Today in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was certified when Wyoming became the 36th state in the Union to ratify it. When the amendment went into effect, exactly one year later, it ensured that alcohol (or “intoxicating liquors”, the term used in the amendment) would become all but impossible to obtain by legal means. Thus, the United States entered the era of Prohibition, the unintended consequences of which would have a far-reaching impact on American society.
The temperance movement in the United States dates back to the time of the War for Independence. By the beginning of the Civil War some 80 years later, more than 3 million Americans out of a population of 31 million belonged to an organized temperance group. These groups had a tremendous effect on society and were able to influence various state legislatures to pass laws enacting strict limitations on how, where and to whom alcohol could be sold. Many states endorsed an anti-alcohol curriculum under pressure from temperance groups, the aim being to inform young people of the purported evils of liquor long before they took that first drink.
Out of the temperance movement grew the political prohibition movement. A national move towards a prohibition on alcohol sales first gained strength in the 1840’s, but the Civil War caused the movement to fade during the 1860’s. The last quarter of the 19th century, however, witnessed a resurgence with the establishment of such groups as the Prohibition Party and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1881, Kansas became the first state to outlaw alcoholic beverages by constitutional amendment. By the turn of the century, most states contained at least a few dry towns or counties; a large number of those still exist today.
Many Prohibition groups, called “dries”, were church-based, mainly Protestant denominations. The anti-Prohibition groups, or “wets”, tended to be mostly Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutherans from Germany. Both major political parties had wet and dry factions. The issue was so contentious that during the 1916 Presidential election, both Democrat Woodrow Wilson and his challenger, Republican Charles Evans Hughes, ignored the issue. Wilson won the election and when Congress convened in January, 1917, the mandate was clear: regardless of party, dries outnumbered wets in Congress by 2-to-1.
Both the US House of Representatives and the Senate passed the resolution calling for the Eighteenth Amendment in December, 1917. There were forty-eight states in the Union at that time, so thirty-six state legislatures would have to ratify the amendment in order for it to be certified as part of the Constitution. This amendment was unique up to that point in American constitutional history in that it contained a codicil requiring it to be certified within seven years. The states needed barely one. Starting in January, 1918, one state after another voted in favor of the document. On January 16th, 1919, Wyoming became the 36th state to ratify the amendment. On January 29th, Secretary of State Frank Polk certified the ratification process. The amendment went into effect one year later. The Noble Experiment, as Prohibition came to be called in the United States by its proponents, was underway.
It is a peculiarity of the American legal system that Congress had to take one more action in order to give the Eighteenth Amendment teeth: it had to pass a bill which defined the term “intoxicating liquors” and implemented the amendment. This was accomplished with the National Prohibition Act, more popularly know as the Volstead Act. The law did not specifically outlaw the use of intoxicating liquors, but it superseded all state laws regarding the manufacture and sale of liquor, essentially forbidding any drink containing more than 0.5% alcohol.
Since distilleries, breweries and alcohol importation companies suddenly became illegal enterprises, those who made their livelihoods outside the law soon took over these businesses. All of the gangsters who would become household names during the 1920's owed their wealth and fame to the fact that they manufactured or imported beer and liquor for use in illegal bars, or speakeasies as they came to be known. The Mafia and other organized crime groups began to wield tremendous power in larger cities, especially those that served as distribution points for liquor importation. Southern moonshiners suddenly found their product in hot demand, resulting in a career boost for bootleggers and their fast cars. Modern stock car racing in the United States can trace its roots directly back to the young men who delivered moonshine all over the South at night in souped-up cars capable of outrunning all but the most aggressive police officers.
The surge in organized crime during the 1920's caused some who once supported Prohibition to re-think their position. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression also helped to change the nation's attitude towards an industry that, if once again legitimized, would provide tens of thousands of jobs for the nation's unemployed. By 1933, public opinion had turned hard against Prohibition. In February of that year, the Blaine Act proposed another amendment to the Constitution, this one intended to end Prohibition and return control of alcohol manufacture and sales to the states. On December 5th, 1933, Utah ratified the Twenty-First Amendment and national Prohibition became another chapter in the history of the United States.