A Series on the Constitutional Amendments – The Eighteenth

‘Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.’

W.C. Fields

The Constitution was designed to be consistent and open to change simultaneously. The process for changing the Constitution was intentionally difficult to ensure that the whims of the masses didn’t change the foundation of the United States Government. This process failed to populist notions first with the Seventeenth Amendment and once again with the Eighteenth Amendment.

The big movement leading up to the Eighteenth Amendment was known as the National Temperance Movement. Many states had already banned the manufacturing of liquor by 1916 and there were many different citizen groups that were pushing for a national abolition. The move for abolition of alcohol began back in the early 1800s as a religious movement. As the movement gained traction there became a larger push for abolition of alcohol entirely.

The first proposition of the Amendment was to Congress on August 1, 1917. After several revisions and several more votes, the Amendment was given to the states to ratify reading:

“Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

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

Apart from dealing directly with the sale of a good, the eighteenth amendment was unique in two aspects; firstly it had a delay of affect. All of the previous amendments were put into effect immediately; the eighteenth was allowed one year of delay in order for the states to have time to draft enforcement measures. The second unique part of the amendment was that there was a time limit on ratification. If the states didn’t ratify the amendment within seven years then the amendment would be considered null and void.

The passage of the eighteenth amendment was passed quicker than expected. In January of 1919, Nebraska became the 36th out of the 48 states to ratify the amendment which cemented it in law. Many states quickly followed suit with Connecticut and Rhode Island the only states to reject the eighteenth amendment.

It’s widely understood that the prohibition passed by the eighteenth amendment was responsible for the rise of organized crime in the United States. Many infamous figures such as Al Capone made their fortunes and fame in this period of prohibition. In literature prohibition and liquor running was glamorized as well with the titular character in The Great Gatsby making his wealth in underground liquor.

This amendment gave rise to two interesting court cases. In James Everard’s Breweries v. Day (1924). In this case, a provision as passed by congress that prevented physicians from prescribing malt liquor and other such alcoholic beverages for patients. The state argued that this was not a proper provision of congressional authority under the eighteenth amendment. The Supreme Court decided otherwise and the case stood.

An interesting byproduct of this amendment was a ruling by the Supreme Court on the issue of ratification by the states. While the Amendment was being considered by the state legislatures an issue arose in Ohio on the manner of ratification. Part of the Ohio law was that any amendment ratification was then passed to the people of the states as a referendum and they would have the final say. After the state legislature passed the amendment one of the state senators alleged that this was in violation of the Constitution that specified state legislatures alone were to ratify after Congress passed the amendment.

The case presented circulated its way all the way to the Supreme Court in Hawke v. Smith which was heard before the court in 1920. The Supreme Court eventually decided against the Ohio process. They found that this process was in direct contradiction to Article V of the Constitution which stated that the state legislatures were the only ones that could ratify such an amendment.

The prohibition era lasted from 1920 to 1933. This period of time was characterized by underground speakeasies and an economic depression the likes of which has not been seen again. Whether or not prohibition added to the economic downturn is a matter of some debate, but there was a valuable lesson learned from this amendment; Constitutional amendments are for adjusting how the law is applied and not for legislating itself.


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