Repeal of Prohibition

National Prohibition in the United States had been viewed by tens of millions of Americans as the solution to the nation's poverty, crime, violence, and other ills and they eagerly embraced it.1 Upon establishment of the Noble Experiment in 1920, Evangelist Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for alcoholic beverages and then extolled on the benefits of prohibition. "The rein of tears is over," he asserted. "The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs."2 Since alcohol was to be banned and since it was seen as the cause of most, if not all, crime, some communities sold their jails.3

Drunk with success, temperance groups planned to extend prohibition to countries around the world. Not surprisingly, the leading prohibitionist in Congress confidently asserted that "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.4

Unfortunately, Prohibition not only failed in its promises but actually created additional serious and disturbing social problems throughout society. This led to an increasing disillusionment by millions of Americans. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925 that "Five years of prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished."5

The enthusiastic support generally given to Prohibition by industrialists and business leaders had done much to generate support. But with the passage of time more and more business leaders became disillusioned with the consequences of the social experiment.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong abstainer who had contributed at least $350,000 and perhaps as much as $700,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, announced his support for repeal because of the widespread problems caused by Prohibition.6 He explained his change of belief in a letter published in The New York Times:

When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed I earnestly hoped- with a host of advocates of temperance-that it would be generally supported by public opinion and thus the day be hastened when the value to society of men with minds and bodies free from the undermining effects of alcohol would be generally realized. That this has not been the result, but rather that drinking has generally increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast array of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result respect for all law has been greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree-I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe.7

The Eighteenth Amendment granted both federal and state governments authority to enforce Prohibition. Opposition to the enforcement of Prohibition increased as people became disillusioned with the Noble Experiment and Montana became the first state to repeal its own enforcement of Prohibition, doing so in 1926 (Prohibition existed from 1920 through 1933).8

Women, led by the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), had been pivotal in bringing about National Prohibition. Their interest had been a moral one: protecting the family, women and children from the effects of alcohol abuse. And with the passage of time it became women who proved to be pivotal in repealing Prohibition. Their interest was again a moral one: prohibition was undermining the family and corrupting the morals of women and children.

In 1929, Pauline Sabin founded the Women's' Legion for True Temperance, soon renamed the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR). She had decided a year earlier to establish a women's repeal organization after the president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) asserted to Congress that "I represent the women of the United States!"9

Sabin originally supported Prohibition in the belief that "a world without liquor would be a beautiful thing" and a better place for her two sons.10 However, with the passage of time she became distressed at what she saw as the hypocrisy of politicians who would vote for stricter enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment and then illegally be drinking alcohol a few minutes later, the counterproductively of Prohibition, the decline in moderate drinking and the increase in binge drinking, the growing power of bootleggers, the widespread political corruption, mob violence, increased public intoxication, growing disrespect for law, and the erosion of personal liberty at the hands of an increasingly intrusive centralized government.

In Congressional testimony, Mrs. Sabin complained that "In preprohibition days, mothers had little fear in regard to the saloon as far as their children were concerned. A saloon-keeper's license was revoked if he was caught selling liquor to minors. Today in any speakeasy in the United States you can find boys and girls in their teens drinking liquor and this situation has become so acute that the mothers of the country feel something must be done to protect their children."11

Thus, Mrs. Sabin and millions of other American women came to oppose Prohibition for the very reasons they originally supported it. They wanted the world be a safer place for their children and a better place in which to live. And women were politically infinitely more powerful than before prohibition; they were now able to vote.12

As disillusionment and dissatisfaction spread the number of repeal organizations grew. They included:

The Democratic Party platform in the 1932 election included an
anti-Prohibition plank and Franklin Roosevelt ran for the presidency
promising to repeal National Prohibition. On February 20, 1933, Congress
enabled states to ratify the 21st Amendment if they chose, which most did
rather quickly, as the following list indicates:

Ratification was completed on December 5. The amendment was later ratified
by Maine (on December 6,1933) and Montana (on August 6, 934).

North Carolinians voted against calling such a ratification convention by
a vote of 293,484 to 120,190 and never ratified Repeal.1Also choosing not
to approve Repeal were Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota,
Oklahoma, South Carolina (which specifically rejected the amendment), and
South Dakota.

Remaining under Prohibition until 1934 were the District of Columbia,
Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii.Te latter two were not yet states. Native
American reservations remained under Prohibition until 1953, at which time
they enjoyed local option.

The popular vote for repeal of Prohibition was 74 percent in favor and 26
percent in opposition.13 By a three-to-one vote, the American people
rejected Prohibition. A miraculous hummingbird had made the flight to Mars
in under 14 years.

