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Eighteenth Amendment: Speakeasy to Me

The Passage

The early twentieth century was a period marked by progressive social change and political action. The temperance movement gained much traction during this time, pushing for the prohibition of alcohol due to its role in various societal ills. Temperance activists connected alcohol consumption and drunkenness to illness, accidental deaths, violence, unemployment, and poverty. Supporters, who tended to be highly religious, pinned the problems connected to alcohol on immigrant and minority communities as an underhanded way to advance their own dominant ideologies in American society. Perhaps the most notorious temperance proponent was Carrie Amelia Nation, who was known for vandalizing bars and taverns with a hatchet.

In 1906, the Anti-Saloon League began a public campaign to ban the sale of alcohol at the state level. The campaign came in the midst of several other social and political movements, including pressure for the passage of Amendments establishing women’s suffrage and a federal income tax. The latter was especially beneficial for Prohibition because it allowed the government to recoup any losses on alcohol taxes brought on by its ban. By 1917, the temperance movement made its way to the national government as the proposed Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. It was ratified by the required three-fourths of the states in January 1919.

Amendment Text

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.

Interpretation

Section 1 of the Eighteenth Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, import, and export of alcohol in the United States and its territories. However, it did not ban the consumption of alcohol. Alcohols for medical and religious purposes were exempt from the Amendment’s provisions. Prohibition went into effect one year after its ratification.

Section 2 stated that Prohibition was to be enforced on both a federal and state level.

Section 3 established a seven-year deadline on the ratification of the Amendment. If the Amendment was not passed by the requisite number of states within seven years of its proposal, it would be inoperative.

Major Court Cases

The 1920 Supreme Court case Hawke v. Smith challenged the validity of the Eighteenth Amendment’s passage in Ohio. In Ohio, the people had the right to review any federal amendment within ninety days of its ratification by the state. The Amendment could be brought to a referendum if a petition was signed by six-percent of Ohio voters. The voters met this prerequisite and opposed Prohibition, but the Ohio Secretary of State still declared the Amendment to be in effect. The Supreme Court was then called upon to determine whether a state could actually hold a referendum on federal legislation. The Court ruled that the people of Ohio could not overturn the state’s ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment. Hawke v. Smith demonstrated to other states considering referendums that Prohibition was, in fact, valid.

Section 3 of the Amendment was challenged in the 1921 case Dillon v. Gloss. Dillon was arrested for violating Prohibition laws, but appealed on the grounds that Congress was not constitutionally authorized to establish a deadline on an Amendment, as it had with the Eighteenth. The Supreme Court found that Congress was acting within the provisions of Article V of the Constitution, which allowed them to put reasonable time constraints on ratification decisions.

Controversies

Shortly after passing the Eighteenth Amendment, Congress proposed the National Prohibition Act, also known as the Volstead Act, to clarify the language used in the Amendment. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the act, but his decision was overridden by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This allowed the Amendment to go through, pending ratification by the states. All the states except Rhode Island and Connecticut approved the Amendment.

Despite the efforts of the Volstead Act, there was still controversy over what beverages were outlawed by the Amendment. The Amendment only mentioned “intoxicating liquors,” which, by definition, include only distilled alcohols. Beer and wine, therefore, were not technically included in the legislation. Northern states, where brewing beer was most popular, did not abide by the Amendment. Brewers still faced punishment under the new Amendment, though, which caused widespread unrest and disagreement with the government.

The biggest repercussion of Prohibition was the explosion of bootlegging and speakeasies. Bootlegging was smuggling alcohol into and throughout the United States, and speakeasies were illegal underground bars. Bootlegging and speakeasies were controlled mostly by organized crime syndicates like the Mafia, whose business boomed during Prohibition. Such operations were difficult to crack down on, partly because gang leaders bribed police and government officials to look the other way. Notorious gangster Al Capone made his name during the Prohibition era.

Why Care?

Prohibition was intended to decrease crime and violence, but driving the alcohol business underground produced the opposite effect. Unable to purchase alcohol, many people tried to make their own. Homemade alcohol was much more dangerous than professionally-made drinks, and alcohol-related deaths skyrocketed during this period. Public opposition to Prohibition grew immensely as the United States entered the Great Depression in the late 1920s and early 1930s. President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Cullen-Harrison Act in 1933, which amended the Volstead Act to allow the manufacture and sale of low-alcohol beer and wine. In December of that year, the Twenty-first Amendment was passed to completely repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. As of 2021, the Eighteenth Amendment is the only amendment to be repealed in its entirety.

Think Further

  1. Why do you think public opinions of Prohibition shifted so drastically shortly after it began being enforced?
  2. Do you think the benefits of banning alcohol outweigh the costs of allowing it?
  3. Can you think of other instances in which banning something only led to increases in its use?

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Learn More

  1. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, January 17). Eighteenth Amendment. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Eighteenth-Amendment.
  2. Interpretation: The eighteenth amendment | the national constitution center. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-xviii/interps/169.
  3. Thornton, M. (1991). Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition was a Failure. Cato Institute. https://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/pa157.pdf.
  4. Editors, H. com. (n.d.). 18th and 21st Amendments. HISTORY. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/united-states-constitution/18th-and-21st-amendments.