History of the Drinking Age

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  • 0:04 Why 21?
  • 0:34 Early Drinking Laws
  • 1:52 Post-Prohibition Drinking Laws
  • 2:54 National Minimum…
  • 3:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

Currently, the drinking age in all states is 21, but this is a relatively recent development. In many places, the legal drinking age was 18 up until the early 1980s.

Why 21?

Why is 21 the legal drinking age in the United States? This has long been a question asked by American teenagers, who look at European countries where the drinking age is 18 or even 16. And it does seem strange, since 18 is generally the age that people are considered legal adults, are able to sign contracts, and can buy other restricted products like tobacco.

Twenty-one as a national drinking age is a relatively recent phenomenon. It only came about in the 1980s as a response to the epidemic of drunk driving accidents.

Early Drinking Laws

Up until the early 20th century, there were few restrictions on buying alcohol. Most states had no minimum drinking age. Among the handful that did (the number changed over time, but was never more than 10), the required age varied between 18 and 21. At the time, the legal voting age was 21. And in most states 21 was considered the age of majority, which is the point at which someone became a legal adult, with all of the rights and responsibilities that went with adulthood.

Alcohol's widespread availability and lack of regulation in the 19th and early 20th centuries led to the rise of the Temperance Movement, a political movement led primarily by women to restrict the sale of alcohol. Many leaders of the Temperance Movement were also involved in the Suffrage Movement, which was advocating for women's right to vote. In the eyes of Temperance reformers, alcohol restriction was a women's rights issue, since drunken men spent their money and time on alcohol instead of supporting their families.

The Temperance Movement was able to pass alcohol restrictions in many states and counties, especially in the South and West, but its greatest accomplishment came with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution in 1920, which outlawed the production and sale of alcohol nationwide. The Eighteenth Amendment began the period known as Prohibition, the 13-year period in which alcohol was effectively illegal throughout the United States.

Post-Prohibition Drinking Laws

Making alcohol illegal led to a rise in organized crime and underground sales, leading to the general consensus that Prohibition had been a mistake. Prohibition ended in 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-First Amendment, which essentially nullified the Eighteenth. States were allowed to make their own alcohol laws once again, and most imposed a drinking age of 21, with a few mostly southern states setting it at 18. At the time, 21 was still the age of majority, so this made sense.

However, in the late 1960s, a movement began to lower the national voting age from 21 to 18. This was accomplished with the passage of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in 1971. Accordingly, many states lowered their age of majority and their drinking age to 18 as well. By the mid-1970s, over 30 states had lowered their drinking age to 18.

Unfortunately, lowering the drinking age also led to a rise in drunk driving accidents and fatalities throughout the country. By 1976, many states were already raising their drinking age to 19, 20, or all the way back to 21.

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