Repeal of Prohibition: End of the Dream that was National Prohibition

The repeal of Prohibition in the U.S. Was it the sad ending of a great Noble Experiment to create a better society?


I.   Promise of Prohibition

II.  Reality of Prohibition

III. Pauline Sabin’s Leadership

IV.  Repeal Organizations

V.   21st Amendment

VI.  Repeal

VII. State & Local Option

VIII.Experience of States

Or was it the return to sanity after a failed attempt to deny personal liberty and coerce others?

I. Promise of Prohibition

Tens of millions of Americans saw National Prohibition as the solution to the nation’s problems. It would reduce 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. He 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 Alcohol was to be banned. Since it was the cause of most, if not all, crime, some communities sold their jails.3

Elated with success, temperance groups planned to extend prohibition to countries around the world. Not surprisingly, the leading prohibitionist in Congress was highly confident. He 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

II. Reality of Prohibition

Unfortunately, Prohibition not only failed in its promises but actually caused additional serious problems.

repeal of prohibition
H.L. Mencken

This led to an increasing disillusionment by millions of Americans. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925 that “There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. 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.

Support Declined

John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was a lifelong abstainer. He had contributed at least $350,000 and perhaps as much as $700,000 to the Anti-Saloon League. However, he 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.

Rockefeller continued.

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

Opposition to Enforcement

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. Montana became the first state to repeal its own enforcement of Prohibition, doing so in 1926.8 (Prohibition existed from 1920 through 1933.)

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 to the repeal of  Prohibition. Their interest was again a moral one. Prohibition was undermining the family and corrupting the morals of women and children.

III. Pauline Sabin’s Leadership

Repeal of prohibition
Pauline Sabin

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

Reversed Position

Sabin originally supported Prohibition. She thought 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. She saw the hypocrisy of politicians. They would vote for stricter enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. Yet illegally be drinking alcohol a few minutes later.  She saw the counterproductively of Prohibition. The decline in moderate drinking and the increase in binge drinking. She was unhappy with the growing power of bootleggers. With the widespread political corruption. With mob violence. And with increased public intoxication. Sabin disliked the growing disrespect for law. Perhaps most of all the erosion of personal liberty at the hands of an increasingly intrusive centralized government.

Ms. Sabin testified before Congress. “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 call for the repeal of Prohibition. They did so 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

Other important Repeal leaders included these.

IV. Repeal Organizations

As disillusionment and dissatisfaction spread, the number of  organizations promoting repeal of Prohibition grew. They included these.

Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.

The Crusaders.

Labor’s National Committee for Modification of the Volstead Act.

Moderation League of New York. (despite the name, this was a nation-wide  organization.)

Molly Pitcher Club.

Republican Citizens Committee Against National Prohibition.

United Repeal Council.

Voluntary Committee of Lawyers.

Women’s Moderation Union.

Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

V. 21st Amendment

The Democratic Party platform in the 1932 election included an anti-Prohibition plank. 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. That would repeal Prohibition. Most did so rather quickly, as the following list indicates.

May8Rhode Island
June1New Jersey
27New York
11New Hampshire
25West Virginia
November2New Mexico

VI. Repeal

The necessary number of states completed ratification on December 5. The amendment was later ratified  by Maine (on December 6,1933) and Montana (on August 6, 934).

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

Remaining under Prohibition until 1934 were the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Alaska and Hawaii. The 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  So 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 crowds sang “Happy Days are Here Again!”  President Roosevelt would soon look back to what he called “The damnable affliction of Prohibition.”15

VII. State & Local Option

The twenty-first Amendment repealed National Prohibition. It 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.

The first section made it again legal to import, produce, and sell beverage alcohol. 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. This enabled residents in political subdivisions to vote for or against local prohibition. Therefore, even after Repeal, 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. It often divided friends and even families. It sometimes still does. Today, there are hundreds of dry (prohibition) counties across the United States. They have about 16,000,000 living under prohibition. This is eight decades after national Repeal.

VIII. Experience of States

Prohibition and Repeal by State


National Prohibition was a colossal failure. It also created serious problems. Yet almost 20% of Americans today support making it a crime to have a drink. Even more people support neo-prohibition. It’s not surprising that so many relics of Prohibition endure.


Resources on Repeal of Prohibition.


A&E Network. The Road to Repeal. DVD video. NY: A&E Network, 1997.

Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. NY: Greenwood, 1968,

Behr, E. Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America. NY: Arcade, 1996.

Burns, K., et al. Prohibition. DVD video. Culver City: PBS, 2011.

Dunn, J. Prohibition. Juvenile readership. Detroit: Lucent, 2010.

Engdahl, S. (Ed.) Amendments XVIII and XXI: Prohibition and Repeal. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven, 2009.

Hintz, M. Farewell, John Barleycorn: Prohibition in the US. Juvenile readership. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1996.

Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition. Kent, OH: Kent State U. Press, 2000.

Lucas, E. The Eighteenth and Twenty-First Amendments: Alcohol, Prohibition, and Repeal. Springfield, NJ: Enslow, 1998.

Merz, C. The Dry Decade. Seattle: U. Washington Press, 1969.

Nishi, D. Prohibition. San Diego: Greenhaven, 2003.

Okrent, D. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Scribner, 2010.

Rose, K. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: NYU. Press, 1996.

Root, G. Women and Repeal. The Story of the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform. NY: Harper, 1934.

Sann, P. The 20s, the Lawless Decade. A Pictorial History.  NY: Da Capo, 1984.

