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The Eighteenth Amendment

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Emily Costa
September 29, 2017

The Eighteenth Amendment to our Constitution brought us many things. Some of my favorites are the Negroni, Manhattan and Old Fashioned. Mostly though, the prohibition of intoxicating beverages led to a debaucherous decade, with organized crime to follow. Many of the problems rural white Protestants looked to solve were amplified further. Instead, the newly industrialized metropolis’ proved to be powerhouses. Not only did they indoctrinate the country’s youth but their numbers demonstrated voting power too.

“To prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries.” Written in May of 1919, The Volstead Act contained harsh words with little federal appropriations to back it. Yet, the Temperance movement was appeased. They had worked for nearly a century to cleanse society of drunkards and wicked, un-Christian things.

changeThe Eighteen Amendment is more interesting than the thousands of New York speakeasies and mobsters it created though. Much like our politics today, it is a story of industrialization and immigration… about what kind of person can be called American.

The early Twentieth Century brought the rise of cities, factories and workers. Immigration permits became lenient and a new “working class” hailed from all over Europe. Those coming to our shores led difficult lives in America, working tirelessly and living in overcrowded conditions. They also brought with them different societal norms. For white Anglo Saxon protestants living in rural America, this was hard to imagine. Not only were cities dirty and congested, languages other than English prevailed. Even worse, immigrants drank and enjoyed it. And they did not fear God for doing so either. By the time prohibition passed, Al Smith, the son of Irish, German and Italian immigrants had become Governor of New York. The world was changing.

Stark societal changes in American society were the greatest contributors to the Eighteenth Amendment. Rural citizens feared what new immigrants would do to their country and the changing industrial world they were coming to live in. In his inaugural address, in March of 1925, Calvin Coolidge stated, “if we wish to continue to be distinctively American, we must continue to make that term comprehensive enough to embrace the legitimate desires of a civilized and enlightened people determined in all their relations to pursue a conscientious and religious life.” Coolidge’s family held familial roots in New England since the 1630’s. Although his speech speaks little of prohibition, his words offer little support to the immigrant communities he was elected to represent too.

In my own lifetime, different stark societal changes have led to a shift in society again. Technology and globalization have opened the world but closed doors for many laborers around our country. European immigrants once feared during prohibition, have become indoctrinated in Americanism and have themselves come to fear the new darker skinned immigrants living in cities. “…and the crime, and the drugs and the gangs…” President Trump said in his own inaugural address of cities now.

Of course, there is ample evidence that many urban dwelling immigrants are America loving people hoping desperately to stay. They are hoping to actively give to our economy just like immigrants of the past. But similarly, to my own Portuguese ancestors, they live in small crowded apartments and their children don’t speak English until they enter school. My Polish Great-grandmother collected coal from factories as a child to help heat her parent’s house. They attend ethnic social clubs, listened to loud music and ate strange smelling foods. We may not fear liquor as we did in the past, but we fear change and a different world than the one we grew up in.

The thing about the Eighteenth Amendment is that it meant so much to its believers because no Amendment had ever been repealed from the Constitution. It was final. Hopeful believers thought, enact prohibition and society will be saved. Like today, some Americans see safety through deportations and border walls. Again, the belief is that American society will be left unchanged and threats will disintegrate. There is no doubt in my mind some in my family feel this way. They have moved to the suburbs and forgot what it’s like to be a newcomer. For those of us still living in cities, we see it much differently. The smells, the fruit vendors, the reggaetón and the spicy curries. They are all part of my America. Using history as our guide, we’d better not enact another piece of poor legislation. This would only guarantee consequences to our society that are unforeseen.


Author: Emily Costa is a Master’s in Public Administration Student at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. While pursuing an Undergraduate Degree from Rhode Island College in History, she became highly concerned with issues of social inequity and their intersection with Public Policy. Her greatest future aspiration is to receive a Doctorate Degree. [email protected]

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