The 18th Amendment

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13579

In the 1910s, politicians were convinced by the Temperance Movement that abolishing the sale of alcohol could easily and quickly eliminate poverty and many other social issues. What happened?


People and Their Environment, United States

learning style
Auditory, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Take a look at this cartoon from World War I entitled Our Three Big Enemies, courtesy of the Ohio History Connection.

It depicts Germany and Austria, who were the major enemies to the U.S. in World War I; however, the third enemy depicted is "John Barleycorn" or beer.

During WWI, members of the Temperance Movement harnessed the military conflict to make the prohibition of alcohol feel patriotic. In order to preserve barley grain for consumption, people were told to stop drinking beer because it was supporting German and German-American brewers.

  • Doesn't this image make it feel like the only way to win is to abolish alcohol?
  • So, what happened?


In December 1917, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced. In just over another year, 3/4 of the states ratified the amendment making the sale and manufacturing of alcohol illegal.

17 January 1919 front page headline

Image by The New York Times, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

Section 1 of the 18th Amendment reads:

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 territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Although this amendment passed quickly, it was a century in the making.

Temperance Movement

what the bottle does

Image by the Anti-Saloon League of Virginia, via Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries, is in the public domain.

During the entire 19th century, the debate over whether alcohol should be legal raged on in every single state.

Watch History Brief: The Temperance Movement from Reading Through History:

For decades, people had become increasingly convinced that the way to alleviate poverty and other societal issues like domestic violence was to get rid of alcohol.

This mindset was achieved through the repeated work of organizations such as those listed below. You may follow the links to learn more about each:

Progressive Movement

Theodore Roosevelt circa 1900s

Image from Library of Congress Prints and Photographs, has no known restrictions on publication.

  • Why were politicians so willing to try to control a moral issue?

With the passage of the 16th Amendment only a few years earlier, the U.S. no longer had to rely on alcohol tax as a means of revenue. The federal government now made plenty of money from the new income tax.

(Check out our lesson under Additional Resources in the right-hand sidebar, if you want to learn more.)

This increased involvement of the federal government also allowed the debate over prohibiting alcohol to cross over into the national discussion.

The 18th Amendment is uncharacteristically restrictive of personal freedoms. This was possible because the Temperance Movement became attached to the Progressive Movement.

The Progressive Movement encouraged social activism by first attacking institutions like business monopolies and later expanding to issues like child labor and urban cleanliness.

Read this excerpt taken from Cities During the Progressive Era provided by the Library of Congress:

Thousands of poor people also lived in the cities. Lured by the promise of prosperity, many rural families and immigrants from throughout the world arrived in the cities to work in the factories. It is estimated that by 1904 one in three people living in the cities was close to starving to death. For many of the urban poor, living in the city resulted in a decreased quality of life. With few city services to rely upon, the working class lived daily with overcrowding, inadequate water facilities, unpaved streets, and disease. Lagging far behind the middle class, working class wages provided little more than subsistence living and few, if any, opportunities for movement out of the city slums.

The increasing urbanization of the United States led to several emerging problems in the bustling cities. These rampant issues were championed by Progressives, and the Temperance Movement was simply a natural addition to their goal of a more just society.

With the election of three Progressive presidents - Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson - moral issues became the center of politics.

progressive presidents

18th Amendment

After harnessing anti-German sentiment to gain broad support across America, the 18th Amendment was passed in 1919. Beginning one year later, alcohol could not be imported, sold, or commercially produced.

prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol

Image by the Chicago Daily News, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.

  • Do you think it was right for the U.S. government to amend the Constitution over a moral issue?
  • Do you think people followed the new amendment?

Initially, many people embraced temperance. The anti-German sentiment brought about during World War I incentivized Americans to stop drinking alcohol in 1920.

However, after that first year, Prohibition began to fail.

Briefly look over this Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 157: Alcohol Prohibition Was a Failure, by Mark Thornton. Be sure to look at Figure 1 and Figure 2.

The 18th Amendment was an attempt to find a "quick fix" to the problems that pervaded American society as the country industrialized.

Keep going in the Got It? section to further consider the political atmosphere that allowed an amendment like this to pass.

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