Billy Sunday had proclaimed John Barleycorn's death at the beginning of prohibition in 1920. But thirteen years later:

The cheerful spring came lightly on,
And showers began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surprised them all.14

Happy throngs sang "Happy Days are Here Again!" and President Roosevelt would soon look back to what he called "The damnable affliction of Prohibition."15

National Prohibition had been repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment which contains two short but important sentences:

Section 1: The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2: The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section one made it again legal to import, produce, and sell beverage alcohol, while section two delegated to the individual states authority for regulating such beverages. Some states continued prohibition at the state level. The last state repealed it in 1966. Almost two-thirds of all states adopted some form of local option which enabled residents in political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition. Therefore, despite the repeal of prohibition at the national level, 38 percent of the nation's population lived in areas with state or local prohibition.16

The matter of Prohibition versus Repeal had long been a contentious one and often divided friends and even families. It sometimes still does. Today, there are hundreds of dry (prohibition) counties across the United States with 16,000,000 people seven decades after national repeal.

Prohibition and Repeal by State

Repeal leaders included:

In spite of the failure of National Prohibition and the serious problems it created, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that still continue to exist.

Resources on Repeal:

  • A&E Television Network. The Road to Repeal. DVD video. NY: A&E Television Network, 1997.
  • Allen, Clayton S. The Repeal of Prohibition in Mississippi. Thesis. University of Mississippi, 1992.
  • Becker, Susan D. Review of American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. Journal of American History, 1996, 83(3), 1057-1058.
  • Boyd, John A. The Repeal of Prohibition in Ohio: the Repeal Process from Congress to Ohio. Thesis. University of Cincinnati, 1981.
  • Cannon, Bishop James. Prohibition Repeal Unthinkable. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1928.
  • Cherrington, Ernest H. The Fight against Alcoholism in the United States Since the Repeal of Prohibition. Washington, DC: Board of Temperance, Prohibition andPublic Morality of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1937.
  • Childs, Randolph W. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Alcoholic Beverage Study, Inc., 1947.
  • Choate, Jr., Joseph H. Reasons for the Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment: An Address. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, Temperance pamphlets, part 3.
    Committee on the Judiciary. U.S. House of Representatives. Repeal of Prohibition on Federal Employees Contracting or Trading with Indians. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office, 1996.
  • Committee on the Judiciary. Modification or Repeal of National Prohibition. Hearings. Seventy-second Congress, First Session. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1932.
  • Dickinson, Edwin. The effect of prohibition repeal upon the liquor treaties. American Journal of International Law, 1934, 28, 101-104.
  • Engdahl, Sylvia. (ed.) Amendments XVIII and XXI: Prohibition and Repeal. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2009.
  • Fantus, R.J. Repeal Prohibition. Bulletin of the American College of Surgeons, 2008, 93(6), 47-48.
  • Gasper, Louis. The Movement for Repeal of National Prohibition, 1926-1933. Thesis. Bowling Green State University, 1949.
  • Gillett, Ransom H., and Holmes, John H. Repeal of the Prohibition Amendment. NY: H.W. Wilson Co., 1923.
    Graymont, Barbara. Prohibition and Repeal: The Churches' Crusade that Failed. Thesis. Universith of Chicago, 1959.
  • Harrison, Leonard V. and Laine, Elizabeth. After Repeal. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1936.
  • Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000.
    Kyvig, David E. Review of American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. American Historical Review, 1997, 102(2), 538.
  • Leeman, Richard W. Reflective Rhetoric: Its Framework and its Utility in Explicating the Rhetoric of Prohibition and Repeal. Thesis. University of Maryland, 1982.
  • Legislative Reference Service. Intoxicating Liquors: State Prohibition after Repeal of the 18th Amendment. Washington, DC: Legislative Reference Service, 1933.
  • Lucas, Eileen. The Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments: Alcohol, Prohibition, and Repeal. Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1998.
  • Munger, Michael and Schaller, Thomas. The Prohibition-Repeal amendments: a natural experiment in interest group influence. Public Choice, 1997, 90(1/4), 139-163.
  • Nishi, Dennis. Prohibition. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 2003.
  • Patch, Buel W. Preparations for Prohibition Repeal. Washington, DC: Editorial Research Report, 1933.
  • Pickett, Deets. Then and Now: The Truth about Prohibition and Repeal. Columbus, OH: School and College Services, 1952.
  • Pollard, Joseph P. The Road to Repeal: Submission to Conventions. NY: Brentano's, 1932.
  • Prohibition vs. Repeal Literature. Five Current Aspects of Repeal. Washington, DC: Prohibition vs. Repeal Literature, 1936.
  • Repeal Associates. Repeal Review. Washington, DC: Repeal Associates, 1936-1965.
  • Roizen, Ron. Redefining alcohol in post-repeal America: Lessons from the short life of Everett Colby's Council for Moderation, 1934-1936. Contemporary Drug Problems, 1991,75, 237-272. (pp. 245-246)
  • Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: New York University Press, 1996.
  • Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper & Brothers, 1934.
    Sann, Paul. The 20s, the Lawless Decade: A Pictorial History of a Great American Transition from the World War I Armistice and Prohibition to Repeal and the new Deal. NY: Da Capo Press, 1957 and 1984
  • Schaller, Thomas F. Institutional Design, Institutional Choice, and the Case of Prohibition-Repeal. Thesis. Yale University, 1997.
  • Schrad, Mark L. Constitutional Blemishes: American Alcohol Prohibition and Repeal as Policy Punctuation. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.
  • Severen, Bill. The End of the Roaring Twenties: Prohibition and Repeal. NY: J. Messner, 1969. (Juvenile readership)
  • Shay, Gene et al. Amendment 18, Prohibition; Amendment 21, Repeal of Prohibition. DVD video. Lawrenceville, NJ: Cambridge Educational, 2004.
  • Shellenberger, Kurt L. Prohibition in Pennsylvania from Ratification to Repeal. Thesis. Millersville State College, 1974.
  • Shouse, Jouett. The Status of Prohibition Repeal. Washington, DC: Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, 1933.
  • Stegh, Leslie J. Wet and Dry Battles in the Cradle State of Prohibition: Robert J. Bulkley and the Repeal of Prohibition in Ohio. Thesis. University of Cincinnati, 1981.
  • Tietsort, Francis J. Temperance - or Prohibition? NY: American, 1929.
  • Walker, Robert S, and Patterson, Samuel C. Oklahoma Goes Wet: The Repeal of Prohibition. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1960.
  • Weise, Chetley D. The Political Economy of Prohibition and Repeal. Thesis. Auburn University, 1998.


