A Short History of Alcohol Prohibition

At the end of the 19th century, the temperance movement shifted towards a more ambitious and hard-line approach and eventually pushed for outright prohibition. This shift is now recognizable to historians in parallel changes in the way people discussed the issues of their time. Social Darwinism heavily influenced the way ordinary people interpreted the world around them. To this end, alcoholism no longer threatened the sanctity of American homes, but instead threatened the very fabric of human civilization. Unfortunately, civilization had a very specific meaning in those times and was tied to racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic ideals.

Today we think of Prohibition as a failure of U.S. government policy and enforcement because people are always going to find ways to self-medicate or blow off steam. What is forgotten is how wrong-headed that policy was in the first place. With the benefit of hindsight, we now know that the major proponents of Prohibition simply reacted to the changes in American society due to onset of industrialization and urbanization. Anxiety over these changes and a crude understanding of human psychology and behavior prevented these activists from recognizing the pervasive effects of addiction across racial and cultural lines. Instead of recognizing the need to treat individuals regardless of skin color, religion, or origin, the Prohibition impulse sought to demonize those groups who were, in fact, enriching the American cultural experience.

Ultimately, Prohibition was unable to stem this cultural tide. The onset of the Great Depression gave way to the election of FDR who pledged to repeal the 18th Amendment. Americans’ approach to addiction treatment took a new course later in the 1930s with the advent of groups such Alcoholics Anonymous. A new understanding of addiction began to take shape. Simply put, a one-size-fits-all government policy cannot help individuals deal with addiction. Addicts are not the stooges of nefarious “other” groups that are looking to thwart the American way of life. They are human beings, with same kinds of weaknesses as all others. With the support of fellow human beings, they must learn to cope with their illness in a world that is constantly changing.

If you know someone in need of treatment for alcoholism, contact us today.