In the United States, twenty-one is the gate. The gate that blocks access to the most coveted substance in modern society: alcohol.
In the United States, twenty-one symbolizes that gate in at least two ways. There’s the obvious one: you need to be twenty-one years old in order to legally drink. And there’s also the twenty-first amendment to the US Constitution, the only amendment that repealed a prior amendment.
The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
That’s pretty much the entire amendment. There’s some blah blah about not transporting liquor across state lines, but pretty much the point of this amendment is, “Oops. That 18th amendment we wrote ten years ago. That didn’t work out so well. Our bad.” The 18th amendment, of course, was the one that provided for Prohibition, the (almost) complete ban on alcohol in the United States from 1920-1933.
But of course, in both of these cases, the twenty-one gate hasn’t been exactly fool-proof. In the case of the constitutional amendment, the 1920s had quite a few speakeasies, and a bunch of organized crime, that laughed in the face of Prohibition. And in the case of the age-based law, I have heard tell that a few people have tried a drop or two of beer before their 21st birthdays. (Not me, of course. I drank Zima until I turned 21.)
The twenty-first amendment was ratified due in great part to public sentiment — so many people hated Prohibition, and even moreso once the Great Depression hit. Franklin Delano Roosevelt even made repealing the 18th a part of his campaign platform in 1932, and he won in a landslide. Public sentiment has sometimes turned against the age twenty-one rule as well. Case in point: the Haas protest of 1997.
What, you don’t remember that? Well, on the first beautiful spring day in March, a group of maybe a hundred Muhlenberg College students gathered around the front of the Haas College Center, the administration building of the college, for a protest. What were they protesting? A recent crackdown by the campus administration on underage drinking at fraternity parties. That’s right: for the previous few weeks, campus safety had been busting parties, sending all the under-21’s home. And these students decided they’d had enough. They took their anger to the man. They stood there in that beautiful 60 degree weather and aired their concerns.
When I saw them there, I started to wonder about my father’s experience at the same college. He attended Muhlenberg from 1966-1970, and I imagine he saw (and maybe even participated in) a few protests in his time there. 1968 was a bit of a big year for protests. I wondered if he ever stood where I was, observing his fellow classmates gathered in the same location. I wondered if their protest might have been about something a bit more substantial.
Anyway, the best part of this story was that one freshman student decided that protests were not the way to deal with this problem — instead of hollering at the man, you could try talking to him. This student scheduled a meeting with the president of the college. In that meeting, he calmly asked, “President Taylor, would you please consider lowering the drinking age at Muhlenberg to 18?” Seriously. Or at least that’s what I heard.
But I didn’t care about these protests. I was a senior at the time, past my twenty-first birthday. So I didn’t care at all. Dumb kids.