Prohibition

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Amendment XVIII

The Eighteenth Amendment, enacted in 1919, was one of four "Progressive" Amendments passed and ratified in quick succession. Although the American involvement with alcohol and with temperance movements had been present from the beginning of the country's history, Prohibition rode to easy victory in an alliance with other elements of the Progressive Movement in the early twentieth century. The Sixteenth Amendment, permitting the income tax, freed the government from dependence on the tax on liquor. The direct election of Senators, through the Seventeenth Amendment, made the Senate more amenable to electoral pressure for temperance. Although the Nineteenth Amendment, guaranteeing women the right to vote, was ratified in 1920, it reflected a general acceptance of woman suffrage (and temperance support) already present in the states, many of which allowed women to vote even before the Nineteenth Amendment came into effect.

Businesses supported the amendment to ensure a more reliable workforce, while prejudice against German-Americans and their breweries during World War I helped make Prohibition a patriotic cause. The amendment passed through both Congress and the states with amazing speed. There were no committee hearings in Congress, and debate took less than six hours, most of it centering on the time limit for ratification. The states ratified the amendment within a month.

The only problematic element of the amendment was Section 2, granting Congress and the states concurrent enforcement powers. Under its Section 2 powers, Congress enacted the Volstead Act in 1919 over President Woodrow Wilson's veto. The act defined "intoxicating liquors" as any drink with an alcohol content higher than .05 percent, a strict definition that prohibited even the intake of beer. It permitted exemptions for industrial, medicinal, and sacramental uses, and the act also contained a possession exemption for personal use within one's own private dwelling.

In the 1920 National Prohibition Cases, the Supreme Court ruled that, under the Supremacy Clause, states could not enact legislation that conflicted with congressional enactments regarding Prohibition. Because the states had been the engines of much Progressive legislation, the Progressive Movement assumed that the states would actively enforce the amendment, federal law, and their own state laws. The unexpected and widespread reluctance among the states to enforce Prohibition, along with the concomitant development of organized crime and the loss of tax revenues after the start of the Depression, led to a national scandal that undid Prohibition in little more than a decade. Prohibition was repealed in 1933 by the Twenty-first Amendment.

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David Wagner
Professor of Law
Regent University School of Law