The repeal of Prohibition in the U.S. Was it the sad ending of a great Noble Experiment to create a better society? Or was it the return to sanity after a failed attempt to deny personal liberty and coerce others?
I. Promise of Prohibition
II. Reality of Prohibition
III. Pauline Sabin’s Leadership
IV. Repeal Organizations
V. 21st Amendment
VII. State & Local Option
VIII.Experience of States
Repeal of Prohibition
I. Promise of Prohibition
Tens of millions of Americans saw National Prohibition as the solution to the nation’s problems. It would reduce poverty. Would lower crime. Reduce violence. And it would reduce other ills. So they eagerly embraced it.1
The Noble Experiment began in 1920. Preacher Billy Sunday staged a mock funeral for “Demon Rum.” He extolled the virtues of Prohibition. “The rein of tears is over,” he said. “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 towns sold their jails.3
High with success, temperance groups planned to extend prohibition to countries around the world. The leading prohibitionist in Congress was highly confident. He said “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
Prohibition not only failed in its promises. It actually caused additional serious problems.
Millions of people became disillusioned. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in this in 1925. “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
Prohibition was generally strongly supported by business leaders. That had done much to gain support of others. But over time more and more business leaders became disillusioned. They weren’t happy with the results.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr. was a lifelong abstainer. He had given at least $350,000 and perhaps as much as $700,000 to the Anti-Saloon League. But then he announced his support for Repeal. That’s 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 that it would be generally supported by public opinion. 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. And that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree-I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe.7
Opposition to Enforcement
The 18th Amendment gave both federal and state governments authority to enforce Prohibition. Opposition to its enforcement increased over time. Montana became the first state to repeal its own enforcement, doing so in 1926.8 (Prohibition lasted from 1920 through 1933.)
Women, led by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) had been pivotal in bringing about 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 again pivotal to its repeal. 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
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 group for Repeal. This was after the president of the WCTU made a bold statement. She said to Congress “I represent the women of the United States!”9
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
But over time she became distressed. She saw the hypocrisy of politicians. They would vote for stricter enforcement. Yet illegally be drinking a few minutes later. She saw 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 drunkenness. Sabin disliked the growing disrespect for law. Perhaps most of all the erosion of personal liberty. This was at the hands of an increasingly intrusive 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 feel something must be done to protect their children.”11
Thus, Ms. 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 nation-wide.)
- 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 had 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 this list shows.
The necessary number of states completed ratification on December 5. The amendment was later ratified by ME (on December 6,1933) and MT (on August 6, 1934).
NC 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 GA, KS, LA, NE, ND, OK, SC, and SD. Indeed, SC specifically rejected the amendment.
Remaining under Prohibition until 1934 were the DC, and Puerto Rico. AK and HI 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 nine decades after national Repeal. That’s almost a century!
VIII. Experience of States
Prohibition and Repeal of Prohibition by State
- AL. National Prohibition and Repeal in AL.
- AR. AR, National Prohibition & Repeal.
- AZ. National Prohibition and Its Repeal in AZ.
- CA. National Prohibition and Repeal in CA.
- CO. CO Repealed National Prohibition after First Supporting It.
- CT. CT Suffers Vestiges of Prohibition Decades after Repeal.
- DE. Alcohol Problems and Repeal in DE.
- FL. FL’s Experience with National Prohibition and Repeal.
- ID. National Prohibition and Repeal in ID.
- IL. National Prohibition and Repeal. The IL Experience.
- IN. IN Still Suffers Vestiges of Prohibition in Spite of Repeal.
- IA. IA and Prohibition. Good Intentions Turn to Toxic Brew.
- KY. KY Prohibition, Moonshine,Bootlegging and Repeal.
- MD. MD, a Leader in Repealing National Prohibition.
- MA. National Prohibition and Repeal in MA.
- MN. MN Supported National Prohibition, then Voted for Repeal.
- MO. Alcohol Prohibition and Repeal in MO.
- NV. NV Gambled on Prohibition and Lost.
- NH. Prohibtion and Repeal in NH.
- NJ. Prohibition, Repeal and NJ’s Ira Reeves.
- NM. NM’s Experience with National Prohibition and Repeal.
- NY. Prohibition and Repeal in NY State.
- NC. Alcohol Prohibition and Repeal. NC’s Experience.
- OR. OR’s Experience with National Prohibition and Repeal.
- TN. National Prohibition and Repeal in TN.
- VT. VT Supported National Prohibition, then Repeal.
- VA. Yes, VA, National Prohibition was a Disaster.
- WA. National Prohibition was Disastrous and WA State Called for Repeal.
