The Eighteenth Amendment

The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages in the United States and its possessions. Contrary to common belief, it did not prohibit the purchase or consumption of alcohol.

The Amendment was proposed by Congress on December 18, 1917, when it passed the Senate after it had passed the House the day earlier. The Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919, went into effect one year later on January 16, 1920, and was repealed by the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933. In the over 230 years of the U.S. Constitution, the 18th is the only Amendment ever to have been repealed.

Ratification of Eighteenth Amendment by Date

Ratification of Eighteenth Amendment by State

Rhode Island specifically rejected ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment.

*Date on which approved by governor.

Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment took 394 days and was achieved on January 16, 1919, when thirty-six of the forty-eight states then in the U.S. had ratified it. On January 29, the acting Secretary of State formally certified the ratification which had occurred ten days earlier.

Section three of the Eighteenth Amendment placed a deadline on its ratification by the required number of states. If an insufficient number of states had ratified it within seven years it would not have gone into effect. This was the first time in history that such a time limit for ratification had been included in a proposed amendment to the Constitution and the validity of the Amendment was challenged on that basis. However its constitutionality was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on May 16, 1921.

The 18th Amendment contains only 111 words and after it was ratified only the first two sections were relevant to National Prohibition and its enforcement:

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.

However, those few words did not provide the specificity needed to permit its enforcement. For example, what was an "intoxicating liquor," what was the penalty for manufacturing it, could it be produced for medicinal and health purposes, was the quantity of illegal alcohol sold relevant to the punishment, could alcohol be produced for religious purposes, and so on.

The National Prohibition Act of 1919 was designed as enabling legislation that would answer all such questions. Commonly called the Volstead Act after Congressman Andrew J. Volstead who chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee and whose job it was to sponsor the legislation, it was largely authored by Wayne Wheeler the de facto head of the Anti-Saloon League.

The bill was vetoed on October 28, 1919 by President Woodrow Wilson, who cited both moral and constitutional objections, but Congress overrode his veto the same day.

The Volstead Act was officially titled "An act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries." Thus, its title identified its three major purposes (1) to "prohibit intoxicating beverages," (2) "to regulate the manufacture, production, use and sale of high proof spirits for other than beverage purposes," and (3) to "insure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye and other lawful industries."

The Eighteenth Amendment is very short but the law to implement it was over 25 pages in length. It was complex, confusing and difficult to interpret. However, exactly what was permitted and not permitted did not concern the tens of millions of people who chose to violate the law.


After Prohibition went into effect it became illegal, with few exceptions such as alcohol for religious or medicinal use, to produce, distribute or sell alcoholic beverages. Legitimate businesses were replaced by illegal ones that paid no taxes.

Illegal alcohol production and sale was often a cottage industry. Entire families would sometimes be involved as suggested by the following:

Mother's in the kitchen
Washing out the jugs;
Sister's in the pantry
Bottling the suds;
Father's in the cellar
Mixing up the hops;
Johnny's on the front porch
Watching for the cops.2


Mother makes brandy from cherries;
Pop distills whisky and gin;
Sister sells wine from the grapes on our vine-
Good grief, how the money rolls in!3

However, small-time operators were soon facing competition from the organized crime and criminal gangs that fought each other for market control with violence and murder.

Bootleg alcohol was carelessly made and often contained creosote, lead toxins and even embalming fluid. Consumers sometimes suffered paralysis, blindness and painful death. This led many drinkers to switch to opium, cocaine, hair tonic, sterno or "liquid heat," and other dangerous substances that they would have been unlikely to consume in the absence of Prohibition.

Moonshiners and bootleggers found it necessary to payoff police, sheriffs and Prohibition Bureau agents as a cost of doing business. In many towns and cities, corruption reached mayors, police chiefs, prosecutors, magistrates, city commissioners, city council members, fire chiefs, and others. In some cases, entire administrations were corrupted.

The widespread corruption of officials created disrespect for law in general and for Prohibition in particular. If bribes didn't work or became too expensive, violence and murder were sometimes used.

Prohibition also promoted the pattern of infrequent but heavy or abusive drinking. People didn't go to a speakeasy to savor a drink with dinner but to guzzle alcohol while they could.

