Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Prohibition of Intoxicating Liquors
Date: January 16, 1919
Source: U.S. Constitution
About the Author: The text of the Eighteenth Amendment was drafted by activists in the anti-alcohol movement of the early twentieth century.
Starting in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, anti-alcohol or, as they were called, "temperance" movements developed in many European countries and in the United States. Early on, these movements tended to advocate moderation rather than abstinence, but by the mid-nineteenth century the word "temperance" had come to mean, usually, advocacy of complete prohibition. The American Temperance Society was founded in 1826, and within a few years this society and others like it boasted hundreds of thousands of members. Fueled partly by fear of relatively hard-drinking immigrant populations in urban areas, especially during the second half of the nineteenth century, the temperance movement achieved notable legislative successes in the United States, persuading many state legislatures to ban the sale of alcohol. Between 1900 and 1916, twenty-six states passed prohibition measures. A few states had already experimented with prohibition years before; Oregon, for example, had prohibited "ardent spirits," as alcoholic beverages were called, in 1844, but repealed the ban in 1849.
The temperance movement was part of a large and not always internally consistent movement for various kinds of reform or change that is known today as the Progressive Movement. Its goals included votes for women, reduced political corruption, eugenics, racial equality, anti-pollution measures, better urban housing, more humane treatment of prisoners, government regulation of food purity, and other reforms. The temperance movement was dominated by women. The powerful Women's Christian Temperance Union was formed in 1873. (The organization is still in operation today.) Although suffragists (i.e., advocates of votes for women) and temperance activists were allied for some decades, the suffrage movement came to see the fierce resistance to prohibition by many voters as a liability, and, by 1910 or so, the movements had effectively split. Ironically, however, the suffrage movement was not to achieve its goal (votes for women, granted by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920) until one year after the prohibition movement had achieved its goal (the Eighteenth Amendment, 1919).
To enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act of 1919, also known as the Volstead Act after its sponsor, Rep. Andrew Volstead (R-MN). The Volstead Act defined the "intoxicating liquors" mentioned in the Amendment as fluids containing 0.5 percent or more alcohol by volume.
The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment on December 5, 1933. The Eighteenth is the only Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ever to have been repealed. The Twenty-first is the only Amendment that exists solely to repeal another amendment, and the Twenty-first is also the only Amendment to have been ratified by state conventions rather than by state legislatures (as provided for in Article V of the U.S. Constitution). Whether or not to criminalize the sale of alcohol immediately became a state prerogative with the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, and many states immediately legalized alcohol. A few, however, did not. Mississippi, for example, remained a dry state until 1966. Many individual cities, counties, and towns still enforce prohibition locally, especially in the South.
Prohibition was not unique to the United States. Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Russia also instituted alcohol prohibition in the mid–1910s and repealed it in the late 1920s or early 1930s.
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.
Prohibition is viewed by most modern historians as a misstep with many negative consequences for American society, although some present-day anti-alcohol activists disagree. First, Prohibition did not stop alcohol consumption. After a sharp dip in 1921, consumption of alcohol returned quickly to its pre-Prohibition level of about 1.2 gallons of pure alcohol equivalent per person per year. Second, more people took to drinking hard liquor, rather than beer, because virtually all alcohol had to be smuggled into the country and it was more profitable to smuggle a concentrated product than a dilute one. As a percentage of alcohol spending, spending on hard liquor went from forty percent just before Prohibition to between seventy percent and ninety percent during Prohibition and back down to forty percent immediately after its end. Third, tens of thousands of people were blinded or partially paralyzed by drinking adulterated or brewed alcoholic beverages. Fourth, organized crime flourished on the alcohol trade, with gangsters such as Al Capone (1899–1947) specializing in alcohol. Along with increased organized crime came official corruption, as gangsters bribed police to overlook their illegal activities. Sixth, although reformers expected Prohibition to empty the prisons—"We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs," said the anti-alcohol preacher Billy Sunday (1863–1935) when Prohibition was enacted— the jails soon filled to capacity with persons convicted of alcohol-related crimes.
Some commentators urge that today's laws prohibiting marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs are repeating the failures of Prohibition. They point to the high profitability (under drug prohibition) of developing and smuggling ever-more-concentrated drug substances, the monopoly of organized crime on the illegal drug trade, high rates of illegal drug use despite prohibition, and the strain on the nation's jail system, with persons convicted of drug offenses constituting fifty-five percent of the federal prison population as of 2003. (Over 700,000 people were arrested for marijuana offenses in the U.S. in 2001 alone.) Defenders of the present drug laws argue that drug-use rates would be higher without anti-drug laws, that drug use can be greatly reduced through a combination of education, imprisonment for drug offenses, and military operations, and that recreational drugs other than alcohol are inherently immoral.
Regardless of whether present-day drug prohibition increases the societal cost of drugs or prevents that cost from being higher, it is unlikely that U.S. federal laws prohibiting marijuana and other recreational drugs (besides alcohol) will be repealed any time soon. Several European nations, however, have recently decriminalized the possession of small quantities of marijuana. In the Netherlands, marijuana was decriminalized in 1976, with sales permitted in licensed cafes. Whether or not this has had measurable negative consequences for Dutch society has been much disputed among medical researchers, sociologists, and pro-and anti-drug-prohibition activists. A study of marijuana decriminalization in San Francisco and the Netherlands published in theAmerican Journal of Public Healthin 2004 found "no evidence to support claims that criminalization reduces use or that decriminalization increases use." Other researchers claim that the effect of marijuana decriminalization on Dutch society has been negative.
Thornton, Mark.The Economics of Prohibition. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.
Huggins, Laura E., ed.Drug War Deadlock: The Policy Battle Continues. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2005.
Thornton, Mark. "Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure."Cato Institute, July 17, 1991. <www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa– 157.html> (accessed May 11, 2006).