By the 1930s, it was clear that Prohibition had become a public policy failure. The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had done little to curb the sale, production and consumption of intoxicating liquors. And while organized crime flourished, tax revenues withered. With the United States stuck in the throes of the Great Depression, money trumped morals, and the federal government turned to alcohol to quench its thirst for desperately needed tax money and put an estimated half-million Americans back to work.
In February 1933, Congress easily passed a proposed 21st Amendment that would repeal the 18th Amendment, which legalized national Prohibition. Even 17 of the 22 senators who voted for Prohibition 16 years earlier now approved its repeal. State conventions quickly ratified the proposed amendment, and by December 5, 1933, only three more states were needed to garner the requisite three-quarters approval to make it law.
That afternoon, Pennsylvania and Ohio gave their assents, but the identity of the thirty-sixth state that approved the 21st Amendment and drove the final spike into Prohibition was an unlikely one—Utah. Scrambling to beat Maine as the state to legalize liquor, Utah’s convention unanimously ratified the amendment at the precise local time of 3:32 p.m. For the first time in American history, a Constitutional amendment had been repealed.
Moments later, in a low-key event held under the blaze of motion-picture Klieg lights, Under Secretary of State William Phillips thrust his pen into an inkstand and inscribed his signature to certify the passage of the 21st Amendment.
An hour later, with little pomp and circumstance, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a proclamation declaring the end of Prohibition while also admonishing the country to drink responsibly and not abuse “this return of individual freedom.” “I trust in the good sense of the American people,” the president said, “that they will not bring upon themselves the curse of excessive use of intoxicating liquors, to the detriment of health, morals and social integrity.”
Within minutes of Utah’s ratification, liquor legally began to flow in some American cities as patrons purchased their first authorized drinks since 1920. Delivery truck engines purred as they left liquor warehouses. Thousands of champagne corks popped, and hundreds of thousands of glasses clinked to toast drinkers’ regained freedom. Licensed hotels, restaurants and nightclubs dusted off their dormant glassware, and waiters relied on muscle memory to mix drinks from the “cocktail wagons” that they wheeled to customers’ tables. By late night, licensed establishments were packed as jazz bands played and drinkers rightfully sang “Happy Days Are Here Again.”
While observers expected a tidal wave of alcohol to wash over America on what came to be known as “Repeal Night,” there was no national bacchanal. For one evening at least, Americans obeyed their president’s wishes and remained orderly. Cities reported that arrests for drunkenness were no different than those during a normal weekend night during Prohibition. “New York Celebrates with Quiet Restraint,” reported the New York Times, which added that “Greenwich Village was almost somber in early evening; the sparkle had gone out of speakeasies turned legal.”
A Boston Globe headline reported that the city “remains staid as it sips liquor,” while the Omaha World-Herald informed its readers that “throughout the country, the festivities seemed to lack the fervor some had forecast.” Even on college campuses, sobriety apparently reigned.
Why the surprisingly sedate celebration after the nearly 14-year alcoholic drought? One reason is that the repeal only took immediate effect in 18 states, which represented less than half of the country’s 123 million citizens. While a handful of other states made legal preparations for liquor’s immediate return, the rest of the country—including Utah, the state that ended the “noble experiment”—remained dry, and the 21st Amendment continued to outlaw the transportation of intoxicating alcohol into states that continued to forbid it. (Mississippi, the last state to repeal its prohibition laws, remained legally dry until 1966.)
Utah’s ratification also came so late in the day that few establishments and retail stores were able to obtain the local licenses required to sell alcohol, and those that did still had difficulty obtaining alcohol to serve. Some legal establishments were forced to buy directly from speakeasies and bootleggers. Others opened up stock remaining from pre-Prohibition days as well as bottles purchased in the ensuing years under medicinal permits.
The subdued reaction was also due to the fact that drinking had continued unabashedly during Prohibition. Speakeasies and bootleggers kept Americans well supplied with liquor, and a change in federal law in April 1933 had already legalized beer and wine with up to 3.2 percent alcohol. In fact, author Daniel Okrent notes in “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” that the 21st Amendment “made it harder, not easier, to get a drink” because along with legalization came regulations on closing hours, age limits and Sunday service.
Still, the end of Prohibition resulted in a financial windfall for the federal government, which according to Okrent collected more than $258 million in alcohol taxes in the first year after repeal. Those millions, which accounted for nearly 9 percent of the government’s tax revenue, helped to finance Roosevelt’s New Deal programs in the ensuing years.