The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919 and national Prohibition began a year later on January 17, 1920.
Prior to the 18th Amendment going into effect, Congress enacted the National Prohibition Act in October 1919. This act, introduced by Congressman Andrew Volstead from Minnesota, was commonly called the “Volstead Act” instead of its more formal name. Interestingly, President Wilson vetoed this law when Congress passed it, but the House of Representatives and Senate overrode his veto, which is a very uncommon occurrence with only 4% of Presidential vetoes ever being overridden by Congress.
While the 18th Amendment prohibited the sale, transportation, importation, or exportation of “intoxicating liquors” in the United States, the Volstead Act was the actual federal law that spelled out the specifics of how Prohibition would be enforced from a federal standpoint. Section 2 of the 18th Amendment also contained a provision that state governments could also enforce the 18th Amendment through “appropriate legislation”.
Neither the 18th Amendment nor the Volstead Act prohibited the possession or consumption of alcohol by private individuals, but the states could enact tougher laws. In 1927, the Michigan Legislature further enacted laws that made any liquor violation a felony offense and a fourth felony of any kind would result in a life sentence in prison. A Lansing resident by the name of Etta Mae Miller, a 48-year-old mother of 10 children, was arrested in October of 1928 for allegedly selling two pints of homemade moonshine. This was her fourth offense and she was sentenced to life in prison. The case made national news and the Governor ultimately commuted her sentence in 1930.
Michigan Plants the Seeds of Repealing Prohibition
On November 8, 1932, the voters of Michigan went to the polls once again to amend the Michigan Constitution of 1908 by repealing the prohibition language approved sixteen years earlier. The amendment also allowed for the creation of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission:
The legislature may by law establish a liquor control commission, who, subject to statutory limitations, shall exercise complete control of the alcoholic beverage traffic within this state, including the retail sales thereof; and the legislature may also provide for an excise tax on such sales: Providing, however, that neither the legislature nor such commission may authorize the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages in any county in which the electors thereof, by a majority vote, shall prohibit the same. Article XVI, Section 11 – Michigan Constitution of 1908
While the Michigan Constitution no longer contained language prohibiting alcohol in the state, the United States Constitution and federal law still made Prohibition the law of the land, but that would quickly change. In late March 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act amended federal law and legalized beer and wine with an alcohol content of 3.2% or less.
Michigan was the very first state in the nation to vote in support of ratifying the 21st Amendment on April 10, 1933, starting the process of repealing national Prohibition.