On This Day, Eighty Years Ago: Prohibition Ends

2013/12/05 § Leave a comment

“There is as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”

Senator Morris Sheppard

On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified, thus repealing the Eighteenth Amendment and putting an end to Prohibition.

With respect to the Amendment being passed so quickly, historian David Kyvig likens the moment to that of a bottle of champagne being opened:

“At first the cork moved slowly and only under great pressure. But once it reached a certain point, the cork literally exploded out of the neck. The final stage in the complicated process, state approval [ratification] of a new amendment, was completed more quickly than in any previous constitutional change in the nation’s history.”

Considering today is the eighty year anniversary of this momentous event, let’s briefly revisit the issue.

Alcohol had been a part of American life ever since the founding of the 17th century English colonies. The Puritans, who were against drunkenness, were not against drinking. On the contrary, they believed there to be biblical mandate to enjoy alcohol as an extension of yet another of God’s great creations. In the following century, too, alcohol was a part of the cultural fabric, with everything from barrels of rum in convenient shops for favored customers, to judge and juries drinking all throughout courtroom proceedings. “With rum, applejack, and blackstrap (rum and molasses) a few pence a quart,” Edward Behr points out that “eighteenth-century Americans, whether rich or poor, slaves or free men and women, appear to have gone through life in a semiperpetual alcoholic haze.”

According to a contemporary report published in 1814 by the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, an estimated 4.7 gallons per person were consumed each year.

So this was a big deal—alcohol, that is.

Library of Congress

Library of Congress

Even our nation’s first president, George Washington, was an excessive drinker, with apparently a fourth of his household expenses being spent on liquor.

But this is where the pulse of the prohibitionist movement begins: its impetus is rooted in the desire to combat this national bent toward excess.

Indeed, the proposal for constitutional prohibition was taken up and debated only briefly by Congress. Its opponents argued that an end to liquor taxes would be devastating, eliminating about a third of the federal government’s revenues. They also argued that the amendment would cause an increase in general taxation.

But its supporters sidestepped the issue by pointing to the existing prosperity of the nation as well as the new federal income tax to undercut the argument. Skeptics of the amendment questioned whether those accustomed to drinking would follow the law. The reply was that “violations of the criminal laws had never been a sufficient reason for abandoning them and that, furthermore, the overwhelming sentiment for prohibition would make the law enforceable.”

Jumping ahead to January 16, 1919, a little more than a year after the amendment was placed before the state legislatures, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified by Nebraska, the last state needed for it to become law.

The adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment was only the first step in creating national prohibition. One of the most important steps was still to be carried out. Legislation was still needed in order that the new amendment become effective. This legislation was called the Volstead Act (formally known as the National Prohibition Act). Passed on October 28, 1919, the Volstead Act (as well as the Eighteenth Amendment) was put into effect on January 16, 1920, outlawing any beverage that had an alcoholic content of .5 percent or more.

So, why didn’t it stick? Why was Prohibition repealed thirteen years later?

For the simple reason that you cannot regulate morality.



This is precisely what the Eighteenth Amendment attempted to do. While there were good reasons to desire an expulsion of alcohol consumption, one cannot simply tell free agents of a nation that they cannot drink alcohol (this is not the place of the government), especially given the substance’s integration into the American culture. There were valid reasons for seeing alcohol as the cause of many negatives aspects within American society, and there were good reasons to pursue the Prohibition experiment: alcoholism, drunkenness, physical abuse, homicide, and rape.

But the experiment failed. Beyond merely failing, the Prohibition experiment forced the government’s hand, leading to absurd conclusions about the enforcement of law, and cultivating a society of apathy; of complete and total disregard for the law; of “Scofflaws”; of hypocrites. Ken Burns’ excellent miniseries, Prohibition (which I recommend for anyone remotely interested in the subject) reminds us that the Act had been passed

“to forestall change, to put an end to alcoholism, to safeguard the American family, to re-establish the moral supremacy of small-town Protestant America. Instead, it had helped fuel the very transformation its champions feared.”

LIFE has some great photos available, taken in 1933 for Fortune Magazine.


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