The Eighteenth Amendment’s Contribution to Increased Crime and Societal Disobedience in the 1920s (Fall 2012)

In the 1800s, multiple religious groups believed “drunkenness” to be a threat to American society and therefore this religious revivalism led to prohibition movements within the United States. These initial movements facilitated the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920 that prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor in the United States with a main intention of reducing crime rates. Rather than reducing the crime rates within the United States, prohibition resulted in an increased crime rate of 24% including increased assault and battery by 13%, homicide rates by 12.7%, and burglaries and theft by 9%. These increased rates can be attributed to the corruption of law enforcement that was influenced by the black-market violence carried out by bootlegging. The politics and government, interaction and exchange, and role of specific individuals history forces all contributed to the violent societal change that resulted from the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act that called for the prohibition of alcoholic substances.

Government and Politics History Force: Facilitating Crime through Change

It is important to acknowledge the temperance societies that supported prohibition in the 1800s, because they had a strong association with the United States governments passing of the Eighteenth Amendment. The first major temperance group was the American Temperance Society. This society was founded in 1826 and served to convince society of the harmful effects of alcohol consumption. In response, additional temperance groups formed such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the anti-Saloon League. The anti-Saloon League was a powerful contributor to the national ban of “intoxicating beverages” that was implemented in the United States Constitution with the Eighteenth Amendment. These temperance groups believed that governmental control over the issue could lead to reduced crime rates as well as improve marital life and ultimately improve society. After years of development and gaining the support of others, the idea of prohibiting the sale, manufacturing, and transport of alcohol began to take major strides, first at the local level and eventually to the national level when the issue was proposed by the House of Representatives in 1917.

Although temperance groups initially facilitated the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment into the United States Constitution, it is important to address how the politics and government history force had an impact on the increased organized crime. The Eighteenth Amendment was approved on January 16th, 1919 after being approved by 36 states and was then put into effect on January 20th, 1920. Although the Eighteenth Amendment in the United States Constitution prohibited the sale, transport, and manufacturing of “intoxicating liquors”, it failed to provide a definition of such liquors and most importantly failed to include penalties for such activities. In response, the government instated the National Prohibition Act (Volstead Act) to further define and promote the Eighteenth Amendment.

Because of the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and Volstead Act, our government had a direct association with the increased crime within the United States. Initially, the Eighteenth Amendment proved successful with the reduction in alcohol consumption. However, although there was a reduction in consumption, there was also an increase in societal disobedience stemming from those against the prohibition movement. With this disobedience becoming prominent, the United States government had transformed the prosperous business system of manufacturing and distribution of liquor to an illegal activity. This increased crime revolved around bootlegging, or the illegal distribution or production of alcoholic beverages often under the control of powerful immigrants.

Interaction and Exchange: Immigration Leading to Increased Crime Rates

Resulting from the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, the way that society viewed national authority dramatically changed. Because the United States government failed to protect the United States borders and waterways from the distribution of alcohol, bootlegging became the most common form of civil disobedience resulting from the Eighteenth Amendment. Because bootlegging generated a large amount of money, bootleggers would often pay off government officials. The lack of enforcement at the governmental and local level ultimately led to bootlegging becoming a dominant business during the prohibition era leading to increased crime within the urban areas. Immigrants often took hold of the bootlegging business within the urban areas of the United States. George Remus, who is known as the bootlegging king was an immigrant from Germany who bought distilleries and drug companies to obtain medicinal licenses, and used bribery with his affluence to corrupt the government officials. In addition, ethnic gangs would often participate in violent acts in order to maintain or obtain control over the bootlegging activities. Although the immigration of such men was not a result of the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, these men largely contributed to the intricate bootlegging system that brought forth increased violence and crime to urban areas of the United States.

Role of Specific Individuals: Al Capone and His Impact on Violence During Prohibition

Although the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol were instilled during the prohibition era, the societal demand for alcohol still remained. This pursuing high demand then led to an increase in organized smuggling as well as an increase in deviance from the law. In relation to crime, the Eighteenth Amendment had a negative impact on personal identities. Although moral values may not have altered, the new amendment caused more individuals to defy the law and created multiple supporters through speakeasies.

