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Brenna Schrader - December 8, 2016

Celebration of the adoption of the 18th Constitutional amendment in New York, 1932

Celebration of the adoption of the 18th Constitutional amendment in New York, 1932

When we hear the word “Prohibition,” we often think of what was briefly taught in high school history class when going over the Amendments – that time in history when alcohol was illegal. The history of prohibition in the United States actually began long before 1920. Local governments had been restricting the sale and and consumption of alcohol for decades.

In 1851, Maine passed the first state-wide alcohol prohibition. Fourteen other northern states became “dry” shortly thereafter. These alcohol bans didn’t stick and only five of these state prohibitions lasted beyond 1865. During the Civil War, nine Confederate states banned alcohol in order to alleviate food shortages.

During the twentieth century, war once again led to prohibition. In 1917, the US entered World War I and President Woodrow Wilson issued a temporary ban on alcohol because he believed that the grains used should be used for food instead of liquor. This temporary wartime restriction presaged the 18th amendment which was passed in 1919.

Prohibition did not stop people from drinking. Law enforcement at both the state and federal level failed to stop the growth of bootlegging operations and speakeasies. If one bootleg bar was closed down, another would open to replace it quite quickly.

During the 1932 election, Franklin Delano Roosevelt ran on the promise of repealing prohibition. After FDR was sworn in as president he asked Congress to repeal prohibition by passing the 21st Amendment. On December 5, 1933, Utah provided the 36th and final necessary vote for ratification. This day is referred to as “Repeal Day.”


Mark Edward Lender. Drinking In America: A History. Revised and expanded edition. New York: London: Free Press. 1987.

Bruce E. Stewart. Moonshiners and Prohibitionists: The Battle over Alcohol in Southern Appalachia. University Press of Kentucky, 2011.