The 18th Amendment prohibits the making, transporting and selling of alcoholic beverages.
Virginia passes the first laws against public drunkenness. Other colonies follow Virginia’s lead, but none prohibits the consumption of alcohol.
Massachusetts creates the Office of Tithingman, which is charged with finding and reporting violations of liquor laws within people’s homes. The term “tithingman” is taken from early English law enforcement. Towns are broken into smaller groups of 10 families and the chosen leader is a tithingman.
The first law limiting liquor sales for purely religious reasons is passed in New York. All bars, pubs and restaurants where alcohol is served are to close on Sunday. Sunday, supporters of the law said, is the Lord’s day and people should be in church, not drinking in pubs.
Under the leadership of Neal Dow, thought by some to be the father of Prohibition, and promoted by the state’s temperance society, Maine passes the first law in the United States to ban alcohol except when used in medicine.
Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton start the Women’s New York Temperance Society, the first organization in a growing movement for moderation in alcohol consumption. The movement’s call for prohibition leads to the adoption of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution outlawing the manufacture, sale or transport of alcohol starting Jan. 16, 1919. The amendment is then repealed by ratification of the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933.
By the middle of the 19th century, 13 of 31 states have temperance laws in effect. Reformers believe that drinking is a crime against decency and against women and children. Several churches preach that alcohol is a tool of the devil and that “Satan was in every drop.”
Frustrated by failure of the major political parties to address prohibition, activists in the temperance movement form the National Prohibition Party. The party’s first convention in Chicago pulls delegates from 20 states, but they receive little support in the general election. The party’s popularity will peak in 1892 when Jon Bidwell, the party’s presidential candidate, receives 265,000 votes. The party exists today and continues to run candidates for office.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union forms to combat the “the destructive power of alcohol” after local women’s groups in New York and Ohio stage protests in neighborhood saloons. A national organizing meeting is held in New York and, in the fall of 1874, the first national convention of the WCTU is held in Cleveland, Ohio. Although considerably smaller, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union still advocates today for abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, gambling and illegal drugs.
Touting a slogan of “the saloon must go,” the Anti-Saloon League becomes one of the driving forces behind Prohibition. The League, partnering with churches and political parties push to close saloons, then ban liquor sales and consumption throughout the country.
More than half of the state legislatures have passed laws declaring their states “dry.” To eliminate the sale of liquor through the mail, advocates of national prohibition successfully lobby to forbid the shipment of alcohol into these dry states. The Interstate Liquor Act is passed over President William Taft’s veto.
Known as the Prohibition Amendment, Congress passes the 18th Amendment, which makes illegal the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” Although Congress gives a deadline of seven years for states to pass it, the amendment will be ratified only two years later, in 1919, when Wyoming ratifies it.
By 1918, 29 states have amended their constitutions to prohibit the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcoholic beverages. Some of these amendments let local areas vote to limit alcohol; others, such as the temperance amendment that was passed by referendum in Ohio, limit alcohol sales throughout the state.
The National Prohibition Enforcement Act (also known as the Volstead Act) is passed in October and bans any “intoxicating liquors” containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol. President Woodrow Wilson vetoes the Volstead Act, named after a Republican congressman from Minnesota, but Congress overrides his veto.
The Internal Revenue Service is given responsibility to enforce the Volstead Act. Field agents who track down illegal stills come to be known as “revenoors.” In 1930, enforcement will be transferred to the Justice Department. Today, responsibility for enforcing federal laws related to liquor is with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Led by states in the Northeast and Midwest, by 1927 at least six state legislatures pass laws preventing police from following up on reported violations of the alcohol ban. Organized crime grows with a large increase of illegal bars and clubs. Notorious mob boss Al Capone reportedly made $60 million (equivalent to $2 billion today) in 1927 mostly from liquor sales.
Nine prominent New York lawyers form the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers to repeal the Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment. They argue that the growing disregard for Prohibition threatens to undermine respect for the country’s system of laws and repealing the amendment is needed “to preserve the spirit of the Constitution of the United States.” The committee develops a large network of lawyers – estimates say 3,500 in all states at its strongest. The American Bar Association will call for repeal a year later.
The arguments over Prohibition and other law enforcement problems reach such intensity that President Herbert Hoover appoints the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, popularly known as the Wickersham Commission. The commission issues 14 reports over the next several years including Prohibition: Enforcement of the Prohibition Laws of the United States. The commission finds that although Prohibition is not working it should be continued anyway.
Alfred E. Smith runs as the Democratic nominee for president against Herbert Hoover. Although Smith loses, he makes the repeal of Prohibition an issue in the campaign. The campaign raises the level of debate over Prohibition and strengthens the movement to repeal the 18th Amendment.
“This convention wants repeal. Your candidate wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal,” Roosevelt said in his speech at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. Earlier in his career, he had been supportive of Prohibition. Some credit FDR’s switch to the 1929 stock market crash, the resulting Depression, and his belief that a revived liquor industry would create jobs and help get the economy back on track.
Within days of taking office, President Franklin Roosevelt sends a message to Congress requesting a change in the Volstead Act. Following the president’s lead, Congress amends the act to permit beer with a 3.2 percent alcohol content. The sale of beer becomes legal in 20 states and in Washington, D.C.
Congress approves the amendment in February and sends it to the states for ratification. On Nov. 7, Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania approve the amendment, bringing the total to 37 states. Thus the 21st Amendment is ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and leaving liquor control laws to be decided by the states.
In U.S. v. Chambers, Clause Chambers and Byrum Gibson are prosecuted for possessing and transporting intoxicating liquor in violation of the National Prohibition Act. Although the events that led to their arrest occurred before ratification of the 21st Amendment, the prosecution occurred after its adoption. Thus the defendants asked the Court to dismiss their case because the laws for which they were arrested were no longer valid. The U.S. Supreme Court agrees that the prosecution under an inoperative or repealed law cannot go forward. The ruling, however, does not address whether defendants who had been convicted of alcohol-related charges during Prohibition are to be freed.
Once the 18th Amendment is repealed, the excise tax on alcohol begins to climb. In 1934, the tax is $2.00 per gallon; in 1940, $3.00 per gallon; in 1941, $4.00 per gallon; in 1942, $6.00 per gallon; in 1944, $9.00 per gallon; and in 1970, $10.50 per gallon.
Striking one of the last remaining laws from the Prohibition era, President Jimmy Carter signs a federal law legalizing home brewing of beer.