Why is the Legal Drinking Age 21 in the United States?
Print this article
Font Size
The Prohibition Years (1920 – 1933)
View ArticleView Article Comments
From the late 19th century into the early 20th century there was a lot of change occurring in America. Feminism, unionism, socialism, and progressivism all gained national spotlight. In addition, a national movement promoting the prohibition of alcohol began to emerge (also known as the "temperance movement"). "Prohibition" is generally defined as the prohibiting of something. In the context of alcohol, "prohibition" refers to the legal prohibiting of the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcoholic beverages. Many religious and conservative leaders claimed that the alcohol industry was ruining the fabric of American families and society. They wanted change, and fought to prohibit alcohol in all the states.

The states each had the power to regulate laws on alcohol within their own borders. So, the best way to get all the states to prohibit alcohol was to try and pass an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. At first, prohibitionists were able to pass federal acts that helped to curb or reduce alcohol use, like the Wartime Prohibition Act of 1918, the Wilson Original Packages Act, and the Webb-Kenyon Act. However, many states still allowed alcohol to be made, sold, and consumed.

Then, on January 29, 1919, Congress ratified the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, and it went into effect in 1920. The 18th Amendment gave Congress the power to regulate alcohol instead of the states. Through the 18th Amendment, Congress prohibited all people from drinking, regardless of age, and made it a crime to manufacture, sell, possess or consume alcoholic beverages. For the first time on a national level in American history, an adult could be prosecuted and put in jail for consuming alcohol.

The federal government quickly found out that it had its hands full in trying to enforce the 18th Amendment. In other words, many people were breaking the law in not abiding by the 18th Amendment. The institution of the "speakeasy" replaced the saloon. A speakeasy was a club where alcohol was illegally sold and consumed. The Mafia also took part in running many speakeasies. Estimates of the number of speakeasies throughout the United States during the years of prohibition ranged from 200,000 to 500,000 (Lee, 1963: 68).

The confiscation of illegal alcoholic products grew in number almost every year. For example, in 1921, 95,933 illicit distilleries, stills, still works and fermentors were seized by the federal government. In 1925, the total jumped to 172,537 and up to 282,122 in 1930. In connection with these seizures, 34,175 people were arrested in 1921. In 1925, the number of those arrested in connection with alcohol related incidents rose to 62,747, and again rose in 1928 to 75,307. (Source: Internal Revenue, Service, 1921, 1966, 1970: 95, 6, 73).

Prohibition eventually failed because people did not follow the law of the 18th Amendment, and the federal government was overwhelmed in trying to enforce it. On December 5, 1933, Congress officially repealed the 18th Amendment by passing the 21st Amendment. (The 21st Amendment is the only US amendment that was ratified through state conventions, instead through state legislatures.) The 21st Amendment officially ended the years of prohibition in America, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.

The passing of the 21st Amendment gave each state the power once again to regulate alcohol within their borders. In other words, the federal government gave the power back to the states to set their own laws on drinking. Some states chose to be "wet states" (i.e. allowed people to legally drink) while other states chose to be "dry states" (i.e. didn’t allow people to legally drink).

Next, we’ll look at how the Vietnam Era affected states’ laws on alcohol.

Related Legal Words