by kcoble

The Demise of the Eighteenth Amendment: The National Prohibition Act, also known as The Noble Experiment and eventually the Volstead Act, was the only amendment to ever be repealed

On July 1, 1920, Congress enacted an amendment to the constitution that would ban the manufacture, sale, and distribution of intoxication liquors. The National Prohibition Act, also known as The Noble Experiment and eventually the Volstead Act, was expected to stimulate economy, cut crime, and improve the health of U.S. Citizens. In fact, this eighteenth amendment did none of these things, making it the only amendment to the constitution in U.S. history to have ever been repealed. Against the ideas of economists such as Irving Fisher, Simon Patton, and Andrew Volstead, Prohibition was flawed and it failed due to the basic economic law of supply on demand, had an adverse effect on the economy, increased crime, and changed U.S. culture.

As suggested by Charles Hanson Towne in 1923, the prohibition movement had begun long before the constitutional battle of prohibition began.  During World War I, known at the time as the Great War, American economist Irving Fisher volunteered with the Council on National Defense to establish a wartime policy on alcohol.  This council recommended dry zones and wartime prohibition in army cantonments.  Though their recommendations were not upheld, this was the first attempt in experimenting with prohibition.  It was after their second failed attempt that Fisher believed he had the necessary tools in hand to attack Congressional Prohibition believing that, “Prohibition will reduce crime, improve the moral fabric of society, and increase productivity and the standard of living.”

Making prohibition their first priority, The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had almost 250,000 members by 1911.  Fueled by the belief that alcohol wasted human resources, their crusades were launched to, “remove the evils of drink from American Life.”  Irving Fisher believed that if brewers were forbidden to use barley, then we could save as much as “eleven million loaves of bread a day.”  With the WCTU’s support, in 1917 Congress passed a bill allowing the government to regulate food production in the U.S. so as not to hinder the supplies that could be sent for the war, which include limiting the use of foodstuffs in the production of alcohol, lowered the maximum alcohol content to 3% by volume. 

A scotch and wine drinker himself, President Woodrow Wilson sent a letter to the Anti-Saloon League (ASL)  President, James Cannon:

 “I regard the immediate passage of this bill as of vital consequence to the defense and safety of the nation. Time is of the essence, and yet it has become evident that heated and protracted debate will delay the passage of the bill infinitely if the provisions affecting the manufacture of beer and wine are insisted upon.”

        - President Woodrow Wilson, June 1917

In rebuttal, Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi was quoted saying, “The good ship prohibition was submarined the day before yesterday by the President of the United States.  It is now laying on the bottom beneath about forty fathoms of beer and wine.”  The Lever Food Bill was passed in August of 1917 prohibiting the use of grain in distilling, but allowed President Wilson to add beer and wine to the ban if he chose to in the future, but protected them for the time being.

By December of that year, the Eighteenth Amendment was put before Congress.  President Wilson was not given the opportunity to either sign or veto the amendment; it was passed from Congress directly to the States.  With the ASL and WCTU helping their supporters to be elected to office over the last twenty years, it was no surprise when by January 16, 1919 the amendment had been ratified by thirty-six states, officially making it part of the Constitution. 

Given a full year before it went into effect, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacturing, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors.  Unfortunately, the amendment was already flawed.  Nowhere in the amendment did it define the term, “intoxicating liquors,” like the Lever Bill had.  It did not provide for any means to enforce the new law or state what the punishments would be.  Additionally, the amendment said nothing about consuming alcohol already in your possession.  U.S. citizens who did not support prohibition, and who had the means to do so, began to spend the next year stocking their liquor cabinets and wine cellars.  

This period of uncertainty about the Amendment did not last long.  In July of 1919, the Republican Representative from Minnesota, Andrew John Volstead, submitted an act to congress that was passed in the Senate by October.  It was first vetoed by President Wilson, but was passed over and approved by the House of Congress by a vote of 65-20.  The Volstead Act defined the term, “intoxicating beverage,” as any beverage with more than .5% alcohol by volume, which meant that beer and wine stood under the same scrutiny as whiskey and spirits. The act also gave federal agents the rights to investigate and prosecute violators of the Eighteenth Amendment, while also allowing the individual states to enforce the laws on their own.  Some states took this very seriously, while others refused to cooperate, such as Maryland who openly remained a “wet” state as opposed to a “dry” one.

The Volstead act did allow physicians to give out prescriptions for medicinal alcohol use.  If a physician applied for a permit from the prohibition commissioner, he could authorize his patients to purchase alcohol at the local pharmacy.  The prescriptions were not regulated, though the amount each patient used was documented.  Doctors were upset that the federal government was regulating how they cared and treated for their patients, especially when alcohol was so widely used during the war as a means to treat such a wide variety of pain and illness. This marked the first time the medicinal community took a stance against federal regulation.

Supporters of prohibition believed that prohibition would eliminate corruptions though instead it became a source of corruption.  Crime rates soared after the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect.  The bootlegging industry became such a profitable industry that everyone wanted a piece of the pie.  Transporting alcohol undetected by the federal agents meant teamwork and organization.  Street gangs began to do just that.  Organized crime was created by moonshiners, bootleggers, and speakeasies, which fueled the Mafia and gang wars.  In the 1920’s over a million gallons of liquor had been brought into the U.S. through Canadian borders or by boat runners who would sit off U.S. waters and wait for pickups at night.  Alcohol was also being made in illegal distilleries here inside the U.S.  This rise in crime began to fuel the fight for reversing the Eighteenth Amendment.

