The backbone of this movement began with the temperance crusaders of the nineteenth century. Clergymen, politicians, business leaders, and social reformers grew concerned about the nation's health, morality and economic prosperity, blamed society's increased drinking for the deterioration of these mores. Evangelical Protestants thought that visible indicators of God's good graces, such as economic success and political liberty, had their foundation in sobriety (Kyvig, 6). These reformers began banding together to form close-knit societies aiming to push their social and political agendas focused on enacting legislation that would curb widespread intemperance. The Prohibition Party (1869) and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) (1873) became the first of these well-organized groups that put prohibition issues on many state and local ballots towards the end of the nineteenth century. In 1893, like-minded reformers joined together to assemble the powerful Anti-Saloon League, generating a dedicated political machine targeted at outlawing the consumption of alcohol (Kyvig, 6-7). As these temperance organizations became a "political force to be reckoned with" by the early twentieth century, Progressivism, a second cornerstone of the Prohibition movement, appeared on the political horizon (ibid.).
By 1903, the Progressives and temperance organizations had already made their presence known on a national scale. Fully one-third of the United States (at that time about thirty-five million people) lived under some sort of prohibitory legislation. The effect on national government came ten years later when Congress passed the Webb-Kenyon Act, outlawing the shipment of alcoholic beverages between wet and dry states. The dry forces had succeeded so well in filling the Senate and House of Representatives with their allies that a national act of prohibition was a near certainty. In December of 1917, the 18th Amendment easily passed through Congress and headed to the states for ratification (Lender, 129). As the Amendment left Washington, D.C., events in Europe assured its ratification.
The last, and most immediate of the motivating factors behind the enactment of the 18th Amendment was World War I. The rabid patriotism and widespread wartime conservation spelled the end of legal alcohol manufacturing.
The language of the 18th Amendment was more simply worded than other amendments to the Constitution. The first section prohibited the manufacture, sale and transportation, and the importing and exporting of alcohol from or to the United States, or any of its territories. The second section granted Congress and the governments of the individual states the power to concurrently enforce the new law. The power to enforce the Amendment on the federal level came from the National Prohibition Act. Originally written by ardent dry Wayne Wheeler, the president of the Anti-Saloon League, it found an enthusiastic sponsor in Minnesota Representative Andrew Volstead where it acquired its popular name, the Volstead Act. Expecting a loose definition of alcohol, such as the allowance of beer containing 3.2% alcohol (as was the case in many of the states' older prohibitory legislation), the Volstead Act proved to be much more stringent than any wets could have imagined. It defined "intoxicating liquors" as any beverage of more than .5% alcohol; the Volstead Act had gone so far as to regulate the use of sacramental wines used in religious ceremonies and medicinal liquor (ibid.). Even the lightest wines and beers now found themselves outlawed by the Constitution. With this victory, the drys thought they could celebrate a triumph over their age-old foe once and for all, but a host of factors during the Prohibition Era led to its early demise in December of 1933.
Primarily, the notions many people had of personal liberty never succumbed to the power of the Constitution, as many prohibition crusaders had expected. Believing that American citizens would automatically obey the edict of America's most hallowed document, Congress grossly underestimated the enforcement needs required by the outlawing of alcohol. Assuming that there would be a small amount of violators of the Volstead Act, John Kramer, head of the newly created Prohibition Bureau, lobbied Congress for a mere $5 million a year to enforce the law. He estimated that, over time, his agency would require a continuously smaller budget as more people got used to a dry republic. Along with his budget and a force of 1,526 agents, Kramer aimed to police the nineteen thousand miles of American coastline and borderlands as well as its nearly 110 million people - roughly one agent per 12 miles of coastline and borders or one agent per 71,000 people (Lender, 149-150). The extreme lack of enforcement resources provided by the federal government allowed American citizens widespread access to alcohol of all types.
People could go to one of a variety of places to get liquor. Not only was the local speakeasy available, but covert breweries remained active along with traditional, grassroots efforts to make alcohol with homemade stills and bathtub gin. Rum runners from the Caribbean and whiskey brought down from Canada all provided for the still active thirst Americans had for liquor. However nowhere was the business of booze more active than in the city.
With their vast networks of corrupted officials, tightly controlled territories and loyal gang members, the gangster bootlegger thrived in what they merely considered supplying a service. Al Capone, gangster film archetype and the most notorious of the Prohibition Era gangsters, publicized his brazen flouting of the law by saying, "Prohibition is a business, all I do is supply a public demand" (Kyvig, 26). The demand didn't appear to be abating, and, as the cities grew, it actually seemed to be swelling. The growing city, a significant part of the gangster's life and livelihood, became the battleground where the fight to repeal prohibition began.
The new cosmopolitan city, a result of the rapid industrialization around the turn of the century, teemed with working class people of various nationalities. This new untapped demographic was far too rich in votes for politicians striving for public office to avoid. Democrats, hoping to break the Republican stranglehold on the White House shifted their platform to incorporate these men and, after the passage of universal suffrage with the 19th Amendment, women. Rising up for the Irish Lower East Side of Manhattan through the Tammany Hall political machine, Al Smith promoted the Democratic shift in policy by running on a wet
Specifically in Public Enemy, prohibition created an entire business of illegality that launched small time, inner city crooks into untold wealth and prominence. With distinct points of reference provided by date placards, we see the origins of Tom Powers (the lead character played by James Cagney) as a prepubescent shoplifter in 1909. Drinking from a big bucket of beer (acquired inside the "family entrance" of a saloon), tripping girls on roller skates and trying to sell stolen watches were the highlights of his mischievousness. As he grew older, his lawlessness grew more criminal, yet didn't equate to great financial reward. Following a failed heist attempt at a fur trading company, Tom met Paddy Ryan, his bootlegging mentor. Though a legitimate businessman before prohibition, the scene immediately following the chaos of "Prohibition Eve" in 1920 depicts Paddy Ryan as having big plans for his business in the succeeding dry era:
Following this decree Tom has his first big robbery. In organizing a crew to siphon a tanker truck full of beer from a liquor warehouse the reward is almost immediate. The next scene depicts Tom buying his first suit, with a broad smile. He trades the tweed hat and rags he'd worn previously for a stylish, tailor-made, three-piece suit and fedora hat.
Following several decades of working towards a broad-based prohibition law, the temperance movement had finally passed a law banning alcohol. However, the social ills that the Progressives railed against in the exploding urban centers had only begun. The 18th Amendment's passage may have rid the city of its legal saloons and pacified the Progressives intent on cleaning up cities, yet it created a business in illegal booze that allowed crime to flourish and criminals to prosper. In seeing this unusual prosperity after growing up on the streets, the urban gangster proved to be a unique representation of the glorified American ideal of the self-made man.
|Public Enemy Little Caesar Scarface|
Prohibition - The Self-Made Man - The Business of Crime
The Ethnic, Urban, Working Class - Sound and the Gangster
Censorship and the Hays Code - Conclusion