18th & 21st Amendments Evolution

Origins and Impact of the 18th Amendment

The Eighteenth Amendment emerged from a century-long temperance crusade, rooted in social reform and moral aspiration, with ratification achieved on January 16, 1919. This legal act prohibited alcohol production, sale, and transportation. The temperance movement, originally propelled by concerns over alcohol-induced social ills, gained significant momentum by the late 1800s, backed by various societal groups including:

  • Religious factions
  • Women's networks

By its implementation on January 17, 1920, the 18th Amendment quickly suggested complex implications for American society. Legally, alcohol was off the streets, but practically, a vast illegal supply chain promptly sprang up, catering to continued popular demand. This illegality led to prolific establishments like speakeasies and surged transformations within organized crime landscapes. Urchins of illicit trade like bootlegging bolstered notorious mobsters, fundamentally inverting the law's original intentions of decreasing crime rates.

Law enforcement faced challenging obstacles in managing the enormous scale of Prohibition violations and consequential black markets. Hard enforcement coupled with severe punishments couldn't steer public adherence nor snub the illegal trade.1 Economically, Prohibition backfired as well; on losing critical excise tax revenues from alcohol sales amidst the Great Depression's outset, national and local treasuries buckled under budget pressures.

The sustained abrasive effects culminated as public opinion moved against Prohibition during the early 1930s. This led to the ushering in of the Twenty-First Amendment on December 5, 1933, redacting the Eighteenth and acknowledging states' rights to mandate individual drinking laws.

Sepia-toned photograph of a group of women wearing white dresses and sashes at a Women's Christian Temperance Union meeting in the late 19th century, looking determined as they plan their campaigns to ban alcohol

The Role of the Volstead Act in Prohibition Enforcement

Passed on October 28, 1919, the National Prohibition Act, commonly known as the Volstead Act, was designed to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment. It defined "intoxicating liquors" excluding those used for religious rites and granted both federal and state governments the authority to enforce the amendment.

The Volstead Act was beleaguered by numerous challenges right from its inception. The definition of "intoxicating liquors" was controversial, including only beverages containing more than 0.5% alcohol, which allowed for the production and consumption of:

  • Very light beers
  • Medicinal concoctions that included alcohol

Enforcement proved to be another monumental challenge. The Act mandated an insufficiently resourced Prohibition Bureau within the Treasury Department to enforce the new prohibition laws nationwide. Faced with enormous geographic and jurisdictional areas to cover, these governmental agents were overstretched and inadequately trained. This lack of resources, compounded by the complexity of various legal loopholes, led to rampant non-compliance and widespread defiance.

Authorities struggled with logistics and deeply rooted cultural norms that opposed restrictions on alcohol consumption. The illegal production and sale of liquor escalated to industrial levels, accompanied by corresponding increases in organized crime to manage this lucrative underworld marketplace.

In sum, while conceived as a cornerstone of national moral reform, the Volstead Act faltered due to its underpowered execution framework, overrun with legal loopholes and weak federal support. The broader societal failure signified by rampant disrespect and evasion of the Act's stipulations spotlight a misalignment between legislative aspiration and societal reality.2

Black and white image of a police officer grimacing as he struggles to lift and pour out a large barrel of illegally confiscated alcohol during a Prohibition raid, showing the challenges of enforcement

Public Sentiment and the Push for Repeal

As the romantic luster of Prohibition waned toward the close of the 1920s, public sentiment began a marked shift toward repeal, largely driven by:

  1. The economic desperation of the Great Depression
  2. Skyrocketing criminal activities
  3. An increasingly vocal media and political dissent

The economic landslide of the Great Depression played a pivotal role in swaying public opinion on Prohibition. As unemployment rates soared and breadlines grew, the potential revenue from taxed alcohol sales appeared an increasingly attractive avenue for infusing much-needed capital into government coffers. Economists and political leaders argued that legalizing and taxing alcohol could provide a dual benefit: diminishing the burgeoning black market and bolstering state and federal budgets with critical funds.

The dramatic rise of organized crime and the apparent inability of law enforcement to curb this spiraling phenomenon further turned the tide. Bootleggers transformed into multimillionaire kingpins of organized syndicates capitalizing on every loophole and illicit opportunity Prohibition afforded. The very institutions meant to enforce Prohibition were compromised, further eroding public trust and confidence in the amendment's viability.3

Amidst these burgeoning illegal enterprises and economic strains, an energized media played its part in articulating and shaping public discourse. Newspapers, radios, and increasingly influential figures in the motion picture industry depicted and often glamorized the recklessness and corruption tied to Prohibition.

By the time the 21st Amendment was passed on December 5, 1933, the collective American psyche had traversed from dutiful compliance to palpable disdain regarding Prohibition. The national mood had decisively moved to favor legislative adaptation that resonated more harmoniously with the societal, economic, and political landscapes of the era.

Ratification and Effects of the 21st Amendment

The ratification of the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933, marked a culmination of evolving public sentiment against Prohibition. Uniquely, it was ratified via state conventions rather than the traditional route of state legislatures. This method, employed for the first and only time in U.S. constitutional history, was strategically chosen to expedite the amendment process by bypassing potentially obstructive state legislatures whereby lawmakers often had vested interests aligned with temperance groups. This direct convention method allowed each state to assemble a delegation that was believed to more accurately represent the current public opinion on this pressing issue.

Legally, the repeal of the 18th Amendment lifted the nationwide ban on alcohol, decommissioning the Volstead Act and effectively transferring power back to the states to regulate alcohol as each saw fit. Many states were quick to establish their control, some maintaining stringent regulations or dry laws that persisted for years.

The immediate economic impact was palpable; the legal liquor market revived almost overnight. This burgeoning market brought jobs and substantial tax revenues, providing a crucial economic stimulus during the lingering hardships of the Great Depression. Federal and local governments, previously starved of funds from alcohol excise taxes and burdened with enforcement costs, found fiscal relief in the newly reinstated revenues.

Societally, the alterative narrative soon unfolded following the 21st Amendment—criminal organizations that had thrived under Prohibition saw a noteworthy decline in profitability from illegal alcohol, constraining their influence and their subsequent infiltration into legitimate avenues of enterprise and public institutions.4

Thus, in ascertaining its multifaceted impacts, ratification of the 21st Amendment represented a reclamation of societal autonomy in legislating morality through democratic means and laid down a precedent on the balance between federal authority and state sovereignty.

Joyful crowds of people flooding the streets and celebrating with bottles of beer and liquor on December 5, 1933 after the ratification of the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition

The 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition and underscored a critical lesson in American governance: legislative measures must align with societal values and practical realities. This amendment reflects the nation's capacity to correct its course in response to the evolving demands and challenges of its people.

  1. Kyvig DE. Repealing National Prohibition. 2nd ed. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press; 2000.
  2. Okrent D. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York, NY: Scribner; 2010.
  3. Lerner MJ. Dry Manhattan: Prohibition in New York City. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 2007.
  4. Blocker JS, Fahey DM, Tyrrell IR. Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History: An International Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO; 2003.