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Repealing National Prohibition

Repealing National Prohibition

by David Kyvig

Copyright 1979 by the University of Chicago


In an outburst of civic righteousness at the end of World War I, the United States banished alcoholic beverages by adopting the Eighteenth Amendment to its Constitution. Zealous advocates of the reform persuaded an overwhelming majority of federal and state legislators to support this method of abolishing the use of intoxicants which, they insisted, would greatly uplift and vastly benefit the society. Not all Americans agreed, however. Some came to regard national prohibition, as the liquor ban was known, as a threat to cherished liberties and political traditions, and thirsted for a return to what they considered more righteous arrangements. Others simply thirsted. This book examines the reaction to national prohibition, particularly the response of those who led the successful crusade to overturn the Eighteenth Amendment. It seeks to explain the circumstances and reasons for the sole instance in American history of the repeal of an amendment to the United

States Constitution.

Eliminating the use of alcoholic beverages throughout the United States seems, to most late-twentieth-century observers, an impossible task. Indeed many find it difficult to take national prohibition seriously. They think of prohibition not as a determined, principled, widely supported attempt at fundamental social reform, but rather as a quixotic experiment. Prohibition is best remembered for generating bootleggers, bathtub gin, and bloody gang wars. Americans in large numbers, it is recalled, drank beer, wine, and distilled spirits before, during, and after the ban on their manufacture and sale. Any effort to prevent such behavior was doomed to fail. Repeal of the law, in other words, was inevitable. In light of its own foolishness, the overtaking of its rural, conservative political backers by a new, more tolerant and pluralistic urban majority, the pressures of a great economic depression, and the policies of an incoming liberal administration, national prohibition simply withered and was cast aside by general consensus as the country moved on to more complex, interesting, and important matters.

Such an offhanded assessment of national prohibition and its repeal is as inadequate as it is commonplace. The prohibition episode deserves more careful and thoughtful attention for several reasons. In the first place, the legal ban on alcoholic beverages represented one of the most significant measures adopted during the early-twentieth-century outburst of reform known as the Progressive Era. A nation undergoing rapid modernization was wrestling with perplexing fundamental questions: What were the acceptable limits of behavior in an interdependent, highly technological, industrial society? What was the proper balance between protecting society and respecting individual rights? What was a suitable role for government when community supervision and restraint was giving way to the anonymity and autonomy of mass, urban society? Nineteenth-century answers appeared increasingly inadequate. Progressives expressed great faith in the potential for "social engineering," assuming that humankind could and should be improved by intelligent analysis of social problems followed by corrective legislation. In prohibiting alcoholic beverages, the federal government intervened in the everyday activities of individual citizens in an unprecedented fashion and to an unprecedented extent. Experience with prohibition provoked reconsideration of progressive assumptions and approaches.

Secondly, national prohibition took the form of a constitutional amendment, reflecting both the contemporary importance attached to it and the measure of support it achieved. It is difficult to dismiss as a trivial aberration a provision inserted in the Constitution with the approval of more than two thirds of the members of Congress and the legislatures of forty-six states. Only very rarely has the basic design of the United States government been altered through the formal mechanism provided by the Founding Fathers. More frequently the Constitution evolved in small steps as the result of legislative or executive practices or Supreme Court decisions. Since the ratification of the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, in 1791, the Constitution had only been amended seven times. The early national period produced two clarifying amendments, Reconstruction generated three civil rights amendments, and finally two progressive reforms were added in 1913. Furthermore, no amendment which accumulated the broad support necessary for ratification had ever been rescinded. To do so required an almost total political turnabout. Once adopted, therefore, national prohibition was thought to be firmly entrenched, regardless of opposition. Yet within fifteen years of its ratification, the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed. This rare alteration of the frame of government, followed so soon by the unprecedented recanting of the reform, reveals important shifts in political attitudes of the time and illuminates the process of constitutional change.

Third, the struggle to overturn the Eighteenth Amendment became a political battle of great consequence. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, political institutions which had once bent to the Anti-Saloon League found themselves confronted by single-issue pressure groups of an opposite persuasion. The rise of such organizations as the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment is fascinating in itself in light of widespread assumptions that revision or repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was impossible. Prominent citizens, many of whom had not previously engaged in political activity, articulated their values and beliefs regarding society, reform, and government. At the outset, prohibition was a nonpartisan issue, but the major political parties responded differently to repeal demands, with considerable effect on their fortunes. The Republicans, as the party in power during the 1920s, became identified with the law's enforcement. Meanwhile, the Democratic party was influenced and substantially rewarded by committed antiprohibitionists during its unsuccessful 1928 campaign and its rise to sweeping victory in 1932. Interestingly, this occurred in the face of considerable resistance from the 1932 Democratic presidential nominee, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The ultimate success of the repeal crusade in 1933 affected judgments about acceptable limits to legislative reform, the political influence of antiprohibition leaders, and, thereafter, the course of the New Deal.

