What Was The Temperance Movement?

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Temperance was an organized American movement that began in the mid-1800s to urge prohibition of the manufacture and consumption of all alcoholic beverages. By 1855 support for prohibition resulted in thirty-one states making alcohol illegal to some degree. By the 1870s the temperance movement had strong ties to the growing women's movement, members of which believed alcohol to be directly responsible for much of the nation's moral decline, as well as related to issues of ill health, poverty, and the spread of crime.

In 1874 a group of women established the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), leading the way for the Anti-Saloon League, formed in 1895. These groups exerted political influence and forced the issue of prohibition into the election process. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) supported prohibition as one of the domestic policies in his New Freedom Program. This shifted the focus from moral and religious appeals to a legal and political agenda, resulting in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (the document that specifies the nation's laws) on January 16, 1919. This amendment, which began the Prohibition period (1919–33), outlawed making, selling, or transporting any "intoxicating liquors" within the United States and all territories within its jurisdiction. Although Congress (the law-making body of the United States) provided states with a seven-year grace period to establish ways of enforcing the amendment, most states were ready within a year. After the amendment was passed, Congress passed the Volstead Act as its enforcement legislation.

Despite strong moral and legal support, prohibition was difficult to enforce completely. Bootleggers (people who made their own alcohol), rum runners (people who imported and smuggled liquor from Canada and Mexico), and speakeasies (underground bars) made alcohol easily accessible. Organized criminal groups (also called the mob) soon took over the distribution of liquor throughout the country, resulting in mob violence and even greater problems than prohibition had initially been intended to solve. As the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and police worked to suppress the mob and the country entered the early years of the Great Depression (1929–39; a period of widespread economic hardship), Washington lawmakers began to reconsider the amendment. On February 20, 1933, the U.S. Congress proposed that the Eighteenth Amendment be repealed (declared invalid). In December of that year the Twenty-first Amendment nullified (cancelled out) the Eighteenth Amendment, legalizing the manufacture, consumption, and transportation of alcohol. Herbert Hoover (1874–1964), who was president at the time of the repeal, called Prohibition a "noble experiment."

Further Information: Cohen, Daniel. Prohibition : America Makes Alcohol Illegal. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1995; Encyclopedia Britannica "Temperance Movement." Women in American History. [Online] Available http://women.eb.com/women/articles/temperance_movement.html, November 1, 2000; National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. History of Alcohol Prohibition. [Online] Available http://www.druglibrary.org/schaffer/LIBRARY/studies/nc/nc2a.htm, November 1, 2000.

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