Twenty-First Amendment: Repeal of Prohibition

Explore the historical context, legal implications, and lasting impact of the Twenty-First Amendment, which ended Prohibition and restored the legal sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in the United States.


The Twenty-First Amendment to the United States Constitution is a significant legal milestone that marked the end of Prohibition, a period during which the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages were banned nationwide. This comprehensive guide explores the historical context, legal implications, and lasting impact of the Twenty-First Amendment.

Historical Context

The Eighteenth Amendment and Prohibition

The journey to the Twenty-First Amendment began with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919, which ushered in the era of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors within the United States and its territories. This period, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, was marked by significant social and legal challenges.

Text of the Eighteenth Amendment

The Eighteenth Amendment reads:

"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."

The Volstead Act

To enforce the Eighteenth Amendment, Congress passed the National Prohibition Act, commonly known as the Volstead Act, in 1919. The Act defined "intoxicating liquors" and provided for the enforcement of Prohibition.

Key Provisions of the Volstead Act

  • Definition of Intoxicating Liquors: The Act defined intoxicating liquors as any beverage containing more than 0.5% alcohol by volume.
  • Enforcement Mechanisms: It established penalties for the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages.
  • Exceptions: The Act allowed for the use of alcohol for medicinal, sacramental, and industrial purposes.

For more information on the Volstead Act, visit the U.S. Senate's historical overview.

The Path to Repeal

Social and Economic Impact of Prohibition

Prohibition had far-reaching social and economic consequences. While it aimed to reduce alcohol consumption and related social ills, it also led to unintended negative effects.

Rise of Organized Crime

The illegal production and distribution of alcohol, known as bootlegging, became rampant. Organized crime syndicates, such as those led by Al Capone, flourished, leading to increased violence and corruption.

Economic Consequences

The loss of tax revenue from the legal alcohol industry and the costs of enforcing Prohibition strained government resources. Additionally, the Great Depression exacerbated economic hardships, leading to growing public discontent with Prohibition.

Growing Public Discontent

By the early 1930s, public opinion had shifted significantly against Prohibition. Many Americans viewed it as a failed experiment that had led to more harm than good. The call for repeal gained momentum, supported by various social and political groups.

The Election of 1932

The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 was a turning point in the movement to repeal Prohibition. Roosevelt's campaign included a promise to end Prohibition, which resonated with a populace weary of its negative effects.

The Twenty-First Amendment

Drafting and Ratification

The Twenty-First Amendment was proposed by Congress on February 20, 1933, and ratified by the requisite number of states on December 5, 1933. It is unique in that it is the only amendment to repeal another amendment.

Text of the Twenty-First Amendment

The Twenty-First Amendment reads:

"Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

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.

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."

For the full text and more details, visit the Library of Congress.

Unique Ratification Process

The Twenty-First Amendment is notable for its unique ratification process. Unlike other amendments, which were typically ratified by state legislatures, the Twenty-First Amendment was ratified by state conventions. This method was chosen to expedite the process and to reflect the direct will of the people.

State Conventions

State conventions were specially convened assemblies of delegates elected by the people. This approach ensured that the decision to repeal Prohibition was made by representatives directly accountable to the electorate.

The repeal of Prohibition through the Twenty-First Amendment had significant legal and constitutional implications.

Federalism and State Control

Section 2 of the Twenty-First Amendment grants states the authority to regulate the transportation and importation of alcoholic beverages within their borders. This provision underscores the principle of federalism by allowing states to maintain control over alcohol regulation.

Impact on Federal Law

The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment nullified the Volstead Act and other federal Prohibition laws. However, it did not eliminate federal regulation of alcohol entirely. The federal government continues to regulate aspects of alcohol production, distribution, and taxation through agencies such as the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB).

For more information on federal alcohol regulations, visit the U.S. Code, Title 27.

Post-Repeal Era

State Regulation of Alcohol

Following the repeal of Prohibition, states assumed primary responsibility for regulating alcohol within their borders. This led to a diverse landscape of alcohol laws and regulations across the country.

State Control Models

States adopted various models for alcohol regulation, including:

  • Control States: Some states, known as control states, established government monopolies on the sale of alcoholic beverages. These states operate state-run liquor stores and control the distribution of alcohol.
  • License States: Other states, known as license states, allow private businesses to obtain licenses to sell alcoholic beverages. These states regulate the industry through licensing and enforcement mechanisms.

For a detailed overview of state alcohol regulations, visit the Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control.

The repeal of Prohibition did not eliminate all legal and social issues related to alcohol. Several ongoing challenges and debates continue to shape alcohol policy in the United States.

Public Health and Safety

Alcohol consumption remains a significant public health concern. Issues such as drunk driving, underage drinking, and alcohol-related health problems continue to require attention and regulation.

Economic Impact

The alcohol industry is a major economic driver, contributing to job creation, tax revenue, and tourism. Balancing economic interests with public health and safety remains a key policy challenge.

Legal disputes related to alcohol regulation continue to arise. These include challenges to state alcohol laws, disputes over interstate commerce, and issues related to advertising and marketing.


The Twenty-First Amendment represents a pivotal moment in American legal and social history. Its repeal of Prohibition marked the end of a contentious era and restored the legal sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages. The Amendment's unique ratification process and its emphasis on state control underscore the principles of federalism and democratic governance.

While the repeal of Prohibition addressed many of the issues associated with the Eighteenth Amendment, it also introduced new challenges and complexities in alcohol regulation. The ongoing evolution of alcohol policy reflects the dynamic interplay between federal and state authority, public health considerations, and economic interests.

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

This guide aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of the Twenty-First Amendment and its enduring impact on American law and society.

About the author
Von Wooding

Von Wooding

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