Repeal of Prohibition (1933)

The era of Prohibition was initiated by the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors…” The amendment was passed by Congress on December 18, 1917, ratified by the states by January 16, 1919, and put into effect one year later [1]. The Amendment was a triumph for the long-running temperance movement, which was concerned about the negative moral and health effects of alcohol. Prohibition was popular in rural areas, among Protestants, with employers and among women who had witnessed the damage done to families by alcoholism. It was most unpopular among city dwellers, Catholics, professionals and workmen.

A major failing of prohibition was to create a black market for liquor, providing lucrative business opportunities for gangsters like Al Capone, as well as thousands of “bootleggers” across the country whose products were no longer monitored for quality. It also sparked a proliferation of “speakeasies” – businesses that offered secret places for people to drink, out of the sight of official law enforcement, and largely unregulated for other illegal activities.

Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt made the repeal of prohibition part of his campaign platform. In August 1932, in Seagirt, New Jersey, he explained his thoughts and position. He said that alcohol abuse was “bound up with crime, with insanity and, only too often, with poverty. It is increasingly apparent that the intemperate use of intoxicants has no place in this new mechanized civilization of ours. In our industry, in our recreation, on our highways, a drunken man is more than an objectionable companion, he is a peril to the rest of us…. [Prohibition has] been accompanied in most parts of the country by complete and tragic failure. [A] general encouragement of lawlessness has resulted; … corruption, hypocrisy, crime and disorder have emerged; and … instead of restricting, we have extended the spread of intemperance. This failure has come for this very good reason: we have depended too largely upon the power of governmental action instead of recognizing that the authority of the home and that of the churches in these matters is the fundamental force on which we must build” [2].

The newly-elected Roosevelt wasted no time whittling away at Prohibition, and signed the Beer-Wine Revenue Act on March 22, 1933 [3]. This law amended the Volstead Act of 1919 [4], the act of Congress that enabled the 18th Amendment and was subsequently used to broaden the ban from hard liquor to beer [5]. The Beer-Wine Revenue Act raised the permitted percentage of alcohol to 3.2 percent and taxed it [6]. After Roosevelt signed the act he “reportedly remarked to his aide, Louis Howe, ‘I think this would be a good time for a beer’” [7].

The anti-Prohibition movement culminated in the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which repeals the 18th Amendment [8]. In a proclamation declaring the repeal, Roosevelt urged Americans to drink responsibly and “… not bring upon themselves the curse of excessive use of intoxicating liquors, to the detriment of health, morals and social integrity” [9]. The federal government “collected more than $258 million in alcohol taxes in the first year after repeal. Those millions, which accounted for nearly nine percent of the government’s tax revenue, helped to finance Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the ensuing years” [10].

Sources: (1) “Amendment XVIII,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html#18, accessed August 8, 2015. (2) “Campaign Address on Prohibition in Sea Girt, New Jersey,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=88395, accessed August 8, 2015. (3) “This Day in History – FDR legalizes the sale of beer and wine,” History Channel, http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fdr-legalizes-sale-of-beer-and-wine, accessed August 8, 2015. (4) “Act of October 28, 1919 [Volstead Act],” National Archives and Records Administration, http://research.archives.gov/id/299827, accessed August 8, 2015. (5) “The constitutional origins of National Beer Day,” National Constitution Center, http://blog.constitutioncenter.org/2015/04/the-constitutional-origins-of-national-beer-day/, accessed August 8, 2015 (emphasis added). (6) “History of the Finance Committee,” U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, http://www.finance.senate.gov/about/history/, accessed August 8, 2015. (7) Kelly Phillips Erb, “13 Quirky Beer and Tax Facts On National Beer Day,” Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/kellyphillipserb/2015/04/07/13-quirky-beer-tax-facts-on-national-beer-day/, accessed August 8, 2015. (8) “Amendment XXI,” National Archives and Records Administration, http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_amendments_11-27.html#21, accessed August 8, 2015. (9) “Proclamation 2065 – Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment,” American Presidency Project, University of California – Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=14570, accessed August 8, 2015. (10) Christopher Klein, “The Night Prohibition Ended, 80 Years Ago,” History Channel, December 5, 2013, http://www.history.com/news/the-night-prohibition-ended-80-years-ago, accessed August, 8, 2015.