The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a progressive effort to enforce social reform via expanded federal power and popularly known as Prohibition, was ratified on this day in history, Jan. 16, 1919.
“The manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited,” the amendment states.
Prohibition remains unique among the 27 amendments in three ways.
It is the only amendment that limited the rights of U.S citizens rather than restrict the powers of government, as was originally intended by the Bill of Rights.
It quickly proved hugely unpopular despite initial overwhelming support by state assemblies.
And it proved so bad that it was overturned by the 21st Amendment in 1933.
“U.S. is voted dry,” boasted Ohio-based temperance newspaper The American Issue in a bold-faced front-page headline in January 1919. “Thirty-sixth state ratifies dry amendment.”
Nebraska nosed out Missouri for the “honor of completing the job of writing dry act into Constitution; Wyoming, Wisconsin and Minnesota right on their heels,” the paper reported.
January 16, The American Issue rhapsodized, is “momentous day in world’s history.”
Congress then passed the Volstead Prohibition Act on October 28 to create the infrastructure to enforce the amendment.
“Prohibition greatly expanded federal law enforcement powers and turned millions of Americans into scofflaws,” notes PBS News Hour.
Federal agents arrested about 577,000 suspects from 1920 to 1930, with about two in three being convicted of various infractions, according to John Kobler in his 1973 book, “Ardent Spirits.”
“The act called for the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service (in the Treasury Department) to oversee enforcement and make adjustments to the regulations as needed,” according to the website of the Mob Museum of Las Vegas.
“The IRS subsequently established the Prohibition Unit, staffed by agents who were not required to take Civil Service exams, leaving the door open for members of Congress and local pols to appoint their cronies, including applicants with questionable backgrounds.”
The museum adds, “The government provided funds for only 1,500 agents at first to enforce Prohibition across the country. They were issued guns and given access to vehicles, but many had little or no training.”
The 18th Amendment, and the commission to enforce it, went into effect one year after ratification, on Jan. 16, 1920.
Effective enforcement of Volstead was doomed almost from the start.
“Doubts raced through my mind as I considered the feasibility of enforcing a law which a majority of honest citizens didn’t seem to want,” Eliot Ness, one of the Fed’s most famous Prohibition enforcers, said of the act.
The nation certainly had a drinking problem in the 19th century, plus an array of social ills that came with it.
Americans in the 1800s consumed alcohol at much greater levels than today.
Much of it was hard alcohol, as distillers expanded dramatically throughout the century.
The rampant drunkenness spawned the rise of temperance movements that eventually gained widespread political support, as evidenced by the amendment’s adoption by most states.
“By the late 1800s, support for prohibition was strong, particularly among progressives who favored social reform and a greater nationwide morality,” writes the Jack Miller Center for Teaching America’s Founding Principles and History.
“The Anti-Saloon League, backed by many women and Protestants, was a driving force in abolishing alcohol manufacture. After a temporary wartime prohibition to save grain during World War I, the Eighteenth Amendment was submitted by Congress for state ratification. It was quickly ratified within a year and would stand as law for the next 13 years.”
Among other unintended consequences, Prohibition sparked a massive surge in organized crime, and the political corruption and violence associated with it, as gangsters vied for control of the underground booze biz.
“Organized criminal gangs illegally supply America’s demand for liquor, making millions and influencing the country’s largest financial institutions,” the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives states in its history of the amendments.
“Vast criminal fortunes corrupt enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, juries and politicians.”
Many of the most notorious gangsters in American history arose out of the underground liquor economy created by Prohibition, including Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Bugsy Moran.
The infamous Valentine’s Day Massacre, in which alleged members of Capone’s gang killed Moran loyalists, was part of a Prohibition turf war in Chicago.
The amendment was fueled by an array of interests attempting to enforce behavioral change via federal mandate, including the progressive Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan, note several historians.
“The relationship between the Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan in support of prohibition has been a source of controversy since the 1920s,” Loyola College professor Thomas R. Pegram wrote in 2008 for the peer-reviewed Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,
“Both the ASL and the KKK acted to enforce prohibition, the ASL through legal and political means, the KKK through grassroots political pressure and extralegal vigilante methods.”
Prohibition was not an utter failure, however.
It did succeed in the original goal of reformers to temper the nation’s thirst for alcohol.
“Deaths from alcohol-related cirrhosis declined, as did arrests for public drunkenness,” PBS News Hour notes.