In addition, Prohibition deprived the state needed revenue at the same time it was causing increased expenses for law enforcement, courts, jails and other burdens that had to be met by taxpayers. A governmental study found that two-thirds of all federal expenditures on law enforcement involved Prohibition.

Within five years of its implementation there was widespread disillusionment with the effects of Prohibition. Journalist H. L. Mencken wrote in 1925 that "Five years of prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is 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."4

More and more Americans came to agree with Mencken's assessment as the end of the 1920's approached.

Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment

The leading prohibitionist in Congress had confidently asserted upon its ratification that "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."5

However the problems caused by Prohibition continued to increase as the years passed, threatening the health, safety, morality, economy and well-being of the U.S. Opposition grew as the problems caused by Prohibition grew.

Finally, prominent Prohibition supporters began to call for Repeal. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong abstainer who had contributed at least $350,000 and perhaps as much as $700,000 to the Anti-Saloon League, announced his support for Repeal because of the widespread problems caused by Prohibition. He explained his change of belief in a letter published in The New York Times:

When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed I earnestly hoped - with a host of advocates of temperance - that it would be generally supported by public opinion and 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; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree - I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe.6

Women, led by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), had been pivotal in bringing about National 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 who proved to be pivotal in repealing Prohibition. Their interest was again a moral one: Prohibition was undermining the family and corrupting the morals of women and children.

As disillusionment and dissatisfaction spread the number of Repeal organizations and their membership grew and the demand for Repeal became louder and louder. Such groups included the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, Labor's National Committee for the Modification of the Volstead Act, United Repeal Council, the Women's Moderation Union, and the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers.

Dry forces relentlessly fought the rising tide of opposition with the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morality, the Scientific Temperance Federation, the American Tract Society, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), the Intercollegiate Prohibition Association, the World League Against Alcoholism and with newer groups such as the Board of Temperance Strategy and the National Conference of Organizations Supporting the 18th Amendment.

The Democratic Party platform in the 1932 election included an anti-Prohibition plank and Franklin Roosevelt ran for the presidency promising Repeal, which occurred on December 5, 1933. The popular vote for repeal of Prohibition was 74 percent in favor and 26 percent in opposition.7 By a three to one vote, the American people rejected Prohibition; only one state opposed Repeal.

The Eighteenth Amendment was repealed by the Twenty-First Amendment on December 5, 1933. Titles one and two of the Volstead Act were specifically repealed by act of Congress on August 27, 1935. Federal prohibition laws in the districts and territories were separately repealed:

District of Columbia - April 5, 1933 and January 24, 1934

Puerto Rico - March 2, 1934

Virgin Islands - March 2, 1934

Hawaii - March 26, 1934

Panama Canal Zone - June 19, 1934

The U.S. Supreme Court held that the Volstead Act had become null and unenforceable upon repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment because it had rested on a grant of authority to Congress by that Amendment. Therefore prosecutions for violations of the Act that had not reached final judgments of conviction before the date of Repeal had to be dismissed.

The mockingbird had made it to Mars but temperance activists vowed to continue the fight.8

The Present

The temperance movement never really died. It was relatively dormant for
several decades after World War II, but has re-emerged with a new identity
and modified ideology. It has been described as "neo-prohibition,"9 "new temperance,"10 "new Sobriety,"11 "new Victorianism,"12 and "new paternalism."13 The consumption of beer, wine, and spirits had declined over the last quarter-century. But lower is never low enough for some people. As a critic of neo-drys wrote, "The slogan for the new temperance is, regarding alcohol, 'less is better.'"14 It is clear that:

In contemporary America, both the tactics and the tone of temperance sentiment have changed appreciably from the 1800s. Inebriety, licentiousness, moral depravity and sin have all but vanished form the extant vocabulary. The new contender for the status of moral purity would seem to be health (although ill-health has not yet achieved equivalence with religious fundamentalists' conceptions of sin). Today, rallying cries once structured in terms of social order, home and basic decency are now framed in terms of health promotion and disease prevention.15

Some states chose to maintain state-wide prohibition for up to a third of a century after Repeal and hundreds of dry counties covering one-tenth the area of the country with 16,000,000 residents are still dry today.

The renewed movement is based on the assumption that individuals cannot be trusted to make appropriate lifestyle choices. Therefore, "to protect people from themselves or to protect society, the state should pass legislation that enforces restrictions likely [in the belief of the reformers] to promote health by taking away the individual's personal freedom."

