December 5, 1933 – The 21st Amendment Was Ratified

2008 marked the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition. It is the only Amendment thus far ratified by state conventions specially convened for such ratification; all other amendments have been ratified by state legislatures. It is also the only amendment that was passed for the explicit and nearly sole purpose of repealing an earlier amendment to the Constitution.

The 18th Amendment, ratified in 1919, mandated prohibition of alcohol in the United States. (The amendment itself did not ban the actual consumption of alcohol, but made obtaining it legally difficult.) However, the ban on manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol merely served to stimulate the ingenuity of entrepreneurs, who knew a lucrative market when they saw one. Liquor dealers abroad provided a ready and unimpeded source of alcoholic beverages, and there were many who were prepared to risk arrest to take advantage of the opportunities afforded. “Bootleggers” and “speakeasies” multiplied like bar flies. Enforcement became increasingly difficult and, much to the disgust of Prohibition’s adherents, unenthusiastic.

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Toward the end of the Prohibition era, much of the organized effort to transport, sell, and distribute alcohol had fallen under the control of criminal gangs, many of which amassed a great deal of wealth and also (inevitably, it might be said), political influence. As gangsters gained in power and prominence, and as the perception of public corruption and general social decay became more acute and widely held, Americans became increasingly disenchanted with Prohibition.

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By 1932 the change in public opinion led to a platform in the Democratic Party to repeal the 18th Amendment. The strength of the Democratic showing in 1932 and the outpouring of public sentiment in favor of repeal was enough to cause Congress to pass a resolution calling for the adoption of the Twenty-first Amendment, repealing the Eighteenth. The Twenty-first Amendment was put to the states for ratification, and on December 5, 1933, it was ratified by the required number of states, becoming law.

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The necessary thirty-sixth state ratified the amendment at 5:32 p.m. By 7:00 p.m., President Franklin Roosevelt had signed the proclamation ending the increasingly unpopular nationwide prohibition of alcohol set forth by the 18th Amendment.

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