Did you ever wonder why the legal drinking age is 21? Did you know that the United State’s minimum drinking age of 21 years old is the highest in the world (except for a few states in India)? If you have ever talked to anyone who was born in the 1970s or earlier, they might have told you that they could legally drink under the age of 21. This is true because each state is responsible for setting its own minimum legal drinking age; not the federal government. States are responsible for setting their own minimum drinking age laws based on the concept of federalism – i.e. those laws which are not prescribed to the federal government are reserved for the states. But if each state sets its own minimum legal drinking age, why does every state set it at 21 years of age?
The short answer to this question is because Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (Title 23 U.S.C. §158) which essentially said to the states:
If you (states) want the federal money you’re entitled to for your roads and transportation systems, then you will raise your minimum drinking age to 21 years old.
Some states refused to comply with this request, but by 1988 every state eventually succumbed to the need for more money from the federal government and set their minimum legal drinking age to 21. However, a more accurate answer requires a little bit of knowledge about the history of US drinking laws, understanding the concept of what an "unfunded federal mandate" means, and a discussion on how ‘21’ years of age became the magic number.
Next, we’ll explore what the drinking laws were like for the early settlers of America.