Their tactic is to establish cultural rather than strictly legal prohibition by making alcohol beverages less socially acceptable and marginalizing those who drink, no matter how moderately.

To learn more, visit neo-prohibition.


Resources on the Eighteenth Amendment:

  • Anti-Saloon League. Fundamental Facts for Patriots. The Eighteenth Amendment Now Adopted. Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Company, 1920.
  • Anti-Saloon League of Rhode Island. The 18th Amendment Outlawed Saloons. Providence, RI: Anti Saloon League of Rhode Island, 1930.
  • Barry, James P. The Noble Experiment, 1919-1933: The Eighteenth Amendment Prohibits Liquor in America. NY:F. Watts, 1972 (Juvenile readership)
  • Blocker, Jr., Jack S. Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment. Journal of American History, 1995, 82(3), 1237.
  • Bureau of Prohibition. How Shall We Teach the Eighteenth Amendment? Washington, DC: Bureau of Prohibition, 1929.
  • Christianson, Theodore. Must the States Aid Enforcement of the 18th Amendment? NY: Citizens Committee of One Thousand, 1930.
  • Conan, M. Staggering Feet, or This Drunken America: Facts and Figures Regarding the Result of Repeal of the 18th Amendment. Los Angeles, CA: Federal Printers, 1941.
  • Darrow, Clarence and Wilson, William True. Should the 18th Amendment be repealed? Girard, KS: Haldemen-Julius Publications, 1931.
  • Doyle, John W. The Growth of the Eighteenth Amendment. Thesis. 1984. Dalhousie University Law Library.
  • Dunford, Edward B. The Supreme Court and the Eighteenth Amendment. Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Company, 1927.
  • Engdahl, Sylvia. Amendments XVIII and XXI: Prohibition and Repeal. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven, 2009.
  • Gordon, Ernest B. The Wrecking of the Eighteenth Amendment. Francestown, NH: Alcohol Information Press, 1943.
  • Hamm, Richard F. Shaping the Eighteenth Amendment: Temperance Reform, Legal Culture, and the Polity, 1880-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Helms, E. Allen. The Eighteenth Amendment. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1928.
  • Horner, Warren M. The Eighteenth Amendment. Seattle, WA: Pioneer, 1927.
  • Jones, Robert L. The Eighteenth Amendment and Our Foreign Relations. NY: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1933.
  • Kagy, Leigh M. State Prohibition Laws Since the Eighteenth Amendment. Thesis. 1924. Hein's Legal Theses and Dissertations, 005-00267.
  • Lesemann, Ralph F. Some Constitutional Questions Raised by the Eighteenth Amendment. Thesis. 1924. Hein's Legal Theses and Dissertations, 005-00268.
  • McMasters, William H. The Eighteenth Amendment: Address to the American People. Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Company, 1919.
  • Millin, James R. How to Enforce the 18th Amendment. Boston, MA: Alpine Press, 1929.
  • Moore, H.V.D. 18 Reasons why I Think That the 18th Amendment was a Mistake. Morristown, NJ: Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, New Jersey Branch, 1929.
  • Murphy, David A. The Eighteenth Amendment. NY: P.P. Mulligan, 1923.
  • National Committee for the Repeal of the 18th Amendment. Vital Statistics Show that Prohibition has Failed. NY: National Committee for the Repeal of the 18th Amendment, 1928.
  • Penney, J.C. Is the Eighteenth Amendment an Economic Success? NY: Citizens Committee of One Thousand, 1930.
  • Petersen, Hans P. In Defense of Justness: An Argument on the Merits of the 18th Amendment. Chicago, IL: D. McKillop, 1924.
  • Phillips, Thomas W. The Eighteenth Amendment. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1927.
  • Schatz, Oscar. A Manual for the Dispensing of Wines, Liquors and Beer in the Advent of the Repeal of the 18th Amendment. NY: Harry Barrett Pub,. 1933.
  • Shay, Gene et al. Amendment 18, Prohibition: Amendment 21, Repeal of Prohibition. DVD video. Lawrenceville, NJ: Cambridge Educational, 2004.
  • Steele, Thomas H. What has the 18th Amendment Done? Greensboro, NC: United Dry Forces, 1933.
  • Stoddard, Cora F. The Eighteenth Amendment Speaks. Boston, MA: Scientific Temperance Federation, 1927.
  • Taft, William H. The 18th Amendment. Detroit, MI: Henry B. Joy, 1930.
  • Thorp, Willard B. The 18th Amendment: A Reply to Nicholas Murray Butler. Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Company, 1928. (In reply to Butler, Nicholar Murray, Repeal the 18th Amendment. NY: 1932.)
  • Wheeler, Wayne B. The Eighteenth Amendment. Chicago, IL: National Conference of Social Work, 1919.