- WV. National Prohibition and Repeal: WV’s Experience
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. Not even Prohibition did that. (See What did Prohibition Prohibit? It Wasn’t Drinking.) Tens of millions of more people support neo-prohibition. It’s not surprising that so many relics of Prohibition endure.
IX. Resources on Repeal of Prohibition
- Burns, K., et al. Prohibition. PBS.
- Bauer, B. Gentlemen Bootleggers
- Grabill, G. Prohibition Prince.
- McGirr, L. The War on Alcohol. (Streaming on Hoopla.)
- Okrent, D. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition.
- Oliver, W. The Prohibition Era and Policing.
- Rorabaugh, W. Prohibition. A Concise History.
- _______. Prohibition. A Very Short Introduction. (Streaming on Hoopla.)
- Schrad, M. Smashing the Liquor Machine.
- Worth, R. Prohibition. The Rise and Fall of the Temperance Movement.
- Allen, C. The Repeal of Prohibition in Mississippi. Thesis. U. MS, 1992.
- Boyd, J. The Repeal of Prohibition in Ohio. Thesis. U. Cincinnati, 1981.
- Gasper, L. The Movement for Repeal, 1926-1933. Thesis. Bowling Green State U., 1949.
- Graymont, B. Prohibition and Repeal: The Churches’ Crusade that Failed. Thesis. U. Chicago, 1959.
- Leeman, R. Rhetoric of Prohibition and Repeal. Thesis. U. MD, 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. Contep Drug Prob, 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 Coll, 1974.
- Stegh, L. 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. Wash: GPO, 1928.
- Cherrington, E. The Fight against Alcoholism in the United States Since the Repeal of Prohibition. Wash: Board of Temp Prohib and Pub Moral of the Method Episl Ch, 1937.
- Childs, R. Making Repeal Work. (1947)
- Comm Judiciary. U.S. House of Representatives. Repeal of Prohibition on Federal Employees Contracting or Trading with Indians. Wash: GPO, 1996.
- Comm Judiciary. Modification or Repeal of National Prohibition. Hearings. Wash: GPO, 1932.
- Dickinson, E. The effect of prohibition repeal upon the liquor treaties. Am J Inter Law, 1934, 28, 101-104.
- Gillett, R., and Holmes, J. Repeal of the Prohibition Amendment, 1923.
- Harrison, L. and Laine, E. After Repeal, 1936.
- Leg Ref Serv. Intoxicating Liquors. State Prohibition after Repeal of the 18th Amendment. Wash: The Serv, 1933.
- Patch, B. Preparations for Prohibition Repeal. Wash: Ed Res Report, 1933.
- Pickett, D. Then and Now: The Truth about Prohibition and Repeal, 1952.
- Pollard, J. The Road to Repeal, 1932.
- Prohibition vs. Repeal Literature. Five Current Aspects of Repeal. Wash: The Lit, 1936.
- Repeal Assn. Review of Repeal, 1936-1965.
- Shouse, J. The Status of Prohibition Repeal, 1933.
- Tietsort, F. Temperance – or Prohibition? 1929.
1. Aaron, P., and Musto, D. Temperance and Prohibition in America. In: Moore, M., and Gerstein, D. (Eds.) Alcohol and Public Policy. Pp. 127-181. (p.157)
2. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion, pp. 144-145.
3. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook, 1920, p. 28.
4. Merz, C. The Dry Decade, p. ix.
5. Kyvig, D. Repealing National Prohibition.
6. Prendergast, M. A History of Alcohol Problem Prevention Efforts. In: Holder, H. (Ed.) Control Issues on Alcohol Abuse Prevention. Pp. 25-52. (p. 44). Kyvig, ibid, p. 96.
7. Kyvig, id, p. 152.
8. Yenne, B., and Debolski, T. Ultimate Book of Beer Trivia, pp. 103-4
9. Kyvig, ibid.
10. Kyvig, bid.
11. Kyvig, ibid.
12. Ducas, D. In miniature: Mrs. Charles S. Sabin, lady into tiger, McCall’s, Sept, 1930. Sabin, P. 1 change my mind on Prohibition, Outlook, June 13, 1928. p. 1. Sabin, P. Women’s revolt against Prohibition, Rev of Reviews, Nov, 1929, 80, 86-88. Sabin, P. Why American mothers demand repeal, Liberty, Sept 10, 1932, 12-14.
13. Childs, R. Making Repeal Work, pp. 260-261.
14. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum, p. 337.
15. Blocker, J. Retreat from Reform, p. 242.
16. Mendelson, J., and Mello, N. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America, p. 94.
You now know much more about the repeal of Prohibition than most people. So kudos!