“Constitutional Amendments” Series – Amendment XVIII – “The Beginning of Prohibition”

Archived copy of “The New York Times” reporting on the states voting for the Nineteenth Amendment, prompting its formal ratification, 1919. (Public Domain)

Amendment Eighteen to the Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919. Its legal provisions brought about the Prohibition Era of the United States. The official text is written as such:

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.

Political and social movements that called for abstinence from alcohol consumption date back to the colonial era, but it was in the late 19th century when the cause for temperance gained the national spotlight. Amid the Reconstruction Era, organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of America advocated for prohibition primarily on religious grounds. While certain key organizations had specific goals based on their members and the location of their founding, an underlying argument for the temperance movement was that alcohol was seen as the leading cause of social ills in the United States. Accordingly, a great deal of their activities in the Reconstruction Era focused on charity work and public awareness, with a few attempts at political advocacy. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Anti-Saloon League took a direct political angle, calling for local and state legislatures to vote out alcohol consumption across the country. Many Protestant and Catholic churches allied with the Anti-Saloon League by the beginning of the 20th century. Based on moral and religious grounds, these churches argued that prohibition would help eliminate political corruption, domestic violence, and prostitution, of which alcohol was seen as the major cause. The building success of the temperance movements and their religious allies led to twenty-three states enacting laws against alcohol and saloons by the year 1916.

The following year, the Senate passed a resolution containing a proposed prohibition amendment. The House of Representatives soon thereafter passed a modified version of the resolution on December 17, after which it was issued to the states for ratification a day later. The proposed amendment would ban the sale, manufacture, distribution, and transportation of alcohol across the country. However, the official language did not forbid the outright consumption, possession of, nor even explicitly the production of it for private, personal use. After Nebraska became the thirty-sixth state to approve it, the new amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919. Thirteen days later, Secretary of State Frank L. Polk announced that the Eighteenth Amendment was officially incorporated into the Constitution. In an effort to enforce and define the Amendment’s language, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act on October 28, 1919. Otherwise known as the Volstead Act, the legislation made distinctions between the illegality of alcohol designed for consumption, while still authorizing alcohol for scientific, religious, and industrial purposes.

Controversy surrounded the Eighteenth Amendment well before it was ratified. The amendment was the first to have a deadline for ratification attached to it, where it was challenged in the Supreme Court case of Dillon v. Gloss. The deadline was subsequently upheld and justified by the Supreme Court both in the cases of Dillon and in Hawke v. Smith. Since beers and wines are not distilled, many in the public were surprised that they were also counted as “intoxicating liquors” by the amendment’s language. This subsequently led to refusals to follow the amendment among beer and wine-producing parts of the country. The most significant impact of the Eighteenth Amendment was the sudden surge of illegal alcohol manufacturing, such as in rum-running, bootlegging, and moonshining. As alcohol production became more ilicit, criminal organizations increased their involvement in it. One of the most famous examples of organized crime controlling illegal alcohol production was that of Al Capone, whose seven-year reign over the Chicago Outfit saw him make millions of dollars in underground alcohol sales. Gambling and prostitution also saw an increase amid the Prohibition Era, changing the public perception of the Eighteenth Amendment from generally positive to negative by the end of the 1920s. The Eighteenth Amendment would eventually be repealed and overridden by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933. Although the Eighteenth Amendment is the only Constitutional amendment to have been fully repealed, it is significant for the unique collection of political, social, and industrial movements that surrounded it.

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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