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The Amendments Series: Prohibition

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The Eighteenth Amendment is the first and only amendment to have been revoked in its entirety. It’s also one of the few amendments that applies to the citizenry rather than the government. It’s also one of a slew of amendments to be passed in a rather amendment-frenzied period of American history.

It’s been thirty years since the states and Congress ratified an amendment (1992), but at the time of the 18th Amendment’s ratification the country was in the throes of Constitutional amendment mania. In the course of seven years, 1913-1920, Congress and the states added four amendments to the Constitution–the 18th sandwiched in the middle (16th, 17th, 18th and 19th). To say that the citizenry at the time was full of frenetic political energy and the zeitgeist primed for drastic changes to the Constitution would be an understatement.

The ratification of a Constitutional amendment requires a certain type of political environment, a certain type of government and a certain type of citizenry. I have yet to experience the ratification of an amendment in my lifetime, which causes me to wonder what must the political environment be like to bring about such a weighty and difficult change to the Constitution? What issue today could conjure up such universal support to warrant an amendment, one that would make it through thirty-eight state legislatures and Congress?

Perhaps at another time I can delve more deeply into what may have contributed to such an easily moved citizenry and government, but for today, I’m going to focus only on the 18th Amendment and why the citizenry and government decided to change the Constitution in this way.

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.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, 1919

Historical Context

Let’s consider the political environment at the time…

  • WWI
  • Recent passage of the income tax amendment
  • The Spanish Flu
  • Increasing immigration
  • Post-Civil War racism
gallantry whiskey bottle beside glass

There are many social and political issues that contributed to the introduction and eventual ratification of the 18th Amendment. Various movements, some that started as early as the 1840s, began to grow in power and influence. The Temperance Movement, The Prohibition Party, and The Anti-Saloon League began to gain traction in the early 1900s because of various societal issues that amplified their voices.

Drunkenness that led to domestic abuse, joblessness and sickness began to grow in the early 1900s. Some of this was due to changes in the alcohol itself. So, men who previously would come home slightly buzzed from a drink were now coming home completely hammered from the same amount. The resulting joblessness and domestic abuse gave fire to the The Temperance Movement.

Further, many Americans were told that blacks, and immigrants, particularly unwelcome immigrants–Germans— were prone to drinking and that if the distribution of alcohol was made illegal in the United States, those who would want to come to the U.S., particularly from Germany, would be less likely to come. In other words, those lobbying for laws to prevent or hinder the sale of alcohol used the racism from the Civil War and the prejudice stirred up during WWI to frame their narrative.

During this time, the number of saloons ballooned so that there was a saloon for every 150-200 people. “Saloonkeepers would try to lure patrons, particularly young men, by offering free lunches, gambling, cockfighting, prostitution, and other ‘immoral’ activities and services in their establishments.”

The ratification of the 16th Amendment, opening the door for income tax, also greatly relieved the government’s need to syphon tax money from its citizenry off of alcohol sales taxes–whiskey tax. The federal government could now use the income tax as its primary source of income, making the prohibition of alcohol sales that much easier for government to swallow, since it wouldn’t dip into their pockets as much.

Many local governments began to ban the sale of liquor for these reasons. “World War I added fuel to the dry movement’s fire. The belief spread that the brewing and distilling industries were diverting precious grain, molasses, and labor from wartime production. Beer took the biggest hit due to anti-German sentiment. Names like Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz reminded people of the enemy whom American soldiers were fighting overseas.”

It was the perfect storm, the ideal environment for dramatic change, and those in favor of the abolition of the sale of alcohol took advantage of it.

The amendment moved through Congress in December of 1917 and then went to the states, who promptly ratified it by January 16, 1919, meaning it would go into effect exactly one year later, in 1920. Again, many states and local governments already had their own prohibition laws, making the transferal of power to the federal government rather straight forward.

The Amendment

corona beer bottle across sands

First off, the 18th amendment did not ban the consumption of alcohol, just the production and distribution of it. The amendment immediately gave Congress the power and impetus to pass the National Prohibition Act, or the Volstead Act, on October 28, 1919. This act charged the U.S. Treasury Department with the enforcement of the new restrictions.

Enforcement of the amendment proved far more difficult than the ideologues behind it would have predicted. The amendment empowered the federal government to criminalize and arrest anyone caught making or selling alcoholic beverages. This was an immense change in the power and job description of the federal government. Previously, the federal government’s “crime-fighting” powers were limited to piracy on the seas and counterfeiting of federal currency. All other crime-fighting laws were supposed to be left to the states and local governments. Now, the federal government had to figure out how to fund and provide manpower to enforce a broad, far-reaching and much resisted law.

This endowment of power to the federal government served both as an example of a mindset change in the U.S. population at large and was a cause of a future mindset changes. In other words, the expectation that the federal government should have the power to both make illegal and punish distributers of alcohol was the cause of prohibition, and prohibition itself was a cause of growing expectations on the federal government.

I will give further exposition on the damaging effects of this amendment on liberty, the Constitution, a growing federal police force and shifting mindsets in my article dealing with the 21st Amendment–the repeal of the 18th amendment.


The age of prohibition serves as a somber reminder that just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s what’s best for the country or liberty. Too often we conflate majority will with “good”. Majority will does not and never has equaled “good”; it just simply is majority will. We the people are so easily moved by the zeitgeist of the era, too often looking at the world through our time-limited perspective, considering neither historical evidence or potential future ramifications. Changing the Constitution is no small act–it has had and will always have permanent consequences.

Only an educated citizenry can mitigate the effects of emotional whim on political actions.

The Liberty Belle

2 thoughts on “The Amendments Series: Prohibition”

  1. Pingback: Prohibition – The Liberty Belle –

  2. Would love to see the details / background on the 17th amendment. That amendment is the root cause of the Federal power grab success,

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