Once it seemed there were so many reasons to fight for prohibition, but as time went on more and more people were changing their minds.  The crime from smugglers and bootleggers was increasing.  There was still an unsettling amount of drinking going on, much of which was blamed on the nightlife of the roaring twenties.  Many blamed the bad behaviors on the rising of Jazz in popular culture.  But music wasn’t the only way the arts were affected.  Political cartoons were made to communicate views of pro or anti prohibition beliefs.  Masses flocked to the theaters for plays and movies, possibly sneaking in a flask to enjoy in the dim lighting.

When the stock market fell in 1929, businesses failed and unemployment was at an all time high.  The nation was entering The Great Depression.  At a time when many didn’t even have food on the table, anti-prohibitionists used this as ammunition to create their case for repealing the amendment, stating that reversal of the drinking laws would create jobs and stimulate economy.

The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA) was the central group opposing the Eighteenth Amendment.  After the stock market crash, President Herbert Hoover commissioned former Attorney General Goerge W. Wickersham to study the enforcement of prohibition.  With the help of the AAPA, cases were brought before the House judiciary Committee proving increases in drinking and crime since prohibition was enacted in 1920.The AAPA research director, John Gebhart, showed how not only had prohibition not stopped drinking, “it increased costs to consumers and diverted profits into the hands of criminals.”

With an upcoming election, prohibition was sure to be a hot issue at the polls.  President Herbert Hoover, a supporter of prohibition, was up for a second term in office, while Democratic favorite, Franklin D. Roosevelt, called for an end to prohibition. Almost as soon as Roosevelt had won the presidency, he wasted no time to put the repeal to a vote.  By December 5, 1933 there were enough state votes supporting the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, and replacing it with a new amendment.  President Roosevelt announced the end to prohibition:

I ask the wholehearted co-operation of all our citizens to the end that this return of individual freedom shall not be accompanied by the repugnant conditions that obtained prior to the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment, and those that have existed since its adoption.

The AAPA explained the repeal as, “the need to restore self-governing, to protect individual rights, and to put an end to crime, intemperance, and social decay.” In many if not most cities, police had been openly tolerating bootleggers, judges imposing only minimal fines, “creating almost a system of licenses.”

Prohibition did not create organized crime. It did, however, create an enormous new era of criminal opportunity that offered less risk and more certain profit than older fields of crime, and produced a general public indifference that lawbreakers had never enjoyed before.”

Many considered prohibition to be a failure.  However it did succeed in reducing the drinking of alcoholic beverages during those thirteen years.  People were so happy at the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, that they poured “near beer” down sewers, and a million and a half barrels of 3.2% beer were consumed in the first twenty-four hours, creating a nationwide shortage of the beer the second day.

The demise of prohibition was not the end of prohibitionism. President Wilson claimed that prohibition was a “social and moral issue”, and not part of a congressional platform. The Eighteenth Amendment restricted freedoms rather than defined or guaranteed one. The repeal of the amendment took place in 1933.  Interestingly enough, a new form of prohibition became the new public target of 1934, and “the national prohibition of marijuana, which did not occur until 1937, is treated as a consequence of the…. repeal of alcohol prohibition.”

One might argue their case for the legalization of marijuana the same way the anti-prohibitionists argued for the repeal of alcohol prohibition.  Virtually the same things have happened.  In both scenarios a new wave of crime broke out and court rooms and jails were flooded with (arguably) non-violent offenders.  Both times this created an underground market for the product at hand. 

This drove up costs, giving the profits to criminals, money that could’ve been put toward the betterment of our society, or even taxed by our government to fund educational programs.  The people or “consumers” in both underground markets changed popular culture.  Perhaps prohibition in itself is the mistake.

"Prohibition… goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man's appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes. A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded."
                                                                                                            John B. Goodwin, 1887

Benbow, Mark, “Prohibition,” Rustycans, (accessed March 27, 2011).

Divine, Robert A., T.H. Breen, George M. Frederickson, R. Hal Williams, Ariela J. Gross, H.W. Brands. The American Story. Combined Volume, 4th ed. New Jersey: Longman, 2011.

Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1973.

Lucas, Eileen. The Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments. New Jersey: Enslow Publishers, 1998. 

Melnick, Rose “Medicinal Alcohol and Prohibition,” The Rose Melnick Medical Museum (accessed March 27, 2011).

Metropolitan News Company, “Andrew Volstead,” The Law Zone, (accessed March 27, 2011).

Schaffer Library of Drug Policy, “The Lincoln Quote,”  Drug Library, (accessed March 28, 2011)

Thornton, Mark. The Economics of Prohibition. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.

Updated: 08/01/2015, kcoble
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frankbeswick on 08/02/2015

This was a well-researched and informative article. I think that one of the purposes of Wizzley is to allow serious writers a forum to express their talents, and informative, well-written articles like this are what Wizzley is about. Keep up the good work.

candy47 on 08/02/2015

I learned a lot from this in-depth article. I especially like... 'legislation makes a crime out of things that are not crimes'.

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