The 18th Amendment

From 1919 to 1933, alcohol production was illegal in the United States

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The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol, which began the era of Prohibition. Ratified on Jan. 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.

In the over 200 years of U.S. Constitutional Law, the 18th Amendment remains the only amendment to ever have been repealed. 

Key Takeaways

  • The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the manufacture and distribution of alcohol (known as Prohibition), on Jan. 16, 1919. 
  • The major force behind Prohibition was 150 years of pressure by the Temperance Movement, combined with the ideals of the early 20th century Progressive Movement.
  • The result was the destruction of an entire industry, including loss of jobs and tax revenue, and general lawlessness as people openly flaunted the law. 
  • The Great Depression was an instrumental reason for its repeal. 
  • The 21st Amendment repealing the 18th was ratified in December 1933, the only amendment ever to be repealed.

Text of the 18th Amendment

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Proposal of the 18th Amendment 

The road to national prohibition was riddled with a plethora of states' laws that mirrored a national sentiment for temperance. Of the states who already had bans on manufacturing and distributing alcohol, very few had sweeping successes as a result, but the 18th Amendment sought to remedy this. 

On August 1, 1917, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution detailing a version of the above three sections to be presented to states for ratification. The vote passed 65 to 20 with Republicans voting 29 in favor and 8 in opposition while the Democrats voted 36 to 12. 

On December 17, 1917, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of a revised resolution 282 to 128, with Republicans voting 137 to 62 and Democrats voting 141 to 64. Additionally, four independents voted for and two against. The Senate approved this revised version the next day with a vote of 47 to 8 where it then went on to the States for ratification.

Ratification of the 18th Amendment

The 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, in Washington, D.C. with Nebraska's "for" vote pushing the amendment over the required 36 states needed to approve the bill. Of the 48 states in the U.S. at the time (Hawaii and Alaska became states in the U.S. in 1959), only Connecticut and Rhode Island rejected the amendment, though New Jersey did not ratify it until three years later in 1922. 

The National Prohibition Act was written to define the language and execution of the amendment and despite President Woodrow Wilson's attempt to veto the act, Congress and the Senate overrode his veto and set the start date for prohibition in the United States to January 17, 1920, the earliest date allowed by the 18th Amendment. 

The Temperance Movement

Photograph of the Temperance Parade, 1908, Chicago
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At the time of its passage, the 18th Amendment was the culmination of well over a century of activity by members of the temperance movement—people who wanted the total abolishment of alcohol. In the mid-19th century in the United States and elsewhere, the rejection of alcohol began as a religious movement, but it never gained traction: the revenue from the alcohol industry was phenomenal even then. As the new century turned, however, so did the focus of the temperance leadership. 

Temperance became a platform of the Progressive Movement, a political and cultural movement that was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. The Progressives wanted to clean up slums, end child labor, enforce shorter working hours, improve working conditions for people in factories: and stop excessive drinking. Banning alcohol, they felt, would protect the family, aid personal success, and reduce or eliminate crime and poverty. 

The leaders of the movement were in the Anti-Saloon League of America, who, allied with the Women's Christian Temperance Union mobilized the Protestant churches and obtained major funding from businessmen and the corporate elite. Their activities were instrumental in achieving the two-thirds majority needed in both houses to initiate what would become the 18th Amendment. 

The Volstead Act 

The original wording of the 18th amendment barred the manufacture, sale, transportation, and exportation of "intoxicating" beverages, but it didn't define what "intoxicating" meant. Many of the people who supported the 18th amendment believed that the real problem was saloons and that drinking was acceptable in "respectable settings." The 18th amendment didn't prohibit imports, the Webb-Kenyon Act of 1913 did that, but Webb-Kenyon only enforced the imports when it was illegal in the receiving states. At first, people who wanted alcohol could get it semi-legally and safely. 

But the Volstead Act, which was passed by Congress and then came into effect on January 16, 1920, defined the "intoxicating" level at .05 percent alcohol by volume. The utilitarian arm of the temperance movement wanted to ban saloons and control alcohol production: people believed their own drinking was blameless, but it was bad for everyone else and the society at large. The Volstead Act made that untenable: if you wanted alcohol, you now had to get it illegally. 