Historians have never adequately explored the reasons for the Eighteenth Amendment's reversal nor the process by which it occurred, much less the rapidity with which repeal took place. Preoccupied with the simultaneous unfolding of the depression and New Deal, they have accepted explanations offered by the losing side or based on insufficient research and analysis. Such views, incorporated into textbooks and general histories, have become the conventional wisdom regarding repeal.

When the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth, was ratified in December 1933, contemporary observers generally credited national Democratic party leaders together with single-issue pressure groups, most notably the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, with sensitivity to popular preferences and responsibility for the result. Before long, however, prohibition sympathizers cast repeal in a different light. In particular, in a 1940 book entitled The Amazing Story of Repeal: An Expose of the Power of Propaganda, Fletcher Dobyns, a Chicago attorney and ardent prohibitionist, charged that repeal had been engineered by a small group of wealthy men solely for their own financial betterment. This tiny, unrepresentative, but powerful clique, Dobyns maintained, mounted a successful propaganda and political campaign through the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and satellite organizations of their wives, sons, and lawyers. They acted only "to save themselves hundreds of millions of dollars by substituting for an income tax a liquor tax to be paid by the masses."' Ernest R. Gordon soon reinforced Dobyns' argument in The Wrecking of the Eighteenth Amendment.' Gordon had long since made his sympathies evident in his book When the Brewer Had the Stranglehold.'

Dobyns and Gordon based their case on testimony from a 1930 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on lobbying. This hearing produced a slashing partisan attack on Democratic national chairman and AAPA supporter John J. Raskob by Republican senators eager to divert attention from embarrassing revelations that their own national party chairman functioned also as a paid lobbyist for a regional development association. Held in the midst of a deepening depression which had prompted antiprohibitionists to begin suggesting repeal as a device to create jobs, reduce government expenses, and increase revenues, and at a time when advocates of the liquor ban were launching increasingly shrill attacks ' on their advancing opponents, these hearings exaggerated economic considerations and minimized other sources and aspects of hostility to prohibition. Nevertheless, the testimony later gave disappointed prohibitionists a convenient, plausible, and perhaps even comforting explanation for their defeat. A loss to political manipulators was less devastating than popular rejection. The characterization of repeal leaders as a powerful, wealthy, and selfish cabal gained credibility as Franklin Roosevelt at the height of his popularity in 1936 labeled these same individuals, some of his most vocal opponents, "economic royalists" and representatives of "entrenched greed." Dobyns' extremely negative account became a standard interpretation of the repeal movement's leadership.'

A more benign view presented repeal as a reflection of societal change ana the irresistible expression of democratic will. This interpretation found roots in the belief that prohibition was a reactionary attempt by conservative, rural, Protestant America to hold onto a disappearing cultural pattern. For instance, Richard Hofstadter, in a widely admired and quoted analysis of populist and progressive reform, characterized prohibition as "a pseudoreform, a pinched, parochial substitute for reform ... not merely an aversion to drunkenness and to the evils that accompanied it, but to the immigrant drinking masses, to the pleasures and amenities of city life, and to the well to-do classes and cultivated men." I Such an assessment was not unique with Hofstadter by any means, having been offered as early as 1928 in a classic study of the Anti-Saloon League,' advanced again in an important 1963 analysis of the Women's Christian Temperance Union,' and used frequently in discussions of urban-rural conflict during the early twentieth century. From such a perspective, repeal hardly seems manipulated or even surprising; rather, the abolition of prohibition seems natural, uncomplicated, predictable. As Andrew Sinclair argued in his much-admired history of prohibition: "The old order of the country gave way to the new order of the city. Rural morality was replaced by urban morality, rural voices by urban voices, rural votes by urban votes. "I Even more sophisticated analyses, such as Norman H. Clark's 1976 Deliver Us from Evil.- An Interpretation of American Prohibition, imply that basic social changes rendered repeal practically inevitable.

The repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment involved far more than such explanations allow. It could not merely be manipulated by a cabal, nor was it fated to occur. Constitutional change, in 1919 and 1933 as at other times, required very widespread political acceptance. On the other hand, the startling reversal of public opinion within fifteen years did not assure political action. The amendment process is intricate, and the obstacles to change were intended by the Founding Fathers to be formidable. Fletcher Dobyns provided a useful insight by arguing that skillful leadership was essential to repeal, even if he did not fully understand that leadership's history, motives, or function.

