How Dry We Were: The Repeal of Prohibition


During a 1928 congressional hearing on national prohibition, Pauline Morton Sabin, niece of the Morton Salt founder and wife of the chairman of the board of Guaranty Trust Co., listened as Ella Bolle, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, roared “I represent the women of America.” Sabin leaned back and thought, “Well lady here’s one woman you don’t represent.” Sabin knew the evils of alcohol, but she also knew that until national prohibition became law most people practiced temperance; prohibition had spawned a hip-flask society that disrespected the law and corrupted America’s youth. So in order to protect American homes, children, and the Constitution, Sabin founded The Woman’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform(WONPR). Sabin’s WONPR then joined with The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), the original anti-prohibition group, to spearhead the drive to do what seemed impossible–repeal the Eighteenth Amendment.

The twentieth century dawned in the United States with the bright light of an idea that burst into a reform movement that eventually captured both political parties–Progressivism, the belief in the perfectibility of mankind. President Woodrow Wilson, a progressive Democrat, led America into World War I to make the world safe for democracy; meanwhile, other progressives sought to make America safe for sobriety.

Alcohol prohibition enjoyed a long tradition on the American scene. Maine became the first state to legally ban alcohol in 1851, and several states passed similar laws during the next sixty years. Then in 1913, the Anti-Saloon League set their sights on a national ban through passage of a constitutional amendment. Only an amendment, they argued, would permanently solve the problem because any national prohibition law passed by one congress could be overturned with a simple majority vote by some future congress. An amendment required a three-quarters majority of all the states. Taking advantage of the War Prohibition Act, which banned the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages containing more than 2.75% alcohol content, the anti-alcohol lobby pushed through Congress their holy grail–the national prohibition amendment.

The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919, prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors. To enforce the law and set a maximum alcohol content for beverages, Congress enacted the Volstead Act, which proved more severe than most people expected. The wartime anti-alcohol act had allowed people to drink light beer and wine, and many previous state prohibition laws had banned only hard liquor. Assuming national prohibition would follow these precedents, many beer and wine drinkers had favored passage of the amendment. Even some breweries favored the new amendment since it would eliminate competition from the liquor distillers; therefore, the brewers and many other Americans were shocked at the passage of the Vostead Act, which decreed .05 percent as the maximum alcohol content. A Literary Digest poll taken in 1922 found 40 percent of respondents favored light wines and beer; the poll also revealed 62 percent of working men favoring more lenient enforcement of national prohibition. The overzealous Volstead Act sowed the seeds of repeal. Rather than just “wets,” against prohibition, and “drys,” for prohibition, the Volstead Act created a large middle group that David Kyvig, in his excellent book Repealing National Prohibition, labeled “moists.” These fence straddlers eventually decided prohibition’s fate.

During national prohibition’s early years repeal seemed impossible; the Constitution requires a three-quarters majority of the states to pass an amendment or to overturn one. But through the determination of states’ rights advocates, such as William Slayton, founder of AAPA, former senator James Wadsworth, John Raskob, the Du Pont brothers, and Pauline Sabin’s WONPAR, public opinion gradually shifted toward modification of Volstead or outright repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. The speakeasies flourishing in every American city proved that many people agreed with journalist H.L. Mencken’s, description of prohibition as “Boobus Americanus trying to enforce its morals on a sophisticated society.”

By 1928 the labels wet and dry became obligatory for national political figures. The Democrats that year nominated New York’s soaking wet governor, Alfred E. Smith, who lost to dry Republican Herbert Hoover. But the prohibition issue had turned a corner by becoming an issue between presidential candidates.

Four years later, in 1932, with WONPAR hammering away at the home and children theme, and AAPA stressing both their original states’ rights versus federal power arguement and the new depression issue of job creation through repeal, the impossible became possible. The complete shift of public opinion and the backing of the President-elect, Franklin D. Roosevelt, allowed a repeal amendment to make its way through the lame-duck Congress in early 1933.

The Twenty-First Amendment was unique because it was not only the sole example of the negation of a previous amendment, but it was also the only amendment ratified by the convention method: Each state that wished to act on the amendment choose state convention delegates by popular election as in the electoral college procedure. These electors then met in a special state convention voting “yea” or “nay” for repeal.

Some delegates to the state conventions discussed the economic reasons for repeal, such as new job creation and revenue for cash-strapped state governments. Others like Illinois’ Governor Henry Horner said that voting for the repeal amendment and against the prohibition amendment “is declaring the strong opposition of our people to any amendment of our National Constitution that denies to the several states the control of the habits, customs and privileges of its own citizens.” Maryland’s Leonard Weinberg declared, “In this day of Fascism and Sovietism and subjugation of the people to the domination of the state or of a man, this marks a rededication of the people of America to principles of Democracy.” New Hampshire wasted no time on rhetoric; they voted to kill prohibition in just 17 minutes. The requisite three-quarters majority needed for passage was reached on December 5, 1933, when Utah’s vote for the Twenty-First Amendment ended national prohibition.

As the various state conventions met throughout 1933, the newly installed Roosevelt administration jumped on the band wagon — or in this case the beer wagon–when FDR said to an aide, “I think this would be a good time for beer.” The President asked Congress to modify the Volstead Act to allow 3.2 beer and to slap a federal tax on the brew. Congress agreed. A week later at just a few minutes past midnight on April 7, 1933, a beer truck, sporting a sign reading “President Roosevelt, the first real beer is yours,” delivered two cases of legal beer to the White House.

The great irony of the victory over prohibition is that historians give FDR most of the credit for repeal, while consigning the organized repeal movements to history’s back room. Far worse for the AAPA menbers was the avalanche of New Deal measures boosting federal powers at the expense of states’ rights. For the states’ righters it seemed as if FDR’s support of their repeal amendment had saved their flower garden but then the President turned around and torched their house. Disbanding shortly after the Twenty-First Amendment’s passage, the AAPA members quickly reformed into the Liberty League in order to battle FDR’s use of federal power.

What President Hoover had called “The Noble Experiment” failed. But why? Was national prohibition doomed to fail because you cannot legislate morals, as some people say, or because of the overzealous Volstead Act? If Americans had been allowed to drink beer and wine, would they have been satisfied to leave hard liquor prohibited, and if so, for how long? hrough the Depression and World War II? Into the 60s? Beyond? One of America’s roads not taken.