This Day in History: Repeal Day

The Bygone era isn’t so bygone. Learn about the ins-and-outs of Prohibition.

In 1919, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution banned the production and sale of alcohol, beckoning in more than a decade of prohibition. Today in history, Dec. 5th, 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment, marking the end of prohibition.

The period of prohibition marked the culmination of the temperance movement, which had spent much of the 19th century advocating for the prohibition of alcohol. 

Prohibitionists had various motivations, including the pursuit of Christian perfection and the belief that restricting access to alcohol would reduce crime.

According to Dr. Nigel Sellars, an Associate Professor at CNU specializing in the Gilded Age and 20th century, prohibition and the temperance movement can be understood in the lens of the split between urban and rural people.

Whiskey was popular on the frontier, partly for economic reasons (it was cheaper to transport than regular grain) but also because of the stresses of frontier life. 

“We have all these myths about the frontier, and one of the things that people ignore is that the frontier was really mind-numbingly dull,” Sellars said. Although whiskey was important to frontier culture, the temperance movement was especially popular in rural areas—possibly because drunkenness was more dangerous on the frontier.

Meanwhile, alcohol had a different function in cities: saloons were major social centers and saloon-keepers were essential parts of their communities.

“They had this really big social purpose which was not part of rural life at all,” Sellars said. The prohibitionist movement began gaining traction when they started targeting saloons rather than alcohol itself.

The 18th Amendment was passed at the beginning of 1919, just a few months after the end of the First World War. This was no coincidence. 

“In World War One, you have all the anti-German sentiment, and beer immediately jumps to mind,” Sellars said. 

During the second half of the 19th century, an influx of German immigrants started opening breweries for German-style lagers, largely replacing English-style brewing.

Although advocates of prohibition believed it would lower crime, this was not the case: demand for alcohol remained and the demand was filled by bootleggers, and prohibition went hand in hand with the rise of organized crime. Making matters worse, prohibition was mostly enforced by the treasury department, not the FBI, and treasury agents (known as “T-Men”) were not very well-paid.

Besides the issues involved with enforcing prohibition, there were economic factors behind its repeal in 1933, in the thick of the Great Depression. 

“Ultimately it comes down to taxes. The idea that ‘oh, if it were legal it would create all these jobs, and then all the money that would be going to organized crime would be coming into the government in taxes,’” Sellars said. “Think about how many jobs are lost when you shut down the distilleries and the breweries. In terms of total job loss by the Great Depression, it’s probably not significant, but people look at the numbers and go ‘wait, we’d have all these jobs back,’ plus the tax revenue.”

Prohibition was not so long ago. Although the 18th Amendment was only in effect for twelve years, its repeal was only 85 years ago, and the Prohibition Party still runs candidates today. In 2016, their candidate, James Hedges, received 5,617 votes in the presidential race. (For comparison, CNU has approximately 5,000 students.)

Many of the factors behind the passage of the 18th Amendment survive today, particularly the divide between people in urban and rural areas. 

Additionally, although the 21st Amendment ended nation-wide prohibition, it empowered states to make their own laws regarding the prohibition of alcohol. 

Some states remained dry, and 17 states,  including Virginia, have agencies that control the sale of certain types of alcohol.

The past pervades the present. Nationwide prohibition is past, but we can learn lessons from that bygone era and remember that it was not so long ago.


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