The Repeal of Prohibition 1933
Many Americans were disillusioned by 1929, following nine years of Prohibition. People had been publicly drinking illegal alcoholic beverages that were readily available practically everywhere for a long time. They studied news reports of assassinations and explosions in major cities, carried out by organized crime members who had made a fortune by bootlegging whiskey, wine, and beer and transporting it by land, sea, and air.
On February 14, 1929, in Chicago, Al Capone’s henchmen lined up and killed down seven companions of rival mobster George “Bugs” Moran in the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” as it was dubbed by the press. The news of the heinous mass murder horrified the country, even Prohibition supporters. Meanwhile, Capone organized press conferences and attended public athletic events dressed in fancy outfits. He was making anywhere from $60 million to $100 million a year from bootlegging while also bribing cops, judges, and politicians with cash.
Shortly after Prohibition began, the public began to have second thoughts about it. In a poll conducted by Literary Digest in 1922, 40% of respondents supported amending the National Prohibition Act (commonly known as the Volstead Act) and 20% supported abolishing the 18th Amendment. In a study conducted by the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1926, 81 percent of respondents preferred amending or repealing the Prohibition Act.
On March 4, 1929, just a few weeks after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, President Herbert Hoover, a devout “dry,” came office and immediately called a special session of Congress to address a large list of issues. At the request of the new president, Congress enacted a law establishing a special commission chaired by former US Attorney General George Wickersham to investigate the problem of Prohibition enforcement and if repeal was necessary. “I want that man Capone in jail,” the incoming president informed his Treasury Secretary, Andrew Mellon. The stock market plummeted on Wall Street that October, kicking off the Great Depression, the country’s greatest economic crisis in history, set against the backdrop of Prohibition.
However, Pauline Sabin, the first female board member of the Republican National Committee and a nationally renowned “dry” advocate, condemned Hoover’s plan to form a commission to explore the difficulties of Prohibition as insufficient. Sabin decided to switch sides and lobby for the removal of the 18th Amendment in April 1929. She was disillusioned with it after witnessing a large number of people drinking and breaking Prohibition in New York, which is known for its thousands of speakeasies. She left the Republican committee and founded the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, a repeal advocacy group. She rapidly discovered that many other American women, like Sabin, who had previously supported Prohibition, agreed with her on repeal. Sabin’s pro-repeal movement took off, and by 1932, her organization had surpassed one million members.
Over the course of 18 months, the Wickersham Commission heard testimony in closed session from U.S. attorneys, state district attorneys, high-ranking police officers, economists, doctors, social workers, and labor leaders, as well as reviewing reports from its investigators, statements from members of Hoover’s cabinet, and a large number of books, papers, and surveys.
In January 1931, the 11-member team issued a long report detailing its findings and recommendations on Prohibition. The commission overwhelmingly rejected both removing the 18th Amendment and the reinstatement of legalized saloons, which were previously common across the country and managed by politically strong liquor companies, much to Hoover’s delight. The group also urged against altering the Volstead Act to allow low-alcohol beer and light wines, even if the alcohol content was only 2.75 percent.
Beyond its recommendations, the commission’s findings were harshly critical of federal and state law enforcement officers’ actions during Prohibition, claiming that the Bureau of Prohibition and other federal agencies “got off to a bad start” and “were badly organized and inadequate” from 1920 to 1926, when Congress passed reforms. Even after the modifications, the Volstead Act is “still not adequately observed or enforced,” according to the commissioners.
The states’ lack of cooperation was a major issue. Only a few states aided federal authorities in investigating and prosecuting Volstead breaches. Furthermore, corruption was widespread among city and state law enforcement personnel, as well as among Prohibition agents themselves. Local politics were compromised by organized gangs of liquor racketeers who paid “tributes” or bribes to authorize the transit of illegal liquor. The difficulties of properly patrolling nearly 12,000 miles of shoreline on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf Coasts, with numerous inlets and hiding places for smugglers, 3,000 miles in the Great Lakes region, as well as rural areas with mountains, marshes, and woods, was added to the mix.
“The evidence given and analyzed in the Commission’s findings can only lead to one conclusion,” member Henry W. Anderson wrote. “The National Prohibition Act and the 18th Amendment have not been and are not being followed. They haven’t been enforced and won’t be enforced. We have a legal prohibition, but not in practice.”
The report cited a slew of damaging figures from the Bureau of Prohibition that revealed how rampant bootlegging was and how difficult it was to keep illegal liquor under control in the 48 states. The number of stills confiscated increased from 32,000 in 1920 to 261,000 in 1928. In 1930, the Bureau calculated that 683 million gallons of beer and 118 million gallons of illicit wine were produced. At 1930, criminals diverted at least nine million gallons of non-drinkable industrial alcohol for cocktails served in speakeasies. Meanwhile, there were only 1,786 agents, investigators, and special agents working for the bureau. The commission suggested that the number of workers be increased to at least 3,000.
