A Look at Prohibition, Hardly Dry: ‘American Spirits’ at the National Constitution Center

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PHILADELPHIA — It has been a long time since anybody said: “You know, the 18th Amendment was a pretty good idea. Too bad it was overturned by the 21st.” And perhaps only the most prescriptively devout among us is likely to advocate banning the sale of alcohol again in the United States.

But that is what makes the history of Prohibition such a challenge to understand. We have to imagine what kind of passions created it, but we risk distorting them because they are so alien.

Yet that movement altered the Constitution in a radical fashion, extending its reach to matters once considered personal and restricting freedoms rather than expanding them. In effect from 1920 to 1933, Prohibition drastically altered the legal system of every state, and overturned ordinary citizens’ behaviors and expectations. While claiming high virtue and utopian prospects, it inspired spectacular violations and grotesque criminal violence....

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