Schrad, M. Constitutional Blemishes. American Alcohol Prohibition and Repeal as Policy Punctuation. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

Severen, B. The End of the Roaring Twenties. Prohibition and Repeal. NY: J. Messner, 1969. (Juvenile)

Shay, G., et al. Amendment 18, Prohibition; Amendment 21, Repeal of Prohibition. DVD video. Lawrenceville, NJ: Cambridge, 2004.

Walker, R.S., and Patterson, S.C. Oklahoma Goes Wet. The Repeal of Prohibition. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1960.


Allen, C.S. The Repeal of Prohibition in Mississippi. Thesis. U. Mississippi, 1992.

Becker, S. Review of American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. J Am Hist, 1996, 83(3), 1057-1058.

Boyd, J.A. The Repeal of Prohibition in Ohio: the Repeal Process from Congress to Ohio. Thesis. U. Cincinnati, 1981.

Gasper, L. The Movement for Repeal of National Prohibition, 1926-1933. Thesis. Bowling Green State U., 1949.

Graymont, B. Prohibition and Repeal: The Churches’ Crusade that Failed. Thesis. U. Chicago, 1959.

Kyvig, D.E. Review of American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. Am Hist Rev, 1997, 102(2), 538.

Leeman, R.W. Explicating the Rhetoric of Prohibition and Repeal. Thesis. U. Maryland, 1982.

Munger, M., and Schaller, T.. The Prohibition-Repeal amendments. Pub. Choice, 1997, 90(1-4), 139-163.

Roizen, R. Redefining alcohol in post-repeal America. Contemp Drug Prob, 1991,75, 237-272. (pp. 245-246)

Schaller, T. Institutional Design, Institutional Choice, and the Case of Prohibition-Repeal. Thesis. Yale U., 1997.

Shellenberger, K. Prohibition in Pennsylvania from Ratification to Repeal. Thesis. Millersville State College, 1974.

Stegh, L. Wet and Dry Battles in the Cradle State of Prohibition: Robert J. Bulkley and the Repeal of Prohibition in Ohio. Thesis. U. Cincinnati, 1981.

Weise, C. The Political Economy of Prohibition and Repeal. Thesis. Auburn U., 1998.


Cannon, J. Prohibition Repeal Unthinkable. Washington, DC: GPO, 1928.

Cherrington, E. The Fight against Alcoholism in the United States Since the Repeal of Prohibition. Washington, DC: Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morality of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1937.

Childs, R. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Alcoholic Beverage Study, 1947.

Comm Judiciary. U.S. House of Representatives. Repeal of Prohibition on Federal Employees Contracting or Trading with Indians. Washington: GPO, 1996.

Comm Judiciary. Modification or Repeal of National Prohibition. Hearings. Washington: GPO, 1932.

Dickinson, E. The effect of prohibition repeal upon the liquor treaties. Am J Internat Law, 1934, 28, 101-104.

Gillett, R., and Holmes, J. Repeal of the Prohibition Amendment. NY: Wilson, 1923.

Harrison, L. and Laine, E. After Repeal. NY: Harper, 1936.

Leg Ref Serv. Intoxicating Liquors. State Prohibition after Repeal of the 18th Amendment. Washington: The Serv, 1933.

Patch, B. Preparations for Prohibition Repeal. Washington: Ed Res Report, 1933.

Pickett, D. Then and Now: The Truth about Prohibition and Repeal. Columbus, OH: Sch Coll Serv, 1952.

Pollard, J. The Road to Repeal. NY: Brentano’s, 1932.

Prohibition vs. Repeal Literature. Five Current Aspects of Repeal. Washington: The Literature, 1936.

Repeal Associates. Review of Repeal. Washington: Repeal Associates, 1936-1965.

Shouse, J. The Status of Prohibition Repeal. Washington: Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, 1933.

Tietsort, F. Temperance – or Prohibition? NY: American, 1929.

1. Aaron, P., and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1981. pp. 127-181. (p.157)
2. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. NY: Greenwood, 1968, pp. 144-145.
3. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook. Westerville OH: American Issue Press, 1920, p. 28.
4. Merz, C. The Dry Decade. Seattle: U. Washington Press, 1969, p. ix.
5. Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1979.
6. Prendergast, M. A History of Alcohol Problem Prevention Efforts. In: Holder, H. (Ed.) Control Issues on Alcohol Abuse Prevention. Greenwich, CT: JAI, 1987. pp. 25-52. (p. 44). Kyvig, id, p. 96.
7. Kyvig, id, p. 152.
8. Yenne, B., and Debolski, T. The Ultimate Book of Beer Trivia. San Mateo, CA: Bluewood, 1994, pp. 103-104
9. Kyvig, ibid.
10. Kyvig, bid.
11.  Kyvig, ibid.
12. Ducas, D. In miniature: Mrs. Charles S. Sabin, lady into tiger, McCall’s, September, 1930. Sabin, P.M. I change my mind on Prohibition, Outlook, June 13, 1928. Sabin, P.M. Women’s revolt against Prohibition, Rev of Reviews, Nov, 1929, 80, 86-88. Sabin, P.M. Why American mothers demand repeal, Liberty, Sept 10, 1932, 12-14.
13. Childs, R. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Alcoholic Beverage Study, Inc., 1947, pp. 260-261.
14. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. NY: Putnam’s Sons, 1965, p. 337.
15. Blocker, J. Retreat from Reform. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1976, p. 242.
16. Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1985, p. 94.