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Prohibition: Banning alcohol was a bad idea... - Rod Phillips

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On January 17, 1920, less than one hour after spirits had become illegal throughout the United States, armed men robbed a Chicago freight train and made off with thousands of dollars worth of whiskey. It was a first taste of the unintended consequences of Prohibition. So what exactly was Prohibition, and why did it happen? Rod Phillips investigates this chapter of American history.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Rod Phillips
  • Director Jérémie Balais, Jeffig Le Bars
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Animator Jeffig Le Bars, Jérémie Balais, Mélissa Plantaz
  • Compositor Mélissa Plantaz
  • Music Fred Roux
  • Sound Designer Raphaël Pibarot
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
Prohibition was introduced in the United States in 1920 in the belief that alcohol was responsible for most of society’s problems. But the policy was widely ignored and by the time Prohibition was repealed in 1933, illicit alcohol was flowing freely. Although Prohibition started with high hopes of social improvement, its results were unexpected and unintended.

Prohibition refers to a policy of banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. National prohibition was introduced in a number of countries in the early 1900s, the best-known being Russia (in 1914) and the United States (in 1920). It is a radical, coercive policy introduced to deal with the small minority of drinkers who drink excessively. Because they cannot be controlled, all drinkers are deprived of alcohol.

In the U.S., anti-alcohol organizations were formed from the 1830s in the belief that alcohol was fundamental to all society’s ills. Women and Protestant churches were the main supporters of these organization, and although many began by campaigning for moderate drinking, they later began to campaign for no drinking at all – Prohibition. Individual states of the U.S. began to enact their own Prohibition policies from the 1850s onwards and the federal governments in Canada and the US banned the sale of alcohol to Native peoples.

When National Prohibition was introduced in the US it was called the ‘Noble Experiment;’ because the aim was to rid American society of all the ills thought to be caused by alcohol – such as poverty, family violence, divorce, gambling, and prostitution. Wineries breweries, and distilleries shut down, although limited production was permitted to make alcohol needed for medical or religious reasons.

But many Americans wanted to drink, and soon they were supplied with alcohol. Some of it (called ‘moonshine’) was produced in small batches and sold locally by individuals and much was made in big volumes by organized crime syndicates. Some alcohol was smuggled into the US from Canada and elsewhere. Thousands of illegal bars (known as ‘speakeasies’) flourished in towns and cities across the U.S. Prohibition was ineffectively policed, and by the time it was repealed, alcohol was flowing almost as freely as before Prohibition.

Many people see Prohibition as a failure and point to it as a lesson – that attempting to prohibit anything for which there is widespread demand – such as marijuana and other drugs – is bound to fail. Check out this article to learn about the lasting effects of prohibition.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Rod Phillips
  • Director Jérémie Balais, Jeffig Le Bars
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Animator Jeffig Le Bars, Jérémie Balais, Mélissa Plantaz
  • Compositor Mélissa Plantaz
  • Music Fred Roux
  • Sound Designer Raphaël Pibarot
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more