had not lost their taste for alcoholic beverages. The government now found itself with a bigger problem. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and police worked to control and end mob violence, and as the country suffered through the early years of the Great Depression, lawmakers in Washington reconsidered the amendment. On February 20, 1933, the U.S. Congress proposed that the Eighteenth Amendment be repealed. Approved by the states in December of that year, the Twenty-first Amendment declared the Eighteenth Amendment null, and the manufacture, transportation, and consumption of alcoholic beverages was again legal in the United States, ending the 13-year period of Prohibition. Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), president at the time of repeal, called prohibition a “noble experiment.”


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