Narratives of Failure
Substantial evidence for remembering Prohibition as a "failed"experiment exists in the exhibition American Spirits, the Rise and Fall of Prohibition on view at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia from October 2012 to April 2012. As signage notes "it was never against the law to drink during Prohibition" only to produce, transport or sell alcohol. That fundamental contradiction in the law set the stage for an inevitable failure. The choice, to pursue suppliers rather than consumers, created market conditions that actually increased the production of alcohol, either via legal loopholes, such as medicinal or religious exemptions, or through illegal production and importation. Philadelphia, always a major production site of beer, became a central hub for bootlegging and run running, as we learned in the exhibit Delaware Valley Bootlegging During Prohibition as well as in the connections to Philadelphia seen in both the book and television show Boardwalk Empire. Philadelphians even wrote to the government to protest Prohibition, as evidenced by the letter replicated in American Spirits, and largely ignored Prohibition as the statistics for public drunkenness reveal. Numbers of arrests actually increased during Prohibition.
Who's chasing who?
Bootleggers and rum runners created organizations far more efficient and than government enforcement ever could. As the signage in the exhibit "Enforcing the 18th Amendment" makes clear, a baffling array of State and Federal agencies with overlapping jurisdictions shared responsibility. The inability of even the most dedicated enforcement officers, dramatized so poignantly by Agent Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series or his real life counterpart in Philadelphia Smedley Darlington Butler, to enforce the law, combined with the widespread disregard for Prohibition by many public officials, as discussed so vividly in Butler on the Beat contributed to a common consensus in Philadelphia, and elsewhere, that Prohibition had failed. Still until almost the moment of repeal the notion of a reversal seemed absurd. No amendment to the Constitution had ever been repealed. The process itself, a 2/3rd vote in both the House and Senate, and then in 36 state legislatures, seemed insurmountable.
However, the same processes that created Prohibition now enacted its reversal. The Great Depression created a dire economic situation. Revenue, both for the government in the form of taxes, as well as in legal employment, proved too attractive to resist. Even the President, Franklin Roosevelt, who originally supported Prohibition, shifted his position. Opponents of the income tax hoped that the return of tax revenue on alcohol would result in their tax burden. However, they cleverly linked their approach to the most successful tax revolt in history, the American Revolution, as evidenced by this handkerchief c 1933.
While expediency may explain politicians' change of heart, the prominence of women in the repeal movement, as it was known, is somewhat more baffling, as women had been at the fore of the dry movement as well. Women who supported repeal saw it as a failed experiment, in terms of the corruption it encouraged and the lawlessness it fostered.
The 21st Amendment, ratified in December of 1933, confirmed the failure of Prohibition as a legal experiment in controlling Americans' behaviors. However, in the longer term, what is forgotten in the narrative of failure is that the original goal of temperance advocates actually may have been achieved. American consumption of alcohol did not reach pre-Prohibition levels for another forty years. This notion of temperance, the voluntary abstention, rather than Prohibition, is often read into contemporary discussions of public policy towards illegal drugs.