Today (or tomorrow depending on where you are) marks the anniversary of the first and only time an amendment to the United States’ Constitution was overturned. That’s right; on December 5th, 1933, the 21st amendment to the Constitution was passed, which overturned the prohibition of alcohol contained in the 18th amendment.
Despite the 18th amendment’s best intentions, prohibition only served to make the black market for alcohol much more profitable. Legendary gangsters like Chicago’s own Al Capone used prohibition to their advantage and, as a result, illegal activity soared. What’s more, is that the high cost of illegal liquor meant that the nation’s rich and connected would often drink alcohol as a status symbol, openly defying the ban. Despite it being explicitly forbidden in our Constitution, nothing was really done to prevent the consumption of alcohol, especially in urban areas where corrupt police often turned a blind eye to bootlegging.
Why was it passed then? Calls for prohibition began as early in the 1800s when rising religious movements began to call for the banning of liquor. The biggest support of the prohibition movement came from household women who were becoming increasingly more politically active. Alcohol caused a lot of domestic issues, which led to women advocating intensely for the restriction. The first national restriction of alcohol came in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson created a temporary prohibition on liquor to save grain for the troops fighting overseas. The prohibition movement was gaining steam and popularity and as a result was ultimately ratified by the required amount of states in 1919.
It would be an understatement to say prohibition was unpopular. Furthermore, with the country mired in debt from the Great Depression it seemed ridiculous that the government would be wasting any money enforcing a law, which seemingly only exasperated the issue. It was clear that the prohibition would not last long when in 1932 voters chose Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be their president. FDR during his campaign openly ran on a platform calling for prohibition’s repeal. Some states didn’t go quietly in the night, though, Mississippi remained a dry state until 1966.
If we can learn anything from prohibition, it is that government regulation of private life, while occasionally necessary, can be somewhat flawed. There are certain American commodities that we cannot live without, and I guess alcohol is one of them. So on this day, December 5th, have a drink in memory of FDR and the 21st amendment. Hey, maybe if you drink enough you can trick yourself into thinking FDR will be our president come January 20th.