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"Newsweek" featured Pace University's Clinical Associate Professor of History Maria Iacullo-Bird in "Why Prohibition failed"

01/17/2019

"Newsweek" featured Pace University's Clinical Associate Professor of History Maria Iacullo-Bird in "Why Prohibition failed"

On January 16, 1919, Congress announced that in one year’s time, the United States would go dry. According to the 18th Amendment, ratified on that day, the manufacture, sale or transportation of “intoxicating liquors” would be prohibited in the United States. The era of Prohibition had begun.

“In looking at the Prohibition reformers, there was very much an idealism that infused them. They believed that by eliminating alcohol, you would then have this improved society,” Professor Maria Iacullo-Bird told Newsweek. Iacullo-Bird is a Clinical Associate Professor of History at Pace University and serves as the Arts and Humanities Chair for the Council on Undergraduate Research.

The following year, the 18th Amendment was strengthened by the passage of the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act. It defined what the government would label as “intoxicating liquors” as any liquid containing "one-half of 1 per centum or more of alcohol by volume.” The Volstead Act enabled the government at both the Federal and state level to enforce the policy of Prohibition.

To understand how Prohibition came to be, Iacullo-Bird pointed out the crucial push from movements beginning in the 19th century, such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League.

“It becomes part of the movement for reform, in what we would call antebellum America, before the Civil War, you see the emergence of temperance,” Iacullo-Bird said.

Through religious groups, the temperance movement arose, taking a critical view of alcoholic consumption. Some members of temperance groups blamed drinking for what they perceived as the downslide of American society, particularly traditional family life.

“The very shrewd, strategic efforts of the Anti-Saloon League, really see an alliance also with other groups in society, who are intent on reform,” Iacullo-Bird explained.

Prohibition proponents gained further momentum through ties with the populist and progressive movements, which had expanded throughout the nation by the early 20th century. While the central aim of reform movements active prior to Prohibition were varied, they shared a common purpose.

“Throughout the whole strain of this, going back even to the 1800s, there’s this notion of perfectibility—how to help people be better, and of course then bring that perfectibility to American society,” Iacullo-Bird said.

Iacullo-Bird attributed the failure of Prohibition to a number of critical missteps.

First, though the Volstead Act enabled both the Federal and state governments to enforce the policy of Prohibition, the level to which each state carried out these policies varied wildly.

Parts of the country where the temperance movement enjoyed a stronghold, and where Prohibition laws were already on the books, such as Oklahoma and Kansas, largely maintained the social order that was in place before the implementation of Prohibition on the Federal level. For other states, however, the policy proved to be a major shift to the status quo.