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What Is the Prohibition Amendment?

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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 25 August 2016
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The Prohibition Amendment is the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, enacted in 1920. The amendment outlawed the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages in the U.S. It was the culmination of a widespread temperance, or anti-alcohol, movement that had swept the country in the previous decade. It resulted in a huge underground market in alcohol and a surge in organized crime, as a large segment of the U.S. population found alternative means to acquire alcohol. The Prohibition Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933.

In the 19th century, medical researchers and the public at large learned the dangers of excessive alcohol use, including health problems, social and work issues, and the addiction later known as alcoholism. A vocal segment of American Christianity advocated against all alcohol use, despite the frequent portrayals of alcohol in the Bible. This faction called itself the Temperance Movement, although temperance actually means to use in moderation. They were in fact prohibitionists, seeking to ban even moderate use of alcohol. By 1917, they had largely succeeded, resulting in anti-alcohol laws in two-thirds of all U.S. states.

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In 1917, the U.S. Congress proposed the Prohibition Amendment, which would outlaw alcoholic beverages throughout the country. Once proposed, the amendment had to be ratified, or approved, by at least 36 states to become law. Inspired by the popularity of the Temperance Movement, 46 of the 48 states did so over the next year; only Connecticut and Rhode Island turned it down. The amendment was officially ratified in January 1919, and took effect in January 1920. A connected law, the Volstead Act, went into effect at the same time, despite a presidential veto that Congress voted to override.

The Prohibition Amendment was intended to end the use of alcohol by the American public. Instead, it led to the creation of a massive underground market in alcoholic beverages. Formerly legitimate businesses now operated in secret; by 1927, it is estimated, more than 30,000 illegal bars, or speakeasies, were in operation, twice the number of bars in the pre-Prohibition era. Organized crime gangs sponsored these, as well as smuggling operations, called bootlegging, forming a solid American power base from the profits. Private citizens created their own alcohol with homemade distilleries, giving us the terms moonshine, bathtub gin, and still, among others.

By the early 1930s, it was clear to nearly all that the Prohibition Amendment was a failure. The start of the Great Depression in 1929 gave Americans more pressing problems. As New York Evening Sun columnist Don Marquis wrote, “Prohibition makes you want to cry into your beer and denies you the beer to cry into.” Franklin Roosevelt made the repeal of Prohibition part of his presidential campaign platform in 1932. The following year, the 21st Amendment made that a reality, the only time in U.S. history a Constitutional amendment has been repealed.

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