This one is best discussed over a drink.
There have been 27 fully ratified Amendments to our Constitution. But only one Amendment (the 21st) repealed an earlier one (the 18th). The 18th Amendment will, of course, be the focus of a future post here. But it’s difficult to say much about the 21st Amendment without that context, especially if you’re only reading Section 1:
The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Even if you didn’t know the numbers going in, you probably now know already what the 18th Amendment was all about: it was the beginning of Prohibition. It’s important to note what that meant: the 18th Amendment did not outlaw owning or consuming alcohol. It outlawed manufacturing, transporting, and selling alcohol. It also had a grace period of one year after ratification by the states. So if you had a stash in 2019 and/or stockpiled before 2020, you could still drink legally for a while, but every sip was that much more precious.
When Prohibition began, most people considered it “a noble experiment”; alcohol has been a source of many problems since the earliest days of civilization. But it didn’t take long for folks to realize Prohibition wasn’t working as intended. Even though alcohol consumption actually decreased dramatically during Prohibition, it didn’t go away, and the worst of its effects were amplified. That was exacerbated by the black market and associated rise of organized crime around it. Eventually it became just as easy to drink as it had been before, even in terms of cost, but now there was rampant gang violence to go with it all, and some of the funds were used to prevent any real enforcement at the local level. Imagine how bad things would have become if it weren’t for Kevin Costner and Sean Connery.
If Section 1 was all there was to the 21st Amendment, there wouldn’t be much more for me to say here. But Sections 2 and 3 are far more interesting. Here is Section 2:
The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or Possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
There had been a great deal of work far before Prohibition to restrict the use of alcohol at the local or regional level. Much of what led to the 18th Amendment in the first place was in fact a grass roots movement of sorts. So while the 21st Amendment removed blanket restrictions in the country, it left the door open for the states to handle things as they saw fit. And so many of them did, effectively doing what they could to remain “dry”. I don’t know about you, but I often think of Utah when I hear the phrase, “dry state”. But Utah was in fact the 36th state to ratify the 21st Amendment, which at the time was enough to put it over the top (Alaska and Hawaii had not yet become states yet, so 36 was the “three quarters” threshold).
The last dry state was Mississippi, which finally threw up its hands (one of them presumably holding a beer) in 1966, although the state never ratified the 21st Amendment. To date, only 38 states have ratified it. Most of the others took no action on it. Including, unbelievably, Louisiana. If you’ve ever been on Bourbon Street at any time of day and year, you know how ridiculous that is.
Section 3 of the 21st Amendment is interesting in its own way:
This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
Here, as with the 22nd Amendment, Congress put a time limit on how long it could take for full ratification by the states. But even more interesting is the specification that it be ratified by state conventions, and not by state legislatures. Article V of the original Constitution left the door open for such an approach. In fact, the original Constitution itself was ratified by state conventions. For the 21st Amendment, the framers were concerned that the still powerful lobby behind the 18th Amendment would keep state legislators from publicly declaring their support to repeal it. Using conventions instead freed the legislators from facing that choice. As a result, after the 21st Amendment was passed in February of 1933, it was fully ratified by that December.
Ok, now I think there really isn’t much more for me to say here.