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What Prohibition Has Done to America


What Prohibition Has Done to America

by Fabian Franklin
Copyright 1922,  Harcourt, Brace & Co., New York. 



THUS far I have been dealing with the wrong which the Prohibition Amendment commits against the vital principle of any national Constitution, the principle which alone justifies the idea of a Constitution--a body of organic law removed from the operation of the ordinary processes of popular rule and representative government. But reference was made at the outset to a wrong of a more special, yet equally profound, character. The distinctive feature of our system of government is that it combines a high degree of power and independence in the several States with a high degree of power and authority in the national government. Time was when the dispute naturally arising in such a Federal Union, concerning the line of division between these two kinds of power, turned on an abstract or legalistic question of State sovereignty. That abstract question was decided, once for all, by the arbitrament of arms in our great Civil War. But the decision, while it strengthened the foundations of the Federal Union, left unimpaired the individuality, the vitality, the self-dependence of the States in all the ordinary affairs of life. It continued to be true, after the war as before, that each State had its own local pride, developed its own special institutions, regulated the conduct of life within its boundaries according to its own views of what was conducive to the order, the well-being, the contentment, the progress, of its own people. It has been the belief of practically all intelligent observers of our national life that this individuality and self-dependence of the States has been a cardinal element in the promotion of our national welfare and in the preservation of our national character. In a country of such vast extent and natural variety, a country developing with unparalleled rapidity and confronted with constantly changing conditions, who can say how great would have been the loss to local initiative and civic spirit, how grave the impairment of national concord and good will, if all the serious concerns of the American people had been settled for them by a central government at Washington ? In that admirable little book, "Politics for Young Americans," Charles Nordhoff fifty years ago expounded in simple language the principles underlying our system of government. Coming to the subject of "Decentralization," he said:

Experience has shown that this device [decentralization] is of extreme importance, for two reasons: First, it is a powerful and the best means of training a people to efficient political action and the art of self-government; and, second, it presents constant and important barriers to the encroachment of rulers upon the rights and liberties of the nation; every subdivision forming a stronghold of resistance by the people against unjust or wicked rulers. Take notice that any system of government is excellent in the precise degree in which it naturally trains the people in political independence, and habituates them to take an active part in governing themselves. Whatever plan of government does this is good--no matter what it may be called; and that which avoids this is necessarily bad.

What Mr. Nordhoff thus set forth has been universally acknowledged as the cardinal merit of local self-government; and in addition to this cardinal merit it has been recognized by all competent students of our history that our system of self-governing States has proved itself of inestimable benefit in another way. It has rendered possible the trying of important experiments in social and governmental policy; experiments which it would have been sometimes dangerous, and still more frequently politically impossible, to inaugurate on a national scale. When these experiments have proved successful, State after State has followed the example set by one or a few among their number; when they have been disappointing in their results, the rest of the