By 1933, it was clear that Prohibition, the national experiment with outlawing the transport and sale of alcoholic beverages, was a failure. Although it was never illegal to drink, it had been illegal to provide alcohol since the 18th Amendment was passed in 1920. In the 13 years since, the country had plunged into the Great Depression. Without liquor taxes, both state and federal governments were suffering economically. Organized crime had taken over the business of supplying liquor, and public corruption ran rampant. Women had won the right to vote. Many thought that in itself that would doom the repeal of Prohibition, but mothers saw their children growing up without respect for the law, and women who flaunted the law were learning the joys of socializing with men over an illicit drink. Congress proposed the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution on February 20, 1933 to repeal Prohibition.
The 21st Amendment is an outlier among the constitutional amendments because, for one thing, it is the only amendment that repealed a previous amendment. It is also the only time that state ratifying conventions were used instead of a vote in the state’s legislatures. This idea alone would slow ratification down in the 21st century, as organizing a convention and selecting delegates would now take months at the earliest. But in this case, Michigan held their convention a mere 19 days after the amendment was proposed in Washington. In 1933, 36 states were required to ratifying an amendment, and the 34th, 35th, and 36th states held their conventions on December 5th (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah). Just a few decades prior, it would have taken weeks for the results of those conventions to get back to Washington. But with instant communication by telephone, the amendment moved with astonishing speed. Utah’s ratification, the 36th, came at 3:32 PM local time, 5:32 in Washington. It was only a few moments later that Under Secretary of State William Phillips signed the amendment’s certification. One hour later, President Franklin Roosevelt issued a proclamation ending Prohibition.
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Then it was party time. Bars had pre-applied for state liquor licenses to be triggered by repeal, and had been stocking up in anticipation of the 36th state ratification. See a gallery of images documenting the celebrations that ensued here.