Promoted by the state’s temperance society, Maine passes the first law in the United States to ban alcohol except when used in medicine. Within four years, thirteen of the thirty-one states enact temperance laws. Reformers call drinking a crime against decency and against innocent women and children.
Frustrated by the failure of the major political parties to address prohibition, temperance advocates form the National Prohibition Party. The party receives little support in the general elections. Its popularity peaks in 1892 when its candidate for President receives 265,000 votes. The Prohibition Party still exists and continues to run candidates for office.
More than half of the state legislatures have passed laws declaring their states “dry.” To eliminate the sale of liquor through the mail, temperance advocates successfully lobby to forbid the shipment of alcohol into these dry states.
Following ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, Congress passes the National Prohibition Enforcement Act (also known as the Volstead Act), which bans any “intoxicating liquors” containing more than 0.5 percent alcohol. The Internal Revenue Service has responsibility for enforcing the Volstead Act. Its field agents, who track down illegal stills, come to be known as “revenoors.”
State legislatures in the Northeast and Midwest pass laws preventing police from pursuing reported violations of the alcohol ban. Organized crime accounts for a large increase in illegal bars, known as speakeasies. In 1927, nine prominent New York lawyers form the “Voluntary Committee of Lawyers” to repeal the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment. They argue that the public’s disregard for Prohibition threatens to undermine respect for the U.S. legal system.
Alfred E. Smith, the Democratic nominee for President, endorses the repeal of Prohibition, while the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, calls for more effective enforcement of the Prohibition laws. Despite Smith’s loss, the campaign raises the level of debate over Prohibition and strengthens the movement for repeal.
After his election, President Herbert Hoover appoints the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, popularly known as the Wickersham Commission, to examine Prohibition enforcement. While the commission concludes that Prohibition is not working, most of the commissioners believe the law should be continued anyway.
Although Presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt draws much of his support from “dry” areas of the South and West, he accepts the Democratic Party’s platform, which calls for the repeal of Prohibition. After Roosevelt’s election, but before he takes the oath as President, Congress votes to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. Within days of becoming President the following year, Roosevelt asks Congress to permit the sale of beer and wine even before the Twenty-first Amendment is ratified.
Before the states ratify the Twenty-first Amendment, the prosecution of Clause Chambers and Byrum Gibson for possessing and transporting intoxicating liquor in violation of the National Prohibition Act begins. Their prosecution continues even after Prohibition’s repeal. The defendants ask the court to dismiss their case because the laws for which they have been arrested are no longer valid. In United States v. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court agrees that prosecution under a repealed law cannot go forward.
A wine dealer challenges California’s system of setting prices for wine merchants, arguing it violates the Sherman Antitrust Act. California officials argue that the system protects small wine dealers and say that the price regulation is within the state’s power to regulate alcohol granted in the Twenty-first Amendment. In California Retail Liquor Dealers Association v. Midcal Aluminum, Inc., the U.S. Supreme Court says that while states have wide latitude to regulate alcohol under the Twenty-first Amendment, the amendment cannot be used to justify a system that violates federal antitrust laws.
Congress passes legislation to reduce a state’s highway funding if that state does not increase the minimum drinking age to twenty-one. South Dakota challenges the law as a violation of its power to regulate alcohol under the Twenty-first Amendment. In South Dakota v. Dole, the U.S. Supreme Court holds that Congress has legitimately used its spending power to promote the public welfare and sees no conflict with the Twenty-first Amendment.
In the case of Granholm v. Heald, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that the states cannot bar out-of-state shipments of wine to their residents, despite the provision of the Twenty-first Amendment, which leaves the regulation of liquor sales to the states. In this case, the Court strikes down state laws that discriminate against interstate commerce in violation of the commerce clause and concludes that such discrimination is neither authorized nor permitted by the Twenty-first Amendment.