The 21st Amendment: The End of Prohibition

–by Joanna Hallac

December 5th marks the 79th anniversary of the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which voided the 18th amendment, bringing to an end the era of prohibition in this country. As a majority of American adults do consume alcohol—though we consume far less than most other countries—and as the holiday season and all the food and drink that comes with it is now upon us, it seemed a good time to take a closer look at the rise and fall of prohibition in America.

The temperance movement, which took hold in the mid- to late-19th century, actually has its roots in the abolitionist movement, with many of those who wanted slavery eradicated beginning to see the scourge of alcohol abuse and alcoholism as something also worthy of being abolished. Women were the original driving force behind the movement, since they viewed this as an issue that negatively impacted many families. While the temperance movement first urged moderation of drinking, it soon moved into calling for a full-fledged drinking ban.

The two major groups to grow out of this movement were the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), and both were strengthened by their alliances, with the WCTU forming a strong alliance with the leaders of the women’s suffrage movement and the ASL forming alliances with, well, anyone. Frances Willard, the dedicated leader of the WCTU, actually has her statue in the Capitol as part of the National Statuary Hall collection; it was the first statue of a woman to be accepted into the collection (it was given by Illinois in 1905) and it is also the only statue of a woman in the Old House Chamber, a nod to her prominent role as a grassroots activist. The Anti-Saloon League was and still is considered to be one of the most effective single issue lobbying organization in American history and brought together any and all groups (from the KKK to the NAACP) that wanted to achieve their ultimate goal, which was a constitutional amendment that banned the manufacture, transportation or sale of alcohol.

A World War I-era prohibition propaganda poster (Ohio Historical Society)
A World War I-era prohibition propaganda poster (Ohio Historical Society)

By 1917, after the passage and implementation of a federal income tax, which many thought would greatly reduce the reliance of the federal government on liquor taxes, as well as increasing anti-German sentiment surrounding World War I (many of the Germans immigrants in the US were involved in beer brewing, a trade they brought with them from abroad), the calls for prohibition seemed to reach a fever pitch. On December 18, 1917, Congress passed a Joint Resolution to propose the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave them seven years to have the states ratify it and stipulated that one year after ratification the law would go into effect. It would not, however, take seven years for the states to ratify the amendment; in fact, it only took only 13 months for that to happen. Then, at 12:01am on January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution took effect. The unintended consequences of prohibition would not become immediately clear.

As has been the case throughout our history, it is one thing to pass laws, but quite another to enforce them, and prohibition was no different; therefore, it was and still remains the job of to Congress to pass whatever other laws are necessary to ensure proper enforcement of said law. In order to enforce the 18th amendment, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, more commonly referred to as the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act was actually passed after Congress overrode President Wilson’s veto in October 1919 and remained in effect until 1933 with the ratification of the 21st amendment.

Anti-Saloon League newspaper headline from Jan. 25, 1919 (Anti-Saloon League Museum)
Anti-Saloon League newspaper headline from Jan. 25, 1919 (Anti-Saloon League Museum)

So, between the 18th amendment and the Volstead Act, what was the impact upon American society? Well, as anyone who has studied U.S. history or heard of Al Capone knows, the impacts were largely negative. While there were some indications of an early drop off in drinking and alcoholism rates, the void left from a lack of alcohol production, sales, and transport, not only had severe economic implications, but also led to the rise of gangsters and organized crime to occupy that empty space. Both laws created loopholes that many different groups worked to fill—bootleggers, pharmacists, home vintners, and the like, all looking to make themselves some money or get their hands on some booze. Corruption among police and politicians was on the rise during this era, as well. Bottom line: prohibition was a bust.

After over a decade of being a “dry” country, on December 6, 1932, Senator John Blaine of Wisconsin submitted a resolution onto the floor of the Senate to submit the 21st amendment to the states for ratification, which followed in February 1933. That very same year, the 36th state, which was the last necessary one needed (and ironically ended up being Utah), ratified the 21st amendment at 5:32pm on December 5th, at which point President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at 7pm on the same day, signed the amendment and ended the American experiment in prohibition. To put it lightly, the country was thrilled.

While the intentions behind the 18th amendment were clearly good, the myriad negative consequences that came as a result of prohibition were just not worth keeping it as the law of the land. As the Chicago Tribune headline from December 5, 1933 read: “14-Year Dry Era Ends Today: Chicago To Give Legal Liquor a Gay Welcome.” This experiment, as it was, lasted 13 years, 10 months, and 19 days before it came to an end, and huge crowds greeted its demise at bars in cities throughout the country.

The front page of the Chicago Tribune from Dec. 5, 1933 (Chicago Tribune archives)
The front page of the Chicago Tribune from Dec. 5, 1933 (Chicago Tribune archives)

These days in Washington, D.C., and throughout the country for that matter, it is increasingly difficult to get folks to agree on much of anything, but I have a sneaking suspicion that they’d all agree that prohibition was not a good idea and that they’re happy it came to an end. So, raise a glass with me this holiday season as we cheer the ratification of the 21st amendment and the end of the so-called “noble experiment” that was a dry America. Cheers!

Sources consulted:

Prohibition: Home, PBS
National Archives
Clerk of the House: Art & History
University of Albany website
Chicago Tribune Archives

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