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The Beginning of the End of Prohibition

By Philip Scranton
February 25, 2013 11:53 AM EST
Prohibition Repeal
Prohibition Repeal

After 13 years of Prohibition, the U.S. beer, wine and liquor industries had high hopes for an economic revival in early 1933.

On Jan. 9, days after a resolution to repeal the 18th Amendment reached a U.S. Senate committee, a Canadian syndicate acquired a shuttered brewery in Hartford, Connecticut. Confident that Prohibition was nearing its end, Czechoslovakia’s Pilsner Urquell Importing Corp. opened a U.S. beer-distribution subsidiary not long afterward. 

Investors envisioned the quick revival of a lucrative market. Now, the only question was, "How long will this take?" 

Given the high hurdles to constitutional reform, the capriciousness of Depression-era politics and the heated emotional dynamics of Prohibition, the answer was anyone's guess.

Legislatively, establishing or repealing a constitutional amendment is no simple task. The resolution must first be passed by two-thirds' majorities in the House and the Senate. Then it is sent to all the states for ratification by majority votes in their legislatures or at specially elected conventions. Only when three-quarters of the states (in 1933, a total of 36 out of 48) have approved the amendment is it confirmed.

And the politics of repeal were just as daunting. Though candidates supporting Prohibition were widely defeated in the fall election, drys were far from dispirited. Famed New York evangelist Norman Vincent Peale attacked President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt for saying that tax revenue from legalizing alcohol would balance the federal budget.

Prohibitionists started preparing statutes to ban liquor advertising, particularly brewery-sponsored radio programs, and to ban sales within 1,000 feet of any church or school. Compromisers clamored for permitting only weak beer (3 percent alcohol) and keeping wine and spirits off the market. A Pilsner Urquell spokesman argued that similar restrictions in Europe had only led to more consumption of hard liquor, which in the U.S. would presumably mean moonshine.

The lame-duck 72nd Congress began the repeal process in January. Senator John Blaine, a Wisconsin Republican, filed a resolution just after New Year’s Day proposing an amendment to transfer alcohol regulation to the states. In states where repeal was rejected, the federal government would continue to fund Prohibition enforcement.

Both wets and drys were furious. Wets wanted absolute repeal; drys sought no repeal or, at worst, a provision to permit only low-alcohol beer. Both thought congressional wrangling would delay action indefinitely.

Both were wrong. Vice President-elect John Nance Garner, then serving as speaker of the House, pledged that if a Senate resolution reached his desk, he would put it to a rapid vote and it would pass. Sweeping aside procedural objections and refusing to add amendments, the Senate approved repeal -- 63 to 23 -- on Feb. 16.

Garner then brought the unchanged resolution to the House floor and called for a decision. Forty minutes later, the chamber voted 289 to 121 to send repeal to the states for ratification.

Drys remained confident that more than a dozen anti-booze states would hold fast in the South and Midwest, but the New York Times reported that only 11 were against or doubtful. 

Stage 2 of the repeal process had begun.

(Philip Scranton is a Board of Governors professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, Camden, and the editor-in-chief of Enterprise and Society. He writes "This Week in the Great Depression" for the Echoes blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more from Echoes, Bloomberg View's economic history blog.

To contact the writer of this blog post: Philip Scranton at scranton@camden.rutgers.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this blog post: Kirsten Salyer at ksalyer@bloomberg.net

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