Today in 1933: The 21st Amendment is ratified, ending Prohibition

December 5, 2014

Today in Legal HistoryWith it being Friday, many of you will undoubtedly be heading out to restaurants and bars for a drink after work today.  Although you’re mainly there because it’s the end of a workweek (and a workweek after a long holiday weekend, no less), today, you have another reason to raise your glass: today marks the 81st anniversary of the end of Prohibition.

The nationwide ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcohol was put in place over 13 years earlier with the taking effect of the Eighteenth Amendment on January 17, 1920, and it ended on December 5, 1933, with the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment.  The Twenty-first Amendment is unique in that it is the only amendment in the Constitution the sole purpose of which was to repeal a previously existing amendment.

What happened during those 13 years to prompt the repeal of one constitutional amendment with a later one?  Let’s just say that Prohibition didn’t exactly turn out how its proponents believed that it would.

For decades, the temperance movement claimed that alcohol was the source of all of society’s ills, and that by criminalizing it, crime, poverty, and domestic strife would all but disappear.

These arguments were apparently convincing enough for Congress to pass and the states to ratify a constitutional amendment imposing Prohibition to start with.  Clearly, though, the effects of Prohibition were nothing close to those promised – or else it’d still be around today.

And the effects were nothing short of disastrous: crime – particularly organized crime – skyrocketed (the infamous gangster Al Capone built his wealth and criminal empire from the black market for alcohol); many Americans flouted the law and continued to consume alcohol at clandestine bars known as “speakeasies;” the government was ineffectual at enforcing Prohibition laws because of a combination of a lack of funding and corruption; furthermore, the government was spending hundreds of millions of dollars in this losing battle, and it had lost its tax revenue from alcohol sales.

Prohibition had become deeply unpopular, so Congress pushed for a constitutional amendment to reverse it.  However, Congress believed that the temperance movement maintained enough influence over state legislatures that the amendment would fail if it were left to be ratified by state legislatures.

Thus, Congress decided to opt for the other ratification method specified in Article V of the Constitution: state ratifying conventions.  These conventions were not popular referendums, but rather, were decisions made by a group of individuals chosen from the public at large, and thus were nearly all comprised of average citizens.  Congress believed that these conventions would be subject to less influence from the temperance lobby than state legislatures – and this belief proved true: less than a year after Congress proposed the Twenty-first Amendment on February 20, 1933, it was ratified with the vote of Utah’s convention on December 5.

State ratifying conventions have not been employed as vehicles for ratification since the Twenty-first Amendment, nor had they ever been employed previously, making the amendment unique once again.

Although the amendment repealed the federal government’s ban on alcohol, it actually contained another provision that protected individual state laws that continued to ban alcohol past the end of Prohibition; and many states continued to do so for decades, with Mississippi being the last state to end its own Prohibition era in 1966.

So while the legal consumption of alcohol is something that we largely take for granted today, we are able to enjoy those happy hour drinks thanks to the Twenty-first Amendment, which came into being 81 years ago today.