The 21st Amendment: Definition, History & Court Cases

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and gain insight into how complicated the repeal of prohibition has become for individual states.

What is the 21st Amendment?

As of 2012, the sale of alcohol accounted for almost $6,500,000 in local and state taxes. These taxes help to pay for the upkeep of roads and public schools, among other things, as well as keep other personal taxes from rising higher. In the private sector, alcohol sales accounted for over $90 billion in profits for restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues across the United States for 2011. No matter how you feel about alcohol consumption, it would be hard to deny how important it is to the economy and the federal government.

The reason that so much money can be made from the sale of alcohol is all thanks to a 1933 constitutional amendment that made it legal. The 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealed the 18th Amendment of 1920 that made the sale and manufacturing of alcohol illegal in the United States.

Prohibition Era

Throughout the second decade of the 1900s, some Americans began to feel as though alcohol consumption was responsible for crime and the decline of public decency, and they advocated for a ban on the manufacturing and sale of alcohol. Collectively, these activists formed the temperance movement and were responsible for urging the government to pass the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which brought an end to the use of alcohol in the United States for over a decade.

The temperance movement blamed alcohol for moral decay

Though the movement's protests of alcohol use were well-intended, in the years that followed the passage of the 18th Amendment, crime rates rose dramatically and the illegal sale of alcohol became a problem in many big cities. In Chicago, criminals like Al Capone made staggering profits from the illegal manufacturing and sale of alcohol in speakeasies. The rise in organized crime led to increased violence in cities as law enforcement attempted to bring an end to the criminal activity.

Prohibition contributed to the rise of organized crime, including the success of Al Capone

Because prohibition did not stop people from consuming alcohol, many simply resorted to drinking liquor that was of questionable quality or dangerous origins. For example, those who wanted to drink liquor during prohibition simply needed to find a place to buy moonshine or make the liquor in their home. Making liquor is not easy and can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing, which led to people drinking alcohol that could, and sometimes did, kill them.

Repealing Prohibition

In light of the increased crime and violence that followed the prohibition of alcohol, many Americans began to advocate for a repeal of the 18th Amendment. In most cases, when states ratify amendments to the U.S. Constitution, they do so with the majority support of state representatives. However, in the case of the 21st Amendment, many representatives were still intimidated by the temperance movement and unsure of how to proceed. As a result, the 21st Amendment was repealed state by state, beginning with Michigan in April of 1933, and concluding with Utah in December of that same year.

Part of the difficulty of repealing prohibition was that it affected each of the states differently. For example, some states that didn't want to repeal prohibition, like Kansas, had a ban on public drinking well into the 1960s. In fact, some counties still remain dry counties, which means that there is no public sale of alcohol. This does not violate the 21st Amendment because it does not ban the use of alcohol, only its sale and use in public. Individual states are able to do this because each state's repeal had certain provisions for how alcohol would be sold.

The 21st Amendment and the Courts

Section one of the 21st Amendment acknowledges the repeal of the 18th Amendment, which banned the sale or use of alcohol in the United States. This section means that the government will no longer monitor or prohibit people's use of alcohol. Section two, on the other hand, gives states the right to legislate the use of alcohol however they see fit.

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