Widespread and increasing disregard of the prohibition law during the 1920s, a phenomenon noted by every alert social commentator from that day to this, provided an important measure of public attitudes toward the liquor ban, but in itself could not reverse the constitutional provision of 1919. Breaking the law was by nature an individualistic and covert act. Mobilizing protest against the law in such proportions as to bring about its repeal required coordination and publicity. Leadership and organization were demanded for the prodigious task of obtaining support from two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the states. The network of suppliers of illicit liquor represented the only organization among the law's violators. No one was less likely to seek publicity or agitate for repeal than a bootlegger who was profiting from the existence of prohibition. Leadership for a repeal movement would have to come from elsewhere.

Organized, single-issue pressure groups with a wide range of arguments had generated and channeled broad support crucial to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. The same would be true in converting dissatisfaction with national prohibition into a successful movement for repeal. Foremost among repeal groups was the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. Opposition to growing federal power and unhappiness with prohibition's social consequences motivated the AAPA and later appearing groups: the New York-based Voluntary Committee of Lawyers, a young men's society known as the Crusaders, and the very active, influential, million-member Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. These single-purpose voluntary associations, abetted by labor unions, trade and bar associations, medical societies, and veterans' groups, retrieved the idea of repeal from the realm of assumed impossibility and made it a serious matter of public discussion. Also, they shaped the debate over the law, focusing attention on certain issues and thus influencing public opinion. Finally, in part through determined effort and in part through chance, they produced circumstances in which actual or assumed public opinion could be brought to bear at crucial points in the political process.

This effort to explain prohibition repeal will necessarily begin with an examination of the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. Constitutional revision occurred in the early twentieth century when the long-standing temperance argument that intoxicating beverages undermined the health, prosperity, and morals of America interacted with the progressive belief that modern, urban, industrial society could and should be uplifted through the implementation of proper laws. Opposition to such views provoked the creation of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, the first organized hostile response to national prohibition from outside the affected industry. The procedure by which the antiliquor amendment was installed in the Constitution also influenced attitudes toward it.

The next essential will be to examine how national prohibition functioned, what was done to enforce the law, and how its operation was perceived. The reaction against prohibition had much to do with its image, the evolving perception that the law was ineffectual and threatened the rights and safety of the American people. The motives for challenging the Eighteenth Amendment stem from the liquor ban's implementation as well as its conception.

Mass public response to prohibition is, of course, a crucial factor in its overturn. Precisely how popular opinion divided on the issue between 1919 and 1933 is extraordinarily difficult to establish. Exactly why the citizenry felt as it did is even harder to determine. Contemporary popular motives for supporting or opposing prohibition were never adequately surveyed or measured. Nervous political leaders had trouble gauging mass attitudes and acted on the basis of unscientific assessments or pressure group agitation. Historians have little more to go on. The best that can currently be done is to describe quantitative shifts in mass opinion as these were reflected in the few, crude public opinion polls of the time, scattered state referendums, and the one nearly nationwide test of prohibition's popularity, the 1933 vote in thirty-seven states on ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment. If precinct or county level voting data for 1933 were gathered (which has never been done) and quantitatively analyzed, our picture of the dimensions of the repeal landslide would improve, but probably not our understanding of the manner in which it developed. For the motives behind repeal, one must look at the arguments of an articulate leadership, recognizing that they may not always mirror mass opinion. 

The study of repeal must focus principally on the leadership of the repeal movement. The organized antiprohibitionists were the crucial as well as the most visible element in the process of constitutional change. In particular, they converted popular attitudes into effective political force strong enough to alter the Constitution. Since the appearance of Fletcher Dobyns' work nearly forty years ago, no careful, detailed examination of the repeal leadership has been undertaken. In the meantime, the records of many participants have become available, most recently the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers Papers at Wesleyan University and the extensive files of Pierre S. du Pont at Eleutherian Mills Historical Library. The latter provide much new information about the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform. Old sources of information, many neglected by Dobyns, as well as newly accessible materials make it possible now to trace the evolution of the antiprohibition movement from its origins, to analyze its motives, to see its maturation by the late 1920s, to assess the impetus for repeal provided by the Great Depression, and to appreciate its role in the politics of the period. The result is a new view of prohibition repeal and many suggestions for reconsideration of other aspects of the era in which it took place.

The drive to rescind the Eighteenth Amendment represented much more than the desire to take a legal drink or shed a tax burden. From the first, repeal advocates objected to prohibition's philosophy of active, authoritative federal government. Concern grew that prohibition, unpopular and frequently violated, was fostering criminal behavior, causing the government to take increasingly repressive enforcement action, and breeding disrespect for all government and law. Fear of social disintegration became widespread long before the onset of the great depression generated additional claims that the liquor ban had proven economically burdensome. Progressive hopes for social uplift through banishment of intoxicants were dashed, leaving national prohibition with too few advocates to fend off attack. The nature of the reform coalition which had carried prohibition into the Constitution in the first place became more apparent than ever as specific complaints were raised and support for the law unraveled.

