December 5, 1933 is a landmark date in American Constitutional history, for it marks the only time that a constitutional amendment has been ratified to repeal another constitutional amendment. In this case, the Twenty-First Amendment was enacted to end the Eighteenth Amendment, which had come into effect in 1920. And only one issue could possibly be important enough to merit this kind of constitutional attention: alcohol.

The Long History of Prohibition

The prohibition of alcohol, enacted in the midst of the Progressive Era, was a long time coming, even if modern Americans have difficulties understanding how it ever came to pass. Calls for temperance, or moderation in drinking habits can be found as early as the colonial period as part of the Protestant Second Great Awakening. During this time, calls for abstaining from alcohol remained a personal decision. But advocates had long noted that alcohol often caused drinkers to forgo their reason and make bad decisions that affected not only themselves but others as well. As such, by the second half of the nineteenth century, “drys” were beginning to call for and work towards laws that might use the State (first locally, then at the state level—it was not until the 1910s that drys made a serious push for national laws) to curtail drinking.
Such calls for laws only picked up as the consumption of alcohol became a big business. Production of alcohol in America’s early years had revolved around wine, ciders, and whiskey—agriculturally based and often locally produced for personal consumption. But an influx of immigrants from Europe (especially from Germany) brought large scale beer drinking and the growth of breweries. As the popularity of beer spread, local bars and saloons proliferated. These establishments were in business to not only to serve alcohol, but also as social centers where clientele (almost exclusively male) could unwind after work, grab a bite to eat, gamble, smoke, fight, and even find intimate companionship in the form of prostitutes.
The advent of an industry designed not just to provide a beverage of choice but also to hook patrons into spending more time and money in their pursuit of a good time prompted drys to view the saloons as cancerous, vice-filled tumors on American society. Though “wets” countered that personal liberty was at stake, drys argued that the very fabric of the republic was being endangered. After all, alcohol was pulling money out of the wallets of patrons that should have been supporting their wives and children.
The call for new laws and regulations on saloons, breweries, and even drinking reached a national crescendo by the time of the First World War. At that time, all things German (including beer) became suspect and going dry was viewed as a patriotic requirement. By 1919, when the 18th amendment was ratified, banning the manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors, anti-alcohol furor had reached a fever pitch.

Prohibition vs. Consumer Demand

At first, most Americans followed the law, driving saloons, breweries, and distilleries out of business. And with alcohol in short supply, Americans found other ways to spend their money. The 1920s witnessed a growth of parks, non-alcoholic drinks, personal travel (thanks to the automobile), and was the golden age of Hollywood. It was the advent of a consumer society that Americans have embraced ever since.
But consumerism eventually found its way back to alcohol, as demand for alcohol actually increased during the 1920s, and the Mafia sponsored rum running and “speakeasies” to meet demand. More widespread than organized crime’s hot spots, however, were those who simply fell back on making “moonshine” and “white mule”—grain based hard alcohols and whiskeys that had long been popular in rural areas (a distant cousin appeared in urban areas—the so called “bathtub gin.”). And in proving that American ingenuity knows few bounds, new alcoholic drinks were crafted, as would-be bartenders began “mixing drinks” to create new flavor combinations and to stretch the alcohol they did have further. All of these means to get a drink came with a bit of implicit danger. Many of the budding mixologists had little idea what they were doing, and customers who got ill or even died were not likely to be repeat customers.

The Return of Alcohol

The enactment of the Twenty-First Amendment, sparked in large part by the Great Depression, ended Prohibition’s noble experiment. Drinking, which had never been illegal, was now allowed to come out in the open. Legal production started back up, though on a more consolidated scale (only the large brewers and distilleries could survive being closed down for over a decade). And while alcohol was legal again, its consumption was different. Part of this had to do with increased regulations and their enforcement. But another factor was that by the 1930s more and more Americans had home refrigeration that allowed them to consume beer in the privacy of their own home. The local saloon or bar had to continue to evolve (often becoming more of a restaurant) in order to thrive if not survive.
What then, are the lessons that Prohibition holds for us today? For one, historical issues are rarely as cut and dry as those looking back at the past often assume them to be. But when it comes to issues involving the language of rights and responsibilities in the American context, of Constitutional debate, and the promise and perils of reforms, there are few better examples than America’s attempt to end alcohol consumption.
For further reading:
Norman H. Clark, Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1976).
David E. Kyvig, Repealing National Prohibition (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2000).
Mark Thornton, The Economics of Prohibition (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991).
Jason S. Lantzer is the author of two books on Prohibition, Prohibition is Here to Stay: The Reverend Edward S. Shumaker and the Dry Crusade in America (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009) and Interpreting the Prohibition Era at Museums and Historic Sites (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). An historian who looks at the intersection of religion, politics, and law in American culture, he holds three degrees from Indiana University and currently serves as the assistant director of Butler University’s Honors Program. In addition to his work on Prohibition, he is the author of one other published book, with two more awaiting publication, as well as numerous articles and reviews.