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Prohibition, the Constitution, and States’ Rights

Colorado’s legalization of marijuana spurred intense debate about the extent to which the Constitution preempts state-enacted laws and statutes. Colorado’s legal cannabis program generated a strange scenario in which many politicians, including many who freely invoke the Tenth Amendment, seemed to be attacking the progressive state for asserting states’ rights. Unusual as this may seem, this has happened before—in the early part of the twentieth century, as America concluded a decades-long struggle over the suppression of alcohol during Prohibition.
Sean Beienburg recovers a largely forgotten constitutional debate, revealing how Prohibition became a battlefield on which skirmishes of American political development, including the debate over federalism and states’ rights, were fought. Beienburg focuses on the massive extension of federal authority involved in Prohibition and the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, describing the roles and reactions of not just Congress, the presidents, and the Supreme Court but political actors throughout the states, who jockeyed with one another to claim fidelity to the Tenth Amendment while reviling nationalism and nullification alike. The most comprehensive treatment of the constitutional debate over Prohibition to date, the book concludes with a discussion of the parallels and differences between Prohibition in the 1920s and debates about the legalization of marijuana today.

See an online appendix for the book.

312 pages | 3 line drawings, 1 table | 6 x 9 | © 2019

History: American History

Law and Legal Studies: The Constitution and the Courts

Political Science: American Government and Politics


“Anyone who wants to understand the complicated constitutional politics of Prohibition will want to read this detailed, state-by-state account.”

Ken I. Kersch, Boston College

"Beienburg considers Prohibition as a battlefield where skirmishes of American political development, including debates over federalism and states’ rights, were fought."

Law & Social Inquiry

Table of Contents


Chapter 1        Introduction: Prohibition, Now and Then
Chapter 2        Alcohol and Liberalism: Before National Prohibition
Chapter 3        Prohibition and Federalism: The Road to the Sheppard Amendment
Chapter 4        Ratifying and Implementing the Sheppard Amendment (1918–21)
Chapter 5        Ratifying and Implementing II (1918–21): The Northeast
Chapter 6        The Dry Tide Recedes (1922–23)
Chapter 7        Constitutional Obligations (1923–24)
Chapter 8        Taking Alcohol to the People of the States (1925–28)
Chapter 9        The Noble Experiment (1929–31)
Chapter 10      The Dam Breaks (1932–33)
Chapter 11      Conclusion: Prohibition and American Constitutionalism

Coda   Pot and Popular Constitutionalism: Prohibition’s Lessons for the Marijuana Legalization Debate

List of Abbreviations

An online appendix is available at /sites/beienburg/.

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