Anxiety, even alarm, brought men and women into organizations campaigning against the Eighteenth Amendment. To them, American society appeared critically unstable. Furthermore, the federal government seemed ill-equipped to cope with the threat. The membership of the major repeal associations belies views of the prohibition struggle pitting old-stock American against an urban, immigrant working class. Prosperous and well-established men and women generally assumed to be satisfied with social and governmental arrangements, particularly during the late 1920s, were uneasy enough to become involved by the thousands in a political crusade regarded as the longest of longshots. This suggests conventional views of a placid and complacent middle- and upper-class society during the twenties need revision.

The prohibition issue became an important factor in the partisan battles and realignments of the 1920s and 1930s, often in ways difficult to quantify through electoral analysis. Ultimately, voter reaction to Al Smith's antiprohibitionism in 1928 was less significant than the alliance then forged between repeal organizations and the Democrat party or Smith's placing his party's national headquarters for the next four years in hands determined to end prohibition. Maneuvering and leadership decisions which fixed a wet label on the Democrats and a dry one on the Republicans took place coincidentally but fatefully as party fortunes rose and fell because of the depression. The rapid achievement of repeal seems to have been both a cause and effect of changing national voting patterns.

The reaction against national prohibition did not set any clear direction for subsequent reform efforts, offering more of an indication of what was unacceptable. Enthusiasm for using the Constitution to achieve reform goals waned rapidly. The Nineteenth Amendment, mandating women's suffrage, was ratified a few months after the Eighteenth took effect. Thereafter, however, proposed amendments to abolish child labor and guarantee equal rights for women languished despite early manifestations of strength. Four amendments had been ratified between 1913 and 1920. The next three decades, in contrast, were barren of constitutional reform except for prohibition repeal and a minor change reducing the period between national elections and the start of presidential and congressional terms. The ineffectiveness and unpopularity of national prohibition heightened consciousness of the limits of what could be achieved by legislative edict, especially at the federal level. The experience was reflected in the cautious nature of New Deal reform, its focus on institutional rather than direct personal solutions to social problems, and its hesitancy to move beyond what appeared acceptable to a broad spectrum of opinion.

A study of constitutional change can illuminate many facets of the nation's past. Shifting values, needs, and aspirations are reflected in the deliberate modification of governmental structure. Political processes and power distributions become clearer as do the influences of special interests. The rise and fall of national prohibition in a span of twenty years from first proposal to final collapse represents an extraordinary episode in the history of American constitutional change and thus an unique opportunity for examining social and political ideas and practices. The second thoughts which led Americans between 1919 and 1933 to reverse a major commitment to reform deserve attention in any consideration of the possibilities and limitations of American government and society.

 The completion of this work testifies to the spirit of cooperation and generous support which a historian encounters in the course of such an undertaking. I could hardly have produced this book alone. In the course of the project, I have attempted to express my appreciation to those who aided me. Here I would like to acknowledge publicly the valuable assistance they rendered.

Any historian of modern America owes a debt to the many archivists who have gathered, cared for, and made accessible enormous collections of records pertaining to the past century. Wherever I went, I received gracious and informed assistance from directors to junior staff archivists. Though I dealt primarily with administrators and reference specialists, I am acutely aware that I owe as much to unseen archivists who acquired, arranged, and described the records which I used. I specifically wish to acknowledge the help of the archival staffs of Columbia University, Eleutherian Mills Historical Library, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, University of Kentucky, Library of Congress Manuscripts Division, Maryland Historical Society, Michigan Historical Collections, New York Public Library, National Archives, Ohio Historical Society, Princeton University, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library, Wesleyan University Collection on Legal Change, and Wisconsin State Historical Society. In addition, librarians at the University of Akron, Library of Congress, and Northwestern University rendered considerable assistance.

Several scholars read and commented on all or portions of the manuscript during its long gestation. Though I did not accept all their suggestions, I thought about and benefitted from them. In particular, I wish to thank David Burner, Norman H. Clark, David H. Culbert, Nuala Drescher, H. Roger Grant, J. Stanley Lemons, Richard W. Leopold, Daniel Nelson, Robert H. Wiebe, George Wolfskill, Clement E. Vose, and Robert L. Zangrando.

Northwestern University supported the early stages of my research. The Eleutherian Mills-Hagley Foundation provided a grant which enabled me to examine the Pierre S. du Pont papers during the summer of 1973. On several occasions the University of Akron faculty research fund made possible further research and time for writing. I am deeply grateful to each for the financial assistance and the expression of faith in this project.

While I could not have completed this manuscript without the assistance of the individuals and institutions mentioned, I accept full responsibility for all judgments and interpretations.

My wife, Barbara, has long borne the burden of my unusual preoccupation with drink. This project was begun shortly after our marriage and completed only with her support and encouragement. Therefore, this book is dedicated, with great gratitude and affection, to her.



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