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What were the reasons that the Prohibition in the United States was passed as a constitutional amendment, rather than a normal federal law, or a set of state laws?

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4 Answers 4

Prohibition required a constitutional amendment, because the Federal government does not have the power to regulate intra-state commerce.

The majority of states and many localities had already banned the sale of alcohol. The progressive and women's suffrage movements saw banning alcohol as a way to improve living conditions for women and children and reduce the power of saloon-centric machine politics.

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Are you sure? Today's federal gun or drug laws are sweeping, and they aren't a constitutional issue. Surely it has some power, though I don't know if it stems from the "commerce between the states" clauses or not. –  Carmi Jan 26 '12 at 18:38
"power to regulate intra-state commerce" - this was my note about the Commerce Clause. Some sites noted that the Amendment was put in place in the times before the Courts and Federal government saw the Commerce Clause as a way to open the door to any regulation it wanted. –  MichaelF Jan 26 '12 at 20:31
@Carmi Remember that the Federal government was dramatically smaller and weaker than it is today. Also, alcohol production was a very localized phenomenon in those days. Today, it would be the exception to find even a microbrewery that doesn't engage in interstate commerce. –  duffbeer703 Jan 27 '12 at 17:43
@Carmi - Today we operate under a very different Supreme Court Regime than in the early 20th Century. The way the court views the Commerce Clause changed drastically under Roosevelt. –  T.E.D. Oct 24 '12 at 15:01

I believe this was to make the local State laws, that were a hodgepodge of enactments on a State level, more uniform and to bring the enforcement into the Federal realm. This was especially easy since the Temperance Movements had become politically powerful in the early 20th Century and in the election of 1917 the pro-Prohibitionists finally had a majority in Congress and moved things along. The actual text is:

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

Without the Volstead Act though the Amendment was very vague, the Volstead Act was more important as it was the one that set down enforcement of the ban. Note the text says nothing about consumption.

At the time the Constitution WAS seen as the enshrinement of laws, getting an Amendment gave weight to your cause and Federal enforcement. I don't have official sources on this but there are arguments that prior to the use of the Commerce Clause to give Federal enforcement powers an Amendment was the way to get National enforcement. Although looking more at varous sources the most common rationale given for a national-law is the Temperance Movement already had many States enacting Prohibitive Laws, but this would make it Federal and not allow Liquor interests to interfere locally and influence local politicians.

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People who really want to drive something in sometimes go for a Constitutional amendment for emphasis and to make it harder to change in the future. Some people in Minnesota are trying to pass an amendment to the state Constitution that would prohibit what is already prohibited by statute, for example. –  David Thornley Jan 26 '12 at 13:24
Yeah but as was seen it just meant another amendment to repeal the one that existed. And many thought THAT would never happen. –  MichaelF Jan 26 '12 at 16:10
Actually, another reason (applicable only to the US Constitution) is to give Congress authority in the first place. All acts of the US Government are required to have Constitutional authority, and this is enforced (although you may not agree with some of the interpretations of the Constitution the Supreme Court makes). Sometime around then, the Constitution had to be amended to make the Federal income tax legal. –  David Thornley Jan 27 '12 at 13:30

Prohibition existed in many localities around the country prior to the amendment, but the answer to your question seems to be because the powers that wished to enact prohibition had overwhelming public support. So, the group that wanted prohibition did it in part because they could.

To further flesh out some points of MichaelF's answer, prohibition was already starting to take hold around the country. According to Irving Fisher (a professor of economics who testified during congressional hearings on prohibition in April of 1926) in his book Prohibition at its Worst:

By 1914, a large area of communities had abolished the saloons by local option, and nine states had passed Prohibition statues. But within the next four years, 23 more states abolished liquor traffic within their borders.

Professor Fisher notes that prohibition was essentially forced upon the large cities of the East Coast by the rest of the country. The Anti-Saloon League is cited as a particularly effective organization that saw prohibition through to its ultimate success.

It is also interesting to note, as the Howard McBain (a law professor at Columbia University) did in 1928, the sheer amount of popular support for prohibition:

The Prohibition Amendment was adopted by overwhelmingly extraordinary majorities - by two-thirds of the members present in each house of Congress and by legislative majorities in twenty-three twenty-fourths of the states.

Interestingly, the Prohibition Amendment invalidated all state and local regulations that dealt with prohibition because the Constitution became the supreme law in this area, and granted police power to the feds to enforce the amendment.

For Further Reading See:

  • Prohibition at its Worst - Irving Fisher pp. 83-86

  • Prohibition Legal & Illegal - Howard McBain pp. 12-13

  • Blakemore on Prohibition - Arthur Blakemore

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And it just occurred to me that this would be considered, today, by some, a creep of Federal Power over States Rights. Unless they supported it, then the argument would never come up –  MichaelF Oct 24 '12 at 9:49
@MichaelF it would be an interesting case to see the Supreme Court decide today –  ihtkwot Oct 24 '12 at 18:12

Federal laws are based on powers granted to the Senate and the House of Representatives that are enumerated in the U.S. Constitution. It took the 18th Amendment to the Constitution for Congress to be empowered to prohibit the production and sale of alcohol.

The resulting federal enabling legislation was known as the Volstead Act.

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Why the downvote? –  Ben Crowell Jul 25 '14 at 1:29

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