  • 1. There exists some confusion regarding the date and status of Connecticut's ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment. The Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress reports on page 1 of The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation. 2008 Supplement that "Although some sources (including the main volume of this book) state that Connecticut ratified the 18th Amendment on May 6, 1919 (after the date that three-fourths of the states had ratified it, and after the Acting Secretary of State, on January 28, 1919, had certified that the 18th Amendment had become valid; see 40 Stat. 1941-42 (1919), the Journal of the Senate of the State of Connecticut, January Session, 1919, reports on May 6, 1919, at page 1191: ‘The committee of Conference, to whom was referred a resolution [Senate Joint Resolution No. 56] ratifying an Amendment to the Constitution concerning the Manufacture, Sale and Transportation of Intoxicating Liquors, reported that they had the same under consideration and cannot agree . . . .' The New York Times (Feb. 5, 1919) reported that, on Feb. 4, 1919, the Connecticut Senate voted against ratification by a vote of 20 to 14. A week later (Feb. 12, 1919), the New York Times reported that, on Feb. 11, 1919, the Connecticut House of Representatives voted in favor of ratification by a vote of 153 to 96."
  • 2. Mendelson, Jack H. and Mello, Nancy K. (eds.) The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism. NY: McGraw-Hill, second edition, 1985, p. 86. 
  • 3. Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: the Era of Excess. Boston,MA: Little, Brown andCo., 1962, p.209. 
  • 4. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • 5. Merz, Charles. The Dry Decade. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1969. (Contains a new introduction by the author. Originally published in 1930.), p. ix. 
  • 6. Kyvig, David. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979, p. 152; Roizen, Ron. Redefining alcohol in post-repeal America: Lessons from the short life of Everett Colby's Council for Moderation, 1934-1936. Contemporary Drug Problems, 1991, 75, 237-272. (pp. 245-246)
  • 7. Childs, Randolph W. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Alcoholic Beverage Study, Inc., 1947, pp. 260-261.
  • 8. Hanson, David J. Alcohol Education. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996, p. 28.
  • 9. Pittman, David J. Primary Prevention of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: An Evaluation of the Control of Consumption Policy. St. Louis, MO: Washington University, Social Science Institute, 1980.
  • 10. Beauchamp, Dan E. Alcohol-Abuse Prevention Through Beverage and Environmental Regulation: Where We Have Been and Where We are Going. In: Holder, Harold D. (ed.) Advances in Substance Abuse: Behavioral and Biological Research, Supplement 1. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1987. Pp. 53-63; Heath, Dwight B. The new temperance movement: Through the looking glass. Drugs and Society, 1989, 3, 143-168; Blocker, Jr., Jack S. American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform. Boston, MA: Twayne, 1989, p. 158.
  • 11. Page, C. The new sobriety's thirst for virtue. Washington Times, January 9, 1991.
  • 12. Heath, Dwight B. The new temperance movement: Through the looking glass. Drugs and Society, 1989, 3, 143-168.
  • 1.3 Gusfield, Joseph R. Alcohol Problems - An InteractionistView. In: von Wartburg, Jean-Pierre, et al. (eds.) Currents in Alcohol Research and the Prevention of AlcoholProblems. Berne,Switzerland: Hans Huber Publishers, 1985. Pp. 71-81, p. 76.
  • 14. Beauchamp, Dan E. Alcohol-Abuse Prevention Through Beverage and Environmental Regulation: Where We Have Been and Where We are Going. In: Holder, Harold D. (ed.) Advances in Substance Abuse: Behavioral and Biological Research, Supplement 1. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1987. Pp. 53-63, p 62.
  • 15. Mendelson, Jack H. and Mello, Nancy K. (eds.) The Diagnosis and Treatment of Alcoholism. NY: McGraw-Hill, second edition, 1985.

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