  • 1. Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David. Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview. In: Moore, Mark H., and Gerstein, Dean R. (eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981. pp. 127-181. (p.157)
  • 2. Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition. New York: Greenwood Press, 1968 (Originally published 1950), pp. 144-145.
  • 3. Anti-Saloon League of America. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook. Westerville OH: American Issue Press, 1920, p. 28. Cited by Mulford, Harold A. Alcohol and Alcoholism in Iowa, 1965. Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa, 1965, p. 9.
  • 4. Merz, Charles. The Dry Decade. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1969. (Contains a new introduction by the author. Originally published in 1930.), p. ix.
  • 5. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 6. Prendergast, Michael L. A History of Alcohol Problem Prevention Efforts in the United States. In: Holder, Harold D. (ed.) Control Issues on Alcohol Abuse Prevention: Strategies for States and Communities. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1987. pp. 25-52. (p. 44); Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 96.
  • 7. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 152; Roizen, Ron. Redefining alcohol in post-repeal America: Lessons from the short life of Everett Colby's Council for Moderation, 1934-1936. Contemporary Drug Problems, 1991,75, 237-272. (pp. 245-246)
  • 8. Yenne, B., and Debolski, T. The Ultimate Book of Beer Trivia. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood, 1994, pp. 103-104
  • 9. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 10. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 11. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 12. Ducas, Dorothy. In miniature: Mrs. Charles S. Sabin, lady into tiger, McCall's, September, 1930; House Judiciary Committee. The Prohibition Amendment, Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the Untied States In Lieu of the Eighteenth Amendment: Hearings, 70th Cong., 1st sess, serial 21 (Washington: GPO, 1928); Kyvig, David E. Pauline Sabin. Dictionary of American Biography (Supplement 5, volume 5) Chicago: Charles Scribner's Sons/Thompson Gale, 1977; Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000; MacKaye, Milton. The new crusade, The New Yorker, October 22, 1932; Root, Grace C. Women and Repeal: The Story of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper and Brothers, 1934; Sabin, Pauline Morton. I change my mind on Prohibition, Outlook, June 13, 1928; Sabin, Pauline Morton. Women's revolt against Prohibition, Review of Reviews, November, 1929, 80, 86-88; Sabin, Pauline Morton. Why American mothers demand repeal, Liberty, September 10, 1932, 12-14.
  • 13. Childs, Randolph W. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Alcoholic Beverage Study, Inc., 1947, pp. 260-261.
  • 14. Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1965, p. 337.
  • 15. Blocker, Jr., Jack S. Retreat from Reform. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976, p. 242.
  • 16. Mendelson, Jack H., and Mello, Nancy K. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Co., 1985, p. 94.

Filed Under: Prohibition

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