Prohibition and repeal: a primer

The 18th Amendment to the Constitution was unique. Ratified by 44 states in 1919, this amendment was the first and only in the Constitution to deal specifically with personal consumption habits. It is also the only amendment that has ever been repealed. Though Prohibition was on the books for a mere thirteen years, it has had an indelible impact on alcohol policy and public health in America over the past century.

National Prohibition was brought about by the impressive zeal of several organizations who persuaded the American public of the promise of a society free of alcohol and saloons. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were successful in a way that no other group has been since in swinging the country into a unanimous, moralistic fervor over the evils of demon rum. The 18th Amendment represented the ultimate victory—Prohibition would be entrenched in the supreme law of the land.

Yet as the years rolled by, those utopian visions were replaced by an increase in illicit activity. Enforcement agencies were underfunded, understaffed and riddled with corruption. Liquor that was not illegally produced in home stills, casks, and breweries was smuggled in across the many thousand miles of unpatrolled border and coastline of the United States. Forced underground into basement speakeasies, alcohol consumption became more furtive, excessive and violent than ever before. By the mid 1920s, the American public was fast becoming discontent with Prohibition.

In the midst of this growing dissatisfaction, several organizations began to advocate reform of the 18th Amendment, in some cases, going so far as to argue for repeal. The sentiments behind these campaigns were varied, but perhaps none were as compelling as that of the Womens’ Organization for National Prohibition Reform whose central position was that the violence, corruption, and reckless drinking that had come to define the prohibition era had a harmful effect on America’s families and youth.

Women were instrumental in bringing about Prohibition, and they would also be instrumental in its repeal. By 1932, with the nation in the grips of the Great Depression and Franklin Delano Roosevelt emerging as the nominee, the unthinkable was imminent: it appeared that there was nothing obstructing the flow of legal liquor other than due political process. Public opinion had swung decisively against the 18th Amendment, and there was little question to its end by the time Congress framed the language of the 21st Amendment and passed it on to the states on February 20, 1933.

Other than the Bill of Rights, the 21st Amendment was the first to be ratified by state conventions. By utilizing state conventions instead of the state legislatures, delegates would be chosen by a popular vote, which would be an unequivocal representation of the peoples’ sentiment on repeal. All but two states, decided to hold a popular vote to elect delegates, who would in turn vote to ratify at the state convention. Despite this unaccustomed method, states moved quickly: by April 10, the first state, Michigan had successfully ratified the 21st Amendment. The vote totals were high and the majorities wide as these special elections were held across the nation.

By the autumn of 1933, all looked to be in order for repeal before the year was out, and by November, it was clear that repeal would be complete on December 5. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah all held their conventions that day, but Utah’s position as the furthest west earned it the honor of being the thirty-sixth and final state to ratify at precisely “5:32 ˝ PM Eastern Standard Time.” President Roosevelt accepted the 21st Amendment and welcomed the American people into a new era of legal alcohol consumption. ‘The objective we seek through a national policy,’ he said, ‘is the education of every citizen toward a greater temperance throughout the nation.’” With those insightful remarks, Roosevelt spoke to the theme of repeal as well as a recurring sentiment in the decades that followed this great social experiment.