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“The Noble Experiment”

Copy of amended text of first page, Senate Joint Resolution 17, 65th Congress. Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez.

Today, January 29, marks the 101st anniversary of the certification by Acting Secretary of State Frank Polk of the ratification by three-quarters of the states of the proposed 18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which prohibited in the United States ”the manufacture, sale or transportation of intoxicating liquors.” The adoption of the amendment was the culmination of a long drive to ban alcohol in America that saw its first success with the adoption of prohibition by Maine in 1846, although that act would later be modified. Though the 18th Amendment was certified in 1919, the enacting legislation, commonly called the Volstead Act-for its sponsor, Representative Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota, the chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, would not become effective until January of 1920.

The aspirations of the supporters of prohibition were widely applauded, but the enactment of the law, including the complete banning of all intoxicating beverages above 0.5% alcohol content, proved to be unpopular, with opposition growing throughout the 1920s. The continued demand for alcoholic beverages led to an increase in organized crime, with “criminal kingpins,” such as Al Capone, gaining widespread notoriety and power. The federal government’s attempts to enforce the ban were, at best, only partially effective, although some agents, such as Isidor “Izzy” Einstein and Moe Smith, became noteworthy for their work.

Cover of Izzy Einstein’s Prohibition Agent No 1, published in 1932. Photo by Geraldine Davila Gonzalez. //lccn.loc.gov/32031275

In 1932, the issue of prohibition was directly addressed in the platforms of both parties, but it was only a secondary issue in that year’s national elections behind concerns about the overall performance of the economy. In 1933, Congress passed, and President Roosevelt signed, legislation legalizing the manufacture, transportation, sale and consumption of 3.2% beer and wines of similar strength; later that year the 18th Amendment would be repealed as a result of the states ratifying, in separate conventions, the 21st Amendment. The states then resumed control over the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages.

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