Sean Beienburg: Prohibition, the Constitution, and States’ Rights

Pouring alcohol

Prohibition, the Constitution, and States’ Rights

By Sean Beienburg


Prohibition, the Constitution, and States' RightsColorado’s legalization of marijuana spurred intense debate about the extent to which the Constitution preempts state-enacted laws and statutes. Colorado’s legal cannabis program generated a strange scenario in which many politicians, including many who freely invoke the Tenth Amendment, seemed to be attacking the progressive state for asserting states’ rights. Unusual as this may seem, this has happened before—in the early part of the twentieth century, as America concluded a decades-long struggle over the suppression of alcohol during Prohibition.

Sean Beienburg recovers a largely forgotten constitutional debate, revealing how Prohibition became a battlefield on which skirmishes of American political development, including the debate over federalism and states’ rights, were fought. Beienburg focuses on the massive extension of federal authority involved in Prohibition and the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, describing the roles and reactions of not just Congress, the presidents, and the Supreme Court but political actors throughout the states, who jockeyed with one another to claim fidelity to the Tenth Amendment while reviling nationalism and nullification alike. The most comprehensive treatment of the constitutional debate over Prohibition to date, the book concludes with a discussion of the parallels and differences between Prohibition in the 1920s and debates about the legalization of marijuana today.

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Sean BeienburgSean Beienburg is an Assistant Professor at the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. He is also the project director of the Living Repository of the Arizona Constitution initiative. Professor Beienburg’s teaching and research interests include the Constitution and constitutional law, American political development and American political thought, federalism and state constitutionalism/politics, executive power (both presidential and gubernatorial), parties and interest groups, 19th and early 20th century political and constitutional history, and Prohibition. In addition to Prohibition, the Constitution, and States’ Rights, he is soon to be the author of another book on states as constitutional interpreters and progressive federalists in the progressive and New Deal eras.

Professor Beienburg is a JMC fellow.

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