One of the most recognized bootleggers during the prohibition era in the United States was Al Capone. Al Capone was born to an immigrant family in New York City and when of age, Capone moved to Chicago and began working for John Torrio, a prominent bootlegger. Al Capone assisted Torrio with his pre-existing bootlegging business and in 1922 became a partner in assisting with gambling houses and saloons. Following Torrio’s death due to bootlegging activities, Capone took over the prospering business developed by Torrio. Al Capone’s control over Chicago’s urban areas grew rapidly with his continued authority over gambling houses, saloons/speakeasies, racetracks, distilleries, breweries and nightclubs. Ultimately, Al Capone had a major influence over the urban areas of Chicago during the Prohibition Era.

Al Capone is just an example of one specific individual that resorted to crime and violence in response to the Eighteenth Amendment. He was able to utilize this amendment to his advantage, prospering on the societal demand of alcohol. With dominating the urban areas in Chicago, Capone would organize the murder of other bootleggers and enemies when they began obtaining power. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre is one of the most notable organized murders during the prohibition era. On February 14th, 1929, four of Capone’s supporters entered the main liquor headquarters of George “Bugs” Moran dressed as police officers. Moran’s supporters surrendered and Capone’s men utilized machine guns and shotguns to murder the members of Moran’s gang. This massacre is just a representation of how crime was instilled in a black market centered on the distribution and sale of alcohol.

Although Al Capone is representative of how crime influenced society on an individual level, it is also important to acknowledge that although the prohibition had a negative impact on violence, many of these individuals were also seen as positive contributors to society. Al Capone provided the United States society with numerous speakeasies where individuals could go and address their desires for alcohol. In addition, Capone was the first individual to open soup kitchens following the stock market crash and often utilized his financial ability to assist the poor by providing clothing and food. Ultimately Al Capone represents how individual identities could be associated with increased criminal activity during the prohibition of alcohol in the United States.

Integration of the Three History Forces and the Ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment

Although each history force individually contributed to the increased crime rates, it is important to address how the three forces were interrelated with one another. During the prohibition era, the three history forces that were addressed seemed to have a negative impact on society in regards to increased crime rates. Politics and government, interaction and exchange, and role of specific individuals all led to a societal disobedience in response to the prohibition of alcohol and these history forces seemed to have erupted in a sequential manner. Initially, as previously discussed, the government was influenced to propose the Eighteenth Amendment by the multiple temperance groups that existed prior to the prohibition era. This governmental decision then led to the adoption of the black market prominently dominated by European immigrants. Finally, the prospering bootlegging industry contained multiple individuals that utilized their power in the urban areas to illegally manufacture, distribute, and sell liquor. All of these history forces are interrelated and fed back on one another to promote an increase in criminal activity and deviance from the law. In addition, the politics and government history force could be seen to conflict with interaction and exchange and the role of specific individuals. With the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment, the government had intended to reduced crime rates, however once passed, the development of the bootlegging industry led by specific individuals made this objective unattainable.

Relating to class topics and objectives, the role of specific individuals can be related to the topic of prohibition. In this paper the role of Al Capone to the bootlegging industry and increased crime rates can be related to Adolph Hitler and the role of violence in Germany during World War II. A direct comparison cannot be made between two influential men in history, however in both circumstances, these leaders led to a negative change in society created by violence. Both men were able to obtain the support of others and then utilized their power to create change.

After experiencing the increased crime rates following the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment and the adoption of the Volstead Act, the United States repealed the Eighteenth Amendment with the Twenty-first Amendment on December 5th, 1933. Ultimately, the prohibition movement in the United States experienced failure due to the inability for the government officials to enforce the law. Many individuals believed the prohibition of alcohol to be unnecessary and therefore led to increased breaching of the law. In addition, officials had difficulty enforcing prohibition due to the extensive waterways and borders along Mexico and Canada.

The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act were developed in the hope to reduce crime rates and change American society for the better. In actuality, the prohibition era led to an increase in crime rates due to the corruption of government officials, immigration bootlegging, and the contribution of individuals involved in criminal and mob-like activity. Because of this interaction, it is apparent that the history forces of politics and government, interaction and exchange, and role of specific individuals were all responsible for the development of a black market dominated by criminal associations during the prohibition era in the United States.


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