The Volstead Act also created the first Prohibition Unit, in which men and women were hired at the federal level to serve as prohibition agents.

Consequences of the 18th Amendment 

The result of the combined 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act was economic devastation in the liquor industry. In 1914, there 318 wineries, in 1927 there were 27. Liquor wholesalers were cut by 96 percent, and the number of legal retailers by 90 percent. Between 1919 and 1929, tax revenue from distilled spirits dropped from $365 million to under $13 million; revenues from fermented liquors went from $117 million to virtually nothing. 

Bans on liquor importation and exportation crippled American ocean liners who were competing with other countries. Farmers lost the legal market of their crops to distilleries.

It's not that the framers didn't realize that they would be losing the tax revenue they got from the alcohol industry (not to mention job loss and raw material market loss): they simply believed after World War I that prosperity and economic growth would be adequately bolstered by the gains of the Progressive movement, including doing away with alcohol, to overcome any initial costs. 

Bootlegging 

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One main consequence of the 18th Amendment was the steep increase in smuggling and bootlegging—massive quantities of alcohol were smuggled out of Canada or made in small stills. There was no funding provided in the 18th Amendment for federal policing or prosecuting drink-related crimes. Although the Volstead Act created the first federal Prohibition Units, it didn't really become effective at the national level until 1927. State courts became clogged with alcohol-related cases. 

When voters recognized that even "near beer" productions by the limping alcohol manufacturers Coors, Miller, and Anheuser Busch were now not legally accessible, tens of millions of people refused to obey the law. Illegal operations to manufacture and speakeasies to distribute alcohol were rife. Juries would often not convict bootleggers, who were seen as Robin Hood figures. Despite the level of overall criminality, the mass violations by the public created lawlessness and a widespread disrespect for the law. 

Support for Repeal

The growth of support for the repeal of the 18th amendment has everything to do with the promises of the Progressive movement balanced with the devastation of the Great Depression

But even before the stock market crash in 1929, the Progressive reform movement, which had seemed so idyllic in its plan for a healthier society, lost credibility. The Anti-Saloon League insisted on zero tolerance and aligned itself with distasteful elements such as the Ku Klux Klan. Young people saw progressive reform as a suffocating status quo. Many prominent officials warned about the consequences of lawlessness: Herbert Hoover made it a central plank on his successful bid for the presidency in 1928.

A year after the stock market crashed, six million men were out of work; in the first three years after the crash, an average of 100,000 workers were fired every week. The politicians who had argued that progressivism would bring prosperity were now held responsible for the depression. 

By the early 1930s, the same corporate and religious elite people who supported the establishment of the 18th Amendment now lobbied for its repeal. One of the first was Standard Oil's John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a major financial supporter of the 18th Amendment. On the night before the 1932 Republican convention, Rockefeller said that he now supported repeal of the Amendment, despite being a teetotaler on principle. 

Repeal of the 18th Amendment

After Rockefeller, many other businessmen signed on, saying that the benefits of prohibition were far outweighed by the costs. There was a growing socialist movement in the country, and people were organizing into unions: the elite businessmen including Pierre Du Pont of Du Pont manufacturing and Alfred P. Sloan Jr. of General Motors were frankly terrified. 

The political parties were more cautious: both were for Resubmission of the 18th amendment to the states and if the popular vote agreed, they would move to repeal it. But they were split on who would receive economic benefits. The Republicans wanted liquor control to lie with the federal government, while the Democrats wanted it returned to the states.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jr. quietly endorsed repeal: his main promises for the presidency were balanced budgets and fiscal integrity. After he won and the Democrats swept in with him, in December 1933, the lame-duck 72nd Congress reconvened and the Senate voted to submit the 21st Amendment to state conventions. The House approved it in February.

In March 1933, Roosevelt asked Congress to modify the Volstead Act to allow 3.2 percent "near beer" and in April it was legal in most of the country. FDR had two cases shipped to the White House. On Dec. 5, 1933, Utah became the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, and the 18th Amendment was repealed. 

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