The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, and prohibited the making of, sale, or transportation of alcohol. The amendment came as a result of roughly a century of reform movements. Early temperance advocates aimed to reduce alcohol consumption and prevent alcoholism, drunkenness, and the disorder and violence it could result in. Theses early efforts promoted temperate consumption with hopes for eventual prohibition.
By the mid 1830s, over 200,000 people belonged to the American Temperance Society. Many of the most prominent proponents of temperance were women, seen as the more virtuous sex and responsible for children’s moral education. Lacking in rights and protections, women were also frequently those most affected by the symptoms of alcoholic family members.
By the late 1800s, support for prohibition was strong, particularly amongst progressives who favored social reform and a greater nationwide morality. The Anti-Saloon League, backed by many women and Protestants, was a driving force in abolishing alcohol manufacture. After a temporary wartime prohibition to save grain during World War I, the Eighteenth Amendment was submitted by Congress for state ratification. It was quickly ratified within a year and would stand as law for the next 13 years.
The Twenty-First Amendment, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, was ratified on December 5, 1933. The decision to repeal a constitutional amendment was unprecedented and came as a response to the crime and general ineffectiveness associated with prohibition. The Twenty-First Amendment also has the distinction of being the only amendment ratified, not by state legislature, but by state ratifying conventions.
Despite the continued strength of the temperance lobby, prohibition had lost its popular support by 1933. Though it had reduced alcoholism and drunkenness, it had also created new problems in lawlessness and fortified the system of organized crime. A black market for alcohol sprung up quickly after prohibition went into effect, especially within the mob, and alcohol remained easily accessible to citizens willing to visit a speakeasy or make it themselves. Organized crime members made so much money on liquor that they were able to bribe police forces, accomplishing non- and selective enforcement of the law. Whether favorable towards prohibition or not, citizens were alarmed by a breakdown in the rule of law. The Great Depression, and a resulting economic need for tax revenue and jobs, also influenced desires for a legal alcohol industry.
In the years after ratification, the Twenty-First Amendment was interpreted as giving states the authority to regulate their own prohibitory practices. For this reason, our modern-day policies vary across the country.
Below is a collection of resources recognizing these important pieces of American law and the Prohibition era. Browse these resources or jump from section to section by clicking the links below:
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.
The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
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.
The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.
Selected online resources on the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments:
The National Constitution Center offers introductory essays by top legal scholars that explain the meaning of the Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments.
The Mob Museum offers articles, trivia, and an interactive game about the history of prohibition, as well as information on its role in the growth of the American mob. Find out how dry (or wet) your state is using the site’s interactive map that compares current day liquor laws across the country.
The Digital Public Library of America has a variety of exhibits on nationally significant topics drawn from source materials in libraries, archives, and museums across the United States. The Kentucky Digital Library’s virtual prohibition exhibit provides an overview of alcohol’s history in America including early medicinal uses, the rise of temperance societies, and unintended consequences of prohibition.
Ohio State University’s Temperance and Prohibition website is maintained by the university’s history department and includes a photo gallery, political cartoons, and articles that explore many aspects of the movement for prohibition.
*If you are a JMC fellow who’s published on America’s history with alcohol, the Eighteenth Amendment, or the Twenty-First Amendment, and would like your work included here, send it to us at email@example.com.