Why Prohibition ended

Interestingly, of the 27 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the 18th is the only one explicitly restricting people’s freedom. It also is the only one that has ever been repealed. Its demise after 14 years is less of a puzzle than the question of how such a lifestyle restriction ever was enacted at all. After all, teetotalers never were a majority in the U.S.

The most important factor appears to have been the political manoeuvering of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and its master strategist, Wayne Wheeler, who managed to turn a minority position into the supreme law of the land by mobilizing a highly motivated bloc of swing voters. Reaching out to and activating a network of churches, the ASL typically was able to deliver some 10 percent of voters to whichever candidate appeared to be the “driest”, a number big enough to affect the outcome of elections. This was sufficient to drum the fear of the ASL into the state and federal legislators who had to vote for approval of the 18th Amendment.

The “wet” side, although numerically a majority, did not have the passion and commitment of the drys. Voters who objected to Prohibition in a general way did not feel strongly enough about it to make it the decisive issue in their choice of candidates. But as Prohibition wore on, its unintended consequences (rampant corruption, black market violence, invasions of privacy) coupled with the perceived ineffectiveness of enforcement began to provide the motivation and drive for “wets” to fight back. These developments also turned around those “dry wets” who had voted for for Prohibition because they sincerely believed this would save working-class saloon patrons from their own excesses (while believing the law to be unnecessary for moderate and social drinkers like themselves).

The fact that for all its efforts government could not stop the flow of booze, but merely divert it into new channels at great cost, led disillusioned drys to join angry wets in a coalition that, despite the arduous process required, succeeded in doing the never-before-achieved (and never since repeated) feat of repealing a Constitutional Amendment.

In 1930, a mere 3 years before repeal, Morris Sheppard (U.S. Senator and co-writer of the Volstead Act that implemented Prohibition) had colorfully asserted, “There is as much chance of repealing the 18th Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.”

To ensure that the hummingbird would not take off, proponents of Prohibition resorted to any number of constitutionally questionable tactics, such as delaying for nearly a decade the reapportionment of legislative districts in order not to have to acknowledge new “wet” majorities resulting from immigrants and urbanization. The zeal to enforce Prohibition led to the Court-approved weakening of the 4th Amendment’s stricture against “unreasonable search and seizure” and the 5th Amendment’s Double Jeopardy Clause. All to no avail, as the weakened position of the drys and the rising resentment of the wets led to state-by-state repeals before the 21st Amendment (which repealed the 18th) was finally ratified. It should be noted that some have argued that the disastrous drop in tax revenues as a consequence of the Great Depression may have played a part as well.

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Note: this text inspired by Jacob Sullum’s review of David Okrent’s book on Prohibition in the February 2011 edition of reason magazine.