Eighteenth Amendment: Prohibition, Alcohol Ban

This article provides a comprehensive overview of the Eighteenth Amendment, detailing its historical context, implementation, impact, and eventual repeal, highlighting the complexities and consequences of Prohibition in American history.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified on January 16, 1919, marked a significant period in American history known as Prohibition. This amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States and its territories. The era of Prohibition lasted until the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment on December 5, 1933, which repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. This article provides a comprehensive overview of the Eighteenth Amendment, its historical context, implementation, impact, and eventual repeal.

Historical Context

Temperance Movement

The roots of the Eighteenth Amendment can be traced back to the temperance movement of the 19th century. The temperance movement was a social and political campaign aimed at reducing the consumption of alcoholic beverages. It was driven by concerns about the negative effects of alcohol on individuals, families, and society. Key organizations, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and the Anti-Saloon League, played pivotal roles in advocating for temperance and ultimately Prohibition.

Legislative Background

The push for Prohibition gained momentum in the early 20th century. The National Prohibition Act, commonly known as the Volstead Act, was passed by Congress on October 28, 1919, to provide for the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment. The Volstead Act defined "intoxicating liquors" and outlined the legal framework for enforcing Prohibition.

The Eighteenth Amendment

Text of the Amendment

The Eighteenth Amendment consists of three sections:

  1. 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."
  2. Section 2: "The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."
  3. 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."

Ratification Process

The Eighteenth Amendment was proposed by Congress on December 18, 1917, and was ratified by the requisite number of states on January 16, 1919. The amendment went into effect on January 17, 1920, marking the beginning of the Prohibition era.

Implementation and Enforcement

The Volstead Act

The Volstead Act was the primary legislation for enforcing the Eighteenth Amendment. It defined intoxicating liquor as any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume. The Act also established penalties for violations and created mechanisms for enforcement.

Read more about the Volstead Act on the National Archives website

Federal and State Enforcement

Enforcement of Prohibition was a significant challenge. The federal government, through the Bureau of Prohibition, and state governments were responsible for enforcing the ban on alcohol. However, limited resources, corruption, and widespread public opposition hindered effective enforcement.

Prohibition faced numerous legal challenges, including questions about the constitutionality of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of Prohibition in several cases, including National Prohibition Cases (1920) and United States v. Lanza (1922).

Impact of Prohibition

Social and Economic Effects

Prohibition had profound social and economic effects. While it aimed to reduce alcohol consumption and its associated problems, it also led to unintended consequences:

  • Rise of Organized Crime: The illegal production and distribution of alcohol, known as bootlegging, became a lucrative business for organized crime syndicates. Figures like Al Capone became infamous during this period.
  • Speakeasies: Illegal bars, known as speakeasies, proliferated across the country, providing a venue for people to consume alcohol covertly.
  • Economic Impact: The closure of breweries, distilleries, and saloons led to significant job losses and economic disruption. The government also lost substantial tax revenue from the alcohol industry.

Public Health and Safety

Prohibition had mixed effects on public health and safety. While some studies suggest a decline in alcohol-related diseases and accidents, others indicate an increase in the consumption of dangerous, unregulated alcohol, leading to health issues and fatalities.

Explore the historical overview of Temperance and Prohibition in America on the NCBI website

Repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment

Growing Opposition

Over time, public opinion shifted against Prohibition. The economic hardships of the Great Depression further fueled opposition, as the potential tax revenue from legal alcohol sales became increasingly attractive.

The Twenty-First Amendment

The Twenty-First Amendment, proposed by Congress on February 20, 1933, and ratified on December 5, 1933, repealed the Eighteenth Amendment. It marked the end of Prohibition and restored the legal status of alcohol.

  1. Section 1: "The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed."
  2. Section 2: "The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited."
  3. Section 3: "This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress."

Read more about the repeal of Prohibition on the Reagan Library website

Legacy of Prohibition

The legacy of Prohibition continues to influence the legal and regulatory framework for alcohol in the United States. The Twenty-First Amendment granted states significant authority to regulate alcohol, leading to a patchwork of state laws and regulations.

Cultural Impact

Prohibition left a lasting cultural impact, shaping American attitudes towards alcohol and contributing to the mythology of the Roaring Twenties. Literature, films, and popular culture continue to reflect the era's complexities and contradictions.

Lessons Learned

The Prohibition era offers valuable lessons about the complexities of legislating morality, the unintended consequences of well-intentioned policies, and the challenges of enforcing widespread social change.


The Eighteenth Amendment and the era of Prohibition represent a unique and transformative period in American history. While Prohibition aimed to address social issues related to alcohol consumption, it also led to significant social, economic, and legal challenges. The eventual repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment through the Twenty-First Amendment underscores the dynamic nature of constitutional law and the evolving relationship between government policy and public sentiment.

For further reading and official resources, please refer to the following links:

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Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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