Twenty-first Amendment Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Amendment to the U.S. Constitution repealing the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages.

The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending the thirteen-year period from 1920 to 1933 known as the ProhibitionProhibition era. The Eighteenth Amendment, also known as the Prohibition amendment, prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages.Eighteenth AmendmentEighteenth Amendment

During the Prohibition era, in cases such as United States v. Lanza[case]Lanza, United States v.[Lanza, United States v.] (1922), Carroll v. United States[case]Carroll v. United States[Carroll v. United States] (1925), Olmstead v. United States[case]Olmstead v. United States[Olmstead v. United States] (1928), and United States v. Sprague[case]Sprague, United States v.[Sprague, United States v.] (1931), the Supreme Court strengthened the means for enforcing and upholding the Eighteenth Amendment. These decisions made some Americans aware that the constitutional prohibition of alcoholic beverages would have far-reaching ramifications for legal rights and influenced them to support the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealing the Prohibition amendment.

In Lanza, the Court held that while the Eighteenth Amendment established the prohibition of alcoholic beverages as a national policy, both the state and federal governments possessed independent authority to punish Prohibition infractions. This Court ruling meant that Prohibition offenders could be indicted and punished twice for nearly every violation. In Carroll, the Court stated that because an automobile transporting liquor could depart before a warrant could be attained, officers having reasonable grounds could lawfully search it without a warrant. This decision extended the search and seizure powers of agents enforcing Prohibition and police officers dealing with automobiles. In Olmstead, the Court upheld the use of wiretapping by law enforcement agencies in enforcing the constitutional prohibition of alcoholic beverages as well as other laws. The Court ruled that wiretapping by law enforcement agencies was lawful search and seizure. In Sprague, the Court indicated that Congress has an apparent right to choose the procedure of ratification of an amendment to the constitution. It declared that because Congress submitted the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to state legislatures, the amendment had been legally sanctioned.

The restrictions on legal rights created by these Prohibition-era Court decisions influenced some Americans to become active in organizations campaigning for the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. Such organizations included the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.

Partly in response to this campaigning, in 1933 Congress, which had been given the choice of ratification methods by Sprague, proposed that the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment be submitted to state conventions instead of state legislatures for a vote. Between April and November, 1933, thirty-seven states held elections on whether to retain or repeal the Eighteenth Amendment. Nearly twenty-one million Americans voted, and 73 percent favored repeal. On December 5, 1933, the Twenty-first Amendment was ratified. It was the first amendment to be ratified by voters rather than legislators.

Further Reading
  • Brown, Everett Somerville. Ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: State Convention Records and Laws. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1938.
  • Cashman, Sean Dennis. Prohibition, the Lie of the Land. New York: Free Press, 1981.
  • Kyvig, David E. Repealing National Prohibition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
  • Vile, John R. Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments, Proposed Amendments and Amending Issues, 1789-1995. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 1996.

Carroll v. United States

Eighteenth Amendment

Lanza, United States v.

Olmstead v. United States

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