Historically, he explains, such matters—including actions that don’t directly harm others, like consensual sexual activity and obscenity—were the province of colonial and local governments. When the union formed, states retained that authority; the Constitution established no overarching national system of criminal or civil law and laid out no moral prescriptions for citizens to follow. “The powers delegated to the proposed Constitution are few and defined,” James Madison emphasized in The Federalist Papers. “[They] will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce … The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people.” With the introduction of the Bill of Rights, the Framers moved still farther away from moralistic legislation by limiting the areas in which the federal government could restrict the actions of the people it governed.
In the next century, prohibitionists began making the case that alcohol-related offenses were deserving of special attention by linking them to a litany of societal issues. Leaflets and illustrations distributed by various temperance organizations depicted intoxicated men beating their wives and children, confessing to liquor-fueled murders and other uncharacteristic acts of violence, and spending money at the saloon that was needed by their impoverished families.
Temperance advocates also played on the anti-immigrant sentiments that spread through Middle American Baptist and Methodist communities that feared they were “losing their country,” explains Daniel Okrent, the author of Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Organizations like the Anti-Saloon League decried the proliferation of drinking establishments operated and patronized by first-generation immigrants and, as World War I set in, demonized German brewers in particular as an anti-American force.
By banning alcohol, prohibitionists argued, the country could combat domestic problems, crime, and the influence of immigrants, and assert the primacy of Protestant morality in American law. “Never again,” Wayne Wheeler, the longtime leader of the Anti-Saloon League, said, “will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.”
Writing critically of the new amendment for The Atlantic, the journalist Louis Graves had a more cautionary prediction. “If it comes to be recognized, as many believe it will be, that this Federal enterprise was a mistake,” he wrote in 1921, “the lesson may be useful when it is proposed to prohibit by Constitutional amendment any other reprehensible habit.” This warning turned out to be prescient.
The Eighteenth Amendment did deliver on some of the movement’s promises. Researchers have found that in the early days of Prohibition, alcohol consumption fell to as little as 30 percent of its previous levels, before rebounding to around 60 to 70 percent in the following years. Hospitalizations, arrests, and deaths directly related to alcohol abuse similarly decreased.