Those were the words of our indelible President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, just after the repeal of Prohibition – America’s 13 year ban on the production, sale, and transport of alcohol. The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on December 5th, 1933 and thereby repealed the 18th Amendment, which outlawed alcohol. We celebrate this achievement of bipartisan legislation annually on December 5th as “Repeal Day.” We here at Amendment XXI are forever grateful to the progressive thinkers of the day who fought to repeal those dreadful years of Prohibition.
During the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700 and 1800s, America’s commercial titans along with other organized citizen groups began to take note of the ill-effects of overindulging in alcohol. Industrialists had noticed their workers were barely ever sober while managing large pieces of dangerous machinery. Mass production and the quest for more efficiency weighed heavily on their minds during this exhilarating period in industrial development and fed directly into the Temperance Movement of the 1800s.
Along with disgruntled housewives, pious religious leaders, and other Temperance-minded groups, the Industrialists of the day pressed for the abolition of alcohol in American society and culture. After several years of lobbying the United States government, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919. Subsequently, the Volstead Act went into effect on January 17th, 1920 and laid down the methods for enforcing the 18th Amendment and defined which liquors were considered “intoxicating.”
For 13 long years Americans suffered without easy access to alcohol. Working distilleries went bust, vineyards in California were repurposed and replanted, and breweries worked tirelessly to reinvent themselves by converting their production into new areas. One group of enterprising entrepreneurs did quite well during this era. Between 1920 – 1933 the United States witnessed a rise in organized crime syndicates. Al Capone was immortalized in the annals of American folklore while running booze through the streets of Chicago to underground saloons and speakeasies. The 18th Amendment may have stopped the sale and transport of intoxicating liquor, but did not necessarily end consumption. Many brave souls decided to skirt the new law and operate a black market for alcoholic beverages. The social experiment to engineer society and eradicate alcohol consumption was failing.
After several years, progressives in the United States began to change their tune on Temperance. They witnessed the rise of organized crime and saw a reduction of tax revenues for local and state coffers at a time when the Great Depression put immense pressure on tax revenues. People were still acquiring alcohol and crime syndicates were profiting and consolidating their power. A movement began to repeal the 18th Amendment and restore freedom to American citizens which resulted in the ratification of the 21st Amendment.
The 21st Amendment is unique to our constitution for a few reasons. Whereas all other amendments were ratified by State legislatures, the 21st was ratified by State ratifying conventions as laid out in Article V. No other constitutional amendment has ever been adopted through that method. The 21st is also the only Amendment to nullify a prior, existing amendment. The first state to ratify was Michigan on April 10th, 1933. Colorado ratified the amendment on September 26th, 1933, and Utah was the very last state to ratify on December 5th, 1933.