Friday, December 05, 2014

At 5:32 pm, Prohibition ended 81 years ago, today.

New York Times front page: 5 December 1933

Yesterday, eighty-one years ago, in 1933, the state of South Carolina voted against the 21st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Fortunately, it would be the only state to vote no, and to futile effect. *

The very next day, 5 December 1933, at 5:32 PM ET, the citizens of Utah would vote for ratification. Utah became the 36th State to do so, thus achieving the 3/4 majority of states' votes needed to enact the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment and ending the nearly 14 year ignoble reign of Prohibition.

It had become legal, again, to manufacture, distribute, and sell alcoholic beverages ... if a state desired to do so. The 21st Amendment left to the states the right to control the importation, sale, and regulation of alcohol within each state's own borders. And, to this day, there remains a seemingly inchoate patchwork of state-by-state alcohol laws throughout the nation.

21st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

But in the capital of the United States: not so fast.

In his book, "Prohibition in Washington, D.C.: How Dry We Weren't", historian Garrett Peck observed that Congress wouldn't rescind Prohibition for Washington, D.C. until the following year, on 1 March 1934. Washington D.C.'s repeal legislation, although tardy, would become a template for other jurisdictions in the U.S. on how to regulate, license, and control alcohol sales, as opposed to dispensing it directly.

There's another unique facet to the 21st Amendment, as noted by beer historian Bob Skilnik
American voters, through state referendums, added the 21st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. It was the first time in our history that a constitutional amendment was passed, not simply by the will of legislators, but instead through popular mandate, i.e., the power of the U.S. citizenry [and the only time].

Take a moment today to honor the sagacity of those Americans of eighty-one years ago. Hoist a beer, sip a whisky, drink a glass of wine. Legally.

  • * North Carolina rejected holding a convention to consider the amendment, and eight other states took no action, yea or nay. [Wikipedia]
  • See the New York Times 'late edition' story from 5 December 1933: here.
  • Hadn't beer become 'legal' again on 7 April 1933? Yes, and no. It was only beer of 4% alcohol-by-volume (3.2% by weight) or less that had been okayed, accomplished through the legalistic legerdemain of President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress. Read more: here.
  • How could Prohibition ever have occurred? Read "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition", by Daniel Okrent. It's a fascinating history, and a sober (pardon the pun) reminder to remain vigilant.

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