Common Interpretation

The Eighteenth Amendment

The Eighteenth Amendment

By Robert P. George and David A. J. Richards

By its terms, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquours” but not the consumption, private possession, or production for one’s own consumption. In contrast to earlier amendments to the Constitution, the Amendment set a one-year time delay before it would be operative, and set a time limit (seven years) for its ratification by the states. Its ratification was certified on January 16, 1919, and the Amendment took effect on January 16, 1920.

To define the prohibitory terms of the Amendment, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, better known as the Volstead Act, on October 28, 1919. The Volstead Act charged the U.S. Treasury Department with enforcement of the new restrictions, and defined which “intoxicating liquours” were forbidden and which were excluded from Prohibition (for example, alcoholic beverages used for medical and religious purposes). President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the bill, but the House of Representatives overrode the veto, and the Senate did so as well the next day. The Volstead Act set the starting date for nationwide prohibition for January 17, 1920, which was the earliest day allowed by the Eighteenth Amendment.

The Amendment was in effect for the following 13 years. It was repealed in 1933 by ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment. This was the one time in American history that a constitutional amendment was repealed in its entirety (see discussion of the Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution).

In his important study both of the Eighteenth Amendment and its repeal, Daniel Okrent identifies the powerful political coalition that worked successfully in the two decades leading to the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment:

Five distinct, if occasionally overlapping, components made up this unspoken coalition:  racists, progressives, suffragists, populists (whose ranks included a small socialist auxiliary), and nativists. Adherents of each group may have been opposed to alcohol for its own sake, but used the Prohibition impulse to advance ideologies and causes that had little to do with it.

The Eighteenth Amendment must be understood in its historical context, namely, “between 1913 and 1919, in the greatest burst of constitutional activity since the Bill of Rights, amendments establishing the income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition, and woman suffrage were engraved into the nation’s organic law.” The Amendment establishing the income tax (1913) removed the leading practical obstacle to Prohibition, namely, that taxes on alcohol had been a significant source of government revenues theretofore, and ending this business would eliminate taxes that had been historically important to raising revenues for the public business. With the income tax constitutionally established, Prohibition was now financially feasible, and the coalition supporting it could achieve its ends without facing this obstacle. Whether its ends were justifiable or worth the price paid for its enforcement is debated and will be discussed later (see the Twenty-First Amendment).

Further Reading:

Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2010). 

Richard F. Hamm, Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Matters of Debate

Robert P. George Robert P. George McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Professor of Politics and Parliamentarian, Princeton University

Good and Bad Reasons For and Against Alcohol Prohibition By Robert P. George

There were good and bad—sound and unsound—reasons to favor enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, and there were good and bad reasons to oppose it.

Full Text

David A. J. Richards David A. J. Richards Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law, New York University School of Law.

The Dark Side of the Noble Experiment By David A. J. Richards

In his important study of the passage and repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, Daniel Okrent identified the powerful political coalition that worked successfully in the two decades leading to the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment.

Full Text

Matters of Debate

Good and Bad Reasons For and Against Alcohol Prohibition By Robert P. George

Good and Bad Reasons For and Against Alcohol Prohibition

By Robert P. George

There were good and bad—sound and unsound—reasons to favor enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, and there were good and bad reasons to oppose it.

The good reasons to favor enactment derived from recognizing that drunkenness and alcohol addiction were responsible (as they still are today, unfortunately) for countless personal catastrophes and widespread social pathologies. These catastrophes and pathologies include, among many other things, illnesses such as cirrhosis of the liver, accidental deaths and injuries, violence (including domestic violence), unemployability and poverty, and parental and other forms of personal irresponsibility and family abandonment. Honorable supporters of alcohol prohibition hoped that a nationwide ban on the manufacture, sale, and transport of beverage alcohol would significantly reduce alcohol consumption, abuse, and addiction, resulting in fewer alcohol-related illnesses and accidents, and a reduction of alcohol-fueled violence and other social evils.

The bad and dishonorable reasons that some Americans favored the Eighteenth Amendment were rooted in racism, ethnic and religious bigotry, and nativism. These prohibitionists identified drinking and alcohol with blacks, Catholics, and immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe and, in the wake of World War I, Germans. Many of these prohibitionists hoped that enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment would make the United States less attractive and less hospitable to the kinds of people whom they deemed undesirable.

The good reasons to oppose the Eighteenth Amendment’s enactment had to do with concerns that Prohibition would fail, mainly because the law would be widely defied and difficult to enforce. Some opponents accurately predicted that Prohibition would be a boon to criminals who would handsomely profit from a black market in alcoholic beverages and deploy some of their earnings to corrupt law enforcement officials, prosecutors, and judges. Some even foresaw that lax or selective enforcement of Prohibition, together with corruption of public officials, would bring the legal system into disrepute and erode respect for the authority of law generally.

Another Perspective

This essay is part of a discussion about the Eighteenth Amendment with David A.J. Richards, Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law, New York University School of Law. Read the full discussion here.

The bad reasons to oppose enactment, though few Americans of the time opposed it for these reasons, had to do with the doctrinaire libertarian belief that people have a right to drink, and even to get drunk, and that law therefore has no legitimate authority to forbid the production and sale of alcoholic beverages or other intoxicants, even for the sake of ameliorating the social ills resulting from its widespread abuse. Although, as I say, this type of libertarianism seems not to have been a major factor in debates over enactment and later repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, it has in the years since the emergence of what Robert Bellah labeled the ideology of “expressive individualism” in the late-1960s, come to play a dominant role in how many people think back on alcohol prohibition, and it certainly informs the way in which many think about substance abuse policy today.

Robert P. George Robert P. George McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Professor of Politics and Parliamentarian, Princeton University

Matters of Debate

The Dark Side of the Noble Experiment By David A. J. Richards

The Dark Side of the Noble Experiment

By David A. J. Richards

In his important study of the passage and repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, Daniel Okrent identified the powerful political coalition that worked successfully in the two decades leading to the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment:  

[F]ive distinct, if occasionally overlapping, components made up this unspoken coalition:  racists, progressives, suffragists, populists (whose ranks included a small socialist auxiliary), and nativists. Adherents of each group may have been opposed to alcohol for its own sake, but used the Prohibition impulse to advance ideologies and causes that had little to do with it.

Racism was unashamedly blatant. According to Okrent, “it was a familiar characterization, and its reach extended beyond the boundaries of the old Confederacy. Frances Willard herself [a leading progressive advocate of temperance] had adopted the imagery, asserting that ‘the grogshot is the Negro’s center of power. Better whiskey and more of it is the rallying cry of dark faced mobs.’” Both Prohibition and the suffrage amendment had been “linked in the holy advocacy of politicians who regarded both as expressions of moral virtue” (like William Jennings Bryan), and “had become politically welded to one another, not because of moral congruence,” but because of political convenience. With the nation at war with Imperial Germany, populists and nativists joined in moral condemnation of the beer-drinking culture of German-Americans, yet another component of the coalition that carried the Amendment to ratification.

What is all too conspicuous in the coalition supporting the Eighteenth Amendment is not only blatant racism against people of color, but also a racism of ethnic hatred against German-Americans and the more recent immigrants to the United States—the so-called “hyphenated Americanism” against which Theodore Roosevelt inveighed. These groups did not share either the religion (Catholic Italian-Americans and Jews) or the drinking habits of the dominant American Protestant majority that felt increasingly at threat. In effect, the drinking habits of these Americans became a proxy for American racism and religious intolerance, in a way that echoes and anticipates what the Nixon advisor John Ehrlichman acknowledged as the basis for Nixon’s War on Crime: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black . . . but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt these communities.”

Another Perspective

This essay is part of a discussion about the Eighteenth Amendment with Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, Professor of Politics and Parliamentarian, Princeton University. Read the full discussion here.

The Eighteenth Amendment did not, in my judgment, arise from a sober secular reflection on how to deal with the harms of alcohol abuse, which it may have aggravated, but from sectarian and highly idiosyncratic perfectionist Protestant ideals. America, a nation of immigrants, remains, as our contemporary politics shows, vulnerable to sometimes irrational fear of new immigrants of different ethnicities or religions from the dominant majority.  

America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was at a vulnerable transitional moment away from the anti-racism of the Reconstruction Amendments to an increasingly racist culture (importantly supported both by American politicians and by the Supreme Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896)) attracted for this reason to European models of racist imperialism to its own version of imperialism. The North and South, which had fought a civil war ultimately over slavery and the cultural racism that rationalized it, buried its enduring ethical meaning as white men found common ground in racist imperialist ventures abroad.  The suggestion that the solution to civil war in a democracy is war abroad is as old as Athena’s patriarchal advice to democratic Athens in Aeschylus’s The Oresteia:

Never pluck the heart of the battle cock
And plant it in our people—intestine war
seething against themselves.  Let our wars
rage on abroad, with all their force, to satisfy
our powerful lust for fame.  But as for the bird
that fights at home—my curse on civil war.

It was this increasingly racist and imperialistic American culture that supported our entering a European war among competing European imperialisms, World War I, which most Americans of that period probably did not want to fight and which, disastrously, set the stage for the even more catastrophic World War II. Those who resisted the unpopular war (which Wilson, as a presidential candidate, had promised not to enter) had already been unjustly prosecuted in violation of what we now regard as our better traditions of free speech; the Prohibition Amendment further demonized them by racializing and indeed criminalizing their ways of life, including the role beer and wine played in their ways of life. The dominance of such fear-ridden irrationalism in support of the Eighteenth Amendment—over any secular concern with how more effectively to lower the harms from alcohol abuse—discredits its normative legitimacy.  

Further Reading:

Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2010).

Richard F. Hamm, Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).

Edward J. Renehan Jr., The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Stephen Kinzer, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2017).

Kristin L. Hoganson, Fighting for American Manhood: How Gender Politics Provoked the Spanish-American and Philippine-American Wars (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American History (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).

David A. J. Richards David A. J. Richards Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law, New York University School of Law.

Amendment XVIII

Prohibition of Liquor

By Annenberg Classroom

*Note: The Interactive Constitution is being developed over the course of the next two years. So far, Amendments 1-15 have Interactive content, and we are working on bringing you Interactive content for this Amendment. In the meanwhile, the interpretation below is supplied by the Annenberg Classroom.

Ratified on January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the making, transporting, and selling of alcoholic beverages. Adopted at the urging of a national temperance movement, proponents believed that the use of alcohol was reckless and destructive and that prohibition would reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, decrease the need for welfare and prisons, and improve the health of all Americans. During prohibition, it is estimated that alcohol consumption and alcohol related deaths declined dramatically.

But prohibition had other, more negative consequences. The amendment drove the lucrative alcohol business underground, giving rise to a large and pervasive black market. In addition, prohibition encouraged disrespect for the law and strengthened organized crime. Prohibition came to an end with the ratification of Amendment XXI on December 5, 1933.