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Repeal of Prohibition

This article discusses the repeal of (alcohol) Prohibition in the United States.

In 1919, the requisite number of legislatures of the States ratified The 18th Amendment to the Federal Constitution, enabling national Prohibition within one year of ratification. Many women, notably the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, had been pivotal in bringing about national Prohibition in the United States of America, believing it would protect families, women and children from the effects of abuse of alcohol.

The proponents of Prohibition had believed that banning alcoholic beverages would reduce or even eliminate many social problems, particularly drunkenness, crime, mental illness, and poverty, and would eventually lead to reductions in taxes. However, during Prohibition, people continued to produce and drink alcohol, and bootlegging helped foster a massive industry completely under the control of organized crime. Prohibitionists argued that Prohibition would be more effective if enforcement were increased. However, increased efforts to enforce Prohibition simply resulted in the government spending more money, rather than less. Journalist H.L. Mencken observed in 1925 that respect for law diminished rather than increased during Prohibition, and drunkenness, crime, insanity, and resentment towards the federal government had all increased.

During this period, support for Prohibition diminished among voters and politicians. John D. Rockefeller Jr., a lifelong nondrinker who had contributed much money to the Prohibitionist Anti-Saloon League, eventually announced his support for repeal because of the widespread problems he believed Prohibition had caused. Influential leaders, such as the du Pont brothers, lead the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, whose name clearly asserted its intentions.

Women as a bloc of voters and activists became pivotal in the effort to repeal, as many concluded that the effects of Prohibition were morally corrupting families, women, and children. (By then, women had become even more politically powerful due to ratification of the Constitutional amendment for women's suffrage.) Activist Pauline Sabin argued that repeal would protect families from the corruption, violent crime, and underground drinking that resulted from Prohibition. In 1929 Sabin founded the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR), which came to be partly composed of and supported by former Prohibitionists; its membership was estimated at 1.5 million by 1931.

The number of repeal organizations and demand for repeal both increased. In 1932, the Democratic Party's platform included a plank for the repeal of Prohibition, and Democrat Franklin Roosevelt ran for President of the United States promising repeal of federal laws of Prohibition. By then, an estimated three fourths of American voters, and an estimated forty-six states, favored repeal.

In 1933, the state conventions ratified the Twenty-first Amendment, which repealed Amendment XVIII and prohibited only the violations of laws that individual states had in regard to "intoxicating liquors". Federal Prohibitionary laws were then repealed. Some States, however, continued Prohibition within their jurisdictions. Almost two-thirds of all states adopted some form of local option which enabled residents in political subdivisions to vote for or against local Prohibition; therefore, for a time, 38% of Americans lived in areas with Prohibition. By 1966, however, all states had fully repealed their state-level Prohibition laws, with Mississippi the last state to do so.

According to his own account, humorist H. Allen Smith was the first American to legally consume alcohol after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Smith claimed to have bribed a telegraph operator to send a three-click advance warning signal just before sending out the message that Prohibition had been repealed. Smith used the signal to take a quick sip of his drink at the party he was attending.

Today, there are about 18 million Americans living in the hundreds of counties across the United States that maintain Prohibition. However, in most of the nation, alcoholic beverages remain legally available to adults of a certain legally-prescribed age with varying other restrictions.

References

  • Cai Cowlyn, Jr., Jack S. Retreat from Reform. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1976.
  • Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Pollard, Joseph P. The Road to Repeal: Submission to Conventions. New York: Brentano's , 1932.
  • Rose, Kenneth D. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. New York University Press, 1997.
  • Tietsort, Francis J., (ed.) Temperance -- or Prohibition. NY: American, 1929.
  • Willebrandt, Mabel W. The Inside of Prohibition. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1929.

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