I often wonder whether Prohibition was ever truly about alcohol.
True, one of the strongest arguments in favour of Prohibition was that alcohol changed the nature of men and made them more violent and lazier. This damaged their families and put the entire society in danger.
Well, even so, it doesn’t sound all that much about alcohol to me.
Temperance movements and prohibition laws had been enacted by different states throughout the history of the US and were nothing new. But the emergence of the feeling that eventually brought about national Prohibition was probably a direct product of the women’s crusades of the 1800s. These women, who belonged to the upper and upper-middle class, took upon themselves the task to help the less fortunate through establishing orphanages, schools, shelters, hospitals, distribution of food and such. To me, the crusade against alcohol sounds like part of this attitude, a means to try and better the lives of the working class – from an upper class’s perspective.
This impression becomes stronger when we look more closely to the characteristics of the two groups opposing each other over the issue: Drys and Wets.
Drys, who supported Prohibition, very often belonged to the more affluent part of society and were members of the professional and business elite. They tended to be native-born – that is, born in America as a second or third generation citizen. The majority were active church members of Protestant denominations, and it was their wives who strived to better the society.
Wets, who opposed Prohibition, were more likely to belong to the working or middle classes. A lot of these people belonged to minorities or were new immigrants. A lot belonged to religious denominations other than Protestant, including Catholics and Jews, who used wine for sacramental purposes.
This division shifted over time, especially during the last years of national Prohibition, but it was never wholly overcome.
The wet versus drys debate reflected a serious cleavage in American society that predated the 1920s and survived the decade. It was in part a country versus city cleavage, in part a reflection of the conflict between “Old Time Religion” and an evolving, looser modern morality, in part an aspect of old-stock American suspicion of ethnic Americans and the latter resentment of the former.
From “Cengage Advantage Books: The American Past, Volume II: Since 1865, Volume 2” by Joseph Conlin
Far from solving this cleavage, Prohibition actually worsened it, in many respects.
I find it kind of ironic that Prohibition largely had the opposite outcome to the expectation of people who tried to shape society by law and in accordance with their own desires.
The Clash Between Traditionalism and Modernism (PDF)
Okrent, Daniel, Last Call. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Scribner, New York, 2010
Behr, Edward, Prohibition. The Thirteen Years That Changed America. Penguin Group & BBC Enterprises, London, 1997