The wonder I experience is in part due to the fact that I find it difficult to believe any nation existing in the 20th century would adopt such a measure, and in part due to astonishment that the Temperance Movement and its allies managed to convince the legislature of 36 states of the Union that such a law should be imposed throughout the country. It was a remarkable achievement. It was also, and proved to be, a remarkably bad law.
The Internet gives us the opportunity to review the editorial cartoons and other illustrations supporting Prohibition. One appears above. I long to know how it was determined that alcohol causes "Atheists." Others depict a mother holding a small child, a boy, and asks our help in her efforts to keep him pure; or an army of anthropomorphic beer barrels on the march, carrying standards on which are displayed slogans such as "We Make People Poor" and "We are Against Progress" and "We Cause Poverty and Crime." Children are pictured, asking for votes against liquor "for our sake." An American soldier asks if we will back him, or back booze. Those, it seems, were the choices available. Soldiers were apparently adverse to alcohol in those days.
In some sense these seem examples of propaganda in its infancy. But we see the same themes employed by those eager to impose, or at least "sell", their political, social and cultural positions in this age, though the means by which they do so are more varied and sophisticated.
Someone told me recently that Prohibition was the child of the Progressive Movement in American politics. I'm not so sure, myself. It seems to have had its origin in the Temperance Movement and in certain Protestant churches and denominations of a puritanical and zealous bent. I don't see that movement or these churches as "progressive." I think that persons like Carrie Nation and the Reverend Billy Sunday had no progressive bones in their alcohol-free bodies.
H.L. Mencken noted the religious origins of Prohibition, associating them with Puritanism, and of course strongly opposed it. The Sage of Baltimore is famous for defining (in the manner of Ambrose Bierce) Puritanism as "[t]he haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." I think there was something in the push for Prohibition that had its basis in the thought that alcohol was too much enjoyed, and that too much enjoyment is, inherently, a bad thing.
But whatever "ism" was behind Prohibition it shared with other "isms" the staunch belief of its followers that it is what was best for humanity in general and for those in the United States in particular. It was thought that alcohol ruined lives and was the cause of poverty, crime and most of all sin. So, it was thought entirely appropriate for it to be prohibited by law.
It's clear, I think, that Prohibition's advocates felt that the ill effects of alcohol were most prevalent in the working class and the underprivileged in general. They were most inclined to drink it to excess, most inclined to commit crimes, abuse their families and to be irreligious--to be sinners. It evidently didn't occur to Prohibition's proponents that there may be other reasons for poverty, crime and abuse, and that the consumption of alcohol itself may be their result rather than their cause. It also seems to have been felt that immigrants brought to the United States a culture or cultures of drinking and so the drinking of alcohol had to be curtailed.
Prohibition was, I think, a very Protestant phenomenon (imagine a largely Catholic country banning the production and sale of alcohol). The goal sought by its advocates was, particularly when it came to the poor and working class, a citizenry that was sober, hardworking, church-going, amiable, humble, muted, content, passionless and not too inclined to think.
It failed miserably, of course, though it took thirteen years to repeal. Thirteen years in which alcohol continued to be produced and sold, illegally, and consumed. Prohibition is the great example of why it is foolish and dangerous to legislate morality. We still want to do so, though. Most of all we'd like to regulate thought. Our Great Republic is full of those who, for moral and religious reasons, wish to prohibit others from doing things by law.