Dec. 5 1933: Prohibition repealed after state resistance killed the law

State-level noncompliance brought the 18th Amendment down. The record offers a blueprint to stop federal acts like gun control and Obamacare. Photo: AP

LOS ANGELES, December 5, 2013 — Eighty years ago today, on Dec. 5 1933, the 18th Amendment was repealed, bringing national alcohol prohibition to an end.

How did the country get there? 

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The historical record shows that it was state-level resistance and nullification which killed the effectiveness of the Volstead Act, paving the way for full repeal.

The Volstead Act, passed by an override of President Woodrow Wilson’s veto on October 28, 1919, was the enforcement mechanism for the 18th Amendment and prohibition. It empowered both the states and the federal government to enforce the ban by “appropriate legislation.” Many prohibition supporters, such as the Women’s National Committee for Law Enforcement (WNCLE), felt the Act imposed a requirement on states to enforce the national ban.

But whether states were required to enforce prohibition or not, over time, they simply did not. 

In testimony to Congress in 1926, a WNCLE representative noted that, “in States like New York and Maryland, where there is no State enforcement law,” prohibition was not being enforced. 

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In the book Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History, Thomas Pegram writes that 28 states had stopped funding for prohibition enforcement by 1928, and that local police were “sporadic in their enforcement efforts.”

In a 1925 address to Congress, Maryland’s Senator Bruce noted the effectiveness of this state-level noncompliance: “National prohibition went into legal effect upward of six years ago, but it can be truly said that, except to a highly qualified extent, it has never gone into practical effect at all.”

Whether the people of those states knew it at the time or not, they were putting into practice the advice of the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison. In Federalist No. 46 he advised a “refusal to cooperate with officers of the Union” in response to what he called “unwarrantable” or “unpopular” federal acts.

In other words, whether a federal act is unconstitutional or merely bad policy, Madison suggested that the people and states refuse to participate.

Madison also noted that doing so in a number of states would be very effective in stopping the federal government. “Where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter.”

When states around the country refused to cooperate with “officers of the Union” on the enforcement of the Volstead Act, they proved that Madison was right. The federal government did not have the manpower it needed to enforce the law, and prohibition never went “into practical effect at all.”

December 5 should act as a reminder that states can be very effective at stopping different kinds of prohibition today. By not participating in any federal prohibition or limitation on the right to keep and bear arms or health freedom, people around the country would have an opportunity to live more free.

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Michael Boldin

Michael Boldin is the founder and executive director of the Tenth Amendment Center, based in Los Angeles, CA.  Founded in 2006, the Center is a leading national resource for education and activism in support of the Constitution and liberty.


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