The Wickersham panel also recommended that Congress and the states enact a modified version of the 18th Amendment, which would reduce it to a single paragraph and give Congress the power to regulate or prohibit the manufacture and transportation of alcoholic liquors within the United States. It also proposed for the creation of a National Commission on Liquor Control by Congress. The group, however, made a suggestion that may have alarmed Hoover and the drys: Congress should have the option “to remit the matter in whole or in part to the States,” allowing states opposed to prohibition to legalize alcohol inside their borders.
The country was in the midst of the Great Depression when the Wickersham Commission’s report was released. Unemployment had more than doubled to 3.2 million people by 1930. Some farmers lost their farms, while others suffered from severe droughts. Food riots occurred, as did an increase in suicides among military veterans and destitute people living in “Hoovervilles,” or tent cities. Hoover and Congress fought tooth and nail to pass laws that would help farmers and give emergency cash for public works projects. Meanwhile, the Anti-Saloon League, the lobbying group most responsible for convincing Congress to establish Prohibition legislation in 1919, had lost its power and was unable to gather funding from the general public to pay its expenditures.
In 1932, Congress took up some of Wickersham’s recommendations, but the drys remained a formidable force in both the House and Senate. They stymied the commission’s recommendation to transmit a revised 18th Amendment to the states. Proposals to legalize and tax beer with a 2.75 percent alcohol content were also blocked by the drys. Many of the drys, on the other hand, would be hammered in the following election.
It can never be known how much longer Prohibition would have lasted had the country’s economy not crashed in 1929. With unemployment so high and tax revenues so low, many people thought repealing the law would result in more jobs, business expansion, and tax money. In 1932, Hoover faced a challenging re-election campaign. In 1931, he won his battle against Al Capone when the gangster was imprisoned for tax evasion. Even the longstanding dry Hoover had to pivot and announce himself in favor of repeal, much to the dismay of the “dry vote” that he had in 1928 when he ran against Democrat and declared wet Al Smith.
During the 1932 general election, New York Governor and Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (who had vacillated on Prohibition for years) took advantage of both the Republican policies’ seeming failures prior to the Depression and the burgeoning anti-Prohibition sentiment. Roosevelt’s party had a pro-repeal platform, and he campaigned on it, claiming that legalizing alcohol alone might produce “several hundred million dollars a year in government money.” Repeal was more than a political issue for Pauline Sabin. The Republican was able to persuade the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, which had a million members, to back Roosevelt.
Roosevelt won a landslide victory over Hoover, receiving 22.8 million votes to 15.7 million votes, and voters gave the Democratic Party strong majorities in the House and Senate. Still in its lame-duck session, Congress began to study a draft of the 21st Amendment, which would remove the 18th. It was enacted by the House and Senate in February 1933 and forwarded to the states for final ratification. The amendment required each state to have a referendum on the topic, and if repeal received a majority of the vote, state legislatures were required to appoint and send delegates to a state convention where delegates would vote on repeal. That provision was imposed for political reasons, to prevent the Anti-Saloon League lobby and “dry” legislators from stifling the amendment in state legislatures.
Despite predictions that the state conventions would take years to gather and vote, this did not materialize. It was quickly taken up by the conventions, and delegates voted to repeal it in a race against time. Meanwhile, Roosevelt was hosting a dinner at the White House less than two weeks after taking office when he said to guests, “This would be a wonderful time for a beer.” He had an assistant deliver a brief statement to the House of Representatives, which included wording from the Democrats’ wet convention program. He requested that the Volstead Act be rewritten to allow for the legalization of 3.2 percent alcohol beer and light wines.
To take a final shot at Roosevelt’s bill, the Beer-Wine Revenue Act, prominent dry leaders issued statements to reporters. However, by legalizing beer and wine, the proposal would boost national morale and raise much-needed tax revenue for the government. The legislation was passed nine days later by Congress, Roosevelt signed it on March 22, 1933, and it took effect on April 7. States that chose to keep Prohibition in place were allowed to do so. The country rejoiced by imbibing low-alcohol beer and wine, which had been illegal for 13 years.
Meanwhile, starting with Michigan, state conventions passed the 21st Amendment one by one. Utah’s assembly became the 36th to approve the repeal vote, the last required out of the 48, on November 7, 1933, only nine months after Congress sent the repeal vote to the states. On December 5, 1933, three state conventions accepted it, making it official. Prohibition in the United States had come to an end. The new amendment made it illegal to carry or import intoxicating liquors into any state in the US if the state’s laws prohibiting it. The licensing and regulation of alcoholic beverages had largely become a matter of state law. It was the first time in American history that a previous amendment was repealed by amending the Constitution.
Beer and wine prepared at home for personal and family consumption are now lawful under federal law. However, you can’t make spirits at home, such as whiskey or moonshine. Stills are still unlawful and can result in a felony charge. If you wish to sell hard liquor, brew beer, or manufacture wine commercially, you’ll need a federal permit from the Treasury Department’s Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, as well as paying federal taxes on what you create.
Legalization of Marijuana (1996).
The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law (Sterling Milestones) Hardcover – Illustrated, 22 Oct. 2015, English edition by Michael H. Roffer (Autor)