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date: 25 April 2017

Temperance and Prohibition

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History. Please check back later for the full article.

The temperance and prohibition movement—the organized effort to limit or prohibit the use or sale of alcoholic beverages—is arguably the longest running reform movement in U.S. history. This article traces the movement from the 1780s through the repeal of national prohibition in 1933. During this 150-year period the movement experienced many ideological, organizational, and methodological changes while simultaneously establishing prominent cultural traditions. Leaders embraced a religious-like zeal for their movement and produced an extensive and well-preserved serial and monographic literature to promote their cause and chronicle its successes.

Movement ideology evolved quickly and successively from the modest goal of trying to persuade individuals to pledge to never get drunk, to pledging to completely abstain from distilled beverages, to pledging to completely abstain from all alcoholic beverages (“teetotalism”). These efforts are collectively referred to as “moral suasion.” In an effort to gain something closer to complete success, beginning in the 1840s, some reformers began to seek, in turn, local, state, and federal legislation to prohibit the sale of all alcoholic beverages (“legal suasion”).

Over 150 years, no less than five organizations claiming to represent the national movement rose and fell, and many other organizations included temperance within their broader agendas. An innumerable number of state, local, and fraternal temperance organizations were also formed. Movement leaders, hailing from nearly every conceivable demographic group, networked through national and international temperance conventions, but they struggled to maintain a united front because they pursued such a diverse range of reform priorities and methodologies.

At last, during the Progressive Era, reformers united in their call for national prohibition, and they viewed the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919 as the successful conclusion to over a century of consistent agitation. However, enforcement proved much more difficult than expected. The rise of liquor-related organized crime, increasingly organized and outspoken opposition to prohibition, the Great Depression, and national politics converged in the successful presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who pledged to repeal national prohibition. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, returning liquor regulation to the states, which have since maintained a diverse array of laws controlling the sale of alcoholic beverages.