The 21st Amendment

Contributor: Nathan Murphy. Lesson ID: 13632

The 21st Amendment is the only amendment that exists specifically to repeal an earlier one. This amendment repealed the 18th Amendment and legalized alcohol again. So, what had changed?

categories

United States, United States

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

Lesson Plan - Get It!

Audio:

By 1919, public support for the Temperance Movement culminated in the prohibition of alcohol with the 18th Amendment.

However, by 1933, support had almost completely disappeared, and Prohibition was repealed with the 21st Amendment.

  • If the United States had been willing to constitutionally prohibit alcohol, what changed so dramatically in 14 years?

Roaring '20s

As a result of the 18th Amendment, many people in the U.S. agreed to stop drinking alcohol, something they seemed happy to endorse based upon the nationalism felt after fighting World War I against Germany.

However, as wealth and consumption began to rise in the 1920s, so did the illegal sale of alcohol.

As you watch this short video on 1920s Consumerism, from jghprofhist, pay attention to how innovation fueled consumerism and access to credit:

Without experience in the dangers of debt accumulation, people began to rapidly and aggressively purchase all the new products of the decade.

While the 1920s began with a wartime mindset and nationalism-fueled rejection of alcohol, progress and prosperity made the Temperance Movement disappear.

Americans, who were taking out credit at retail stores to buy vacuums and appliances, were not concerned with anything except participating in the market economy of the decade.

The moral foundation upon which the 18th Amendment had been founded started to crumble thanks to a phenomenon known as the speakeasy.

Speakeasies

Speakeasies were establishments that sold alcohol illegally during the era of Prohibition.

While the new laws did decrease the number of Americans who drank alcohol, those who found these hidden bars underground, in the backs of hotels, or within inconspicuous buildings often drank even more.

The rise in speakeasies was not enough, however, for politicians to consider repealing the 18th Amendment because the overall consumption of alcohol was still down.

The Stock Market Crash in 1929 and resulting Great Depression had a much greater impact.

The Great Depression

Once the United States was thrust into the worst financial collapse in history, any moral movements disappeared. The country was not focused on anything other than surviving.

When Franklin Roosevelt was elected president in 1932, he had to consider whether it was still appropriate to try and restrict the sale of alcohol and took advice from others, including John D. Rockefeller Jr.

The Rockefeller family, led by billionaire John Rockefeller, had fully supported the Prohibition movement. However, by 1932, the younger Rockefeller had this to say:

"When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result."

Roosevelt and Congress had a lot to think about. While Rockefeller was right about alcohol still being consumed at a mass scale, nobody wanted to repeal something so recently passed democratically.

The ultimate decision to repeal Prohibition was likely based on the prospect of collecting federal tax revenue off the sale of alcohol.

During Prohibition, alcohol was sold at a premium because it was illegal, and the U.S. government received no tax revenue from it. With the American economy struggling to recover, it made sense to increase revenue through taxes on the legal sale of alcohol.

The Amendment

The language of the 21st Amendment is uniquely brief and concise.

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

However, there was still a struggle to convince state legislatures to ratify this amendment, which would bring it into law. Politicians were not decided on this issue at the time.

  • So, what was the solution to ensure the amendment's ratification?

Each state can ratify an amendment in one of two ways:

  1. by its state legislature
  2. by a state convention

State conventions effectively allow the amendment to be ratified via popular vote. Because Americans were uniformly disinterested in the Temperance Movement during the Great Depression, conventions in each state led to a rapid ratification process.

Missouri convention

Image from Cornell University Library, via Wikimedia Commons, is licensed under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Continue on to the Got It? section to review the reasons why the 18th Amendment was repealed so quickly through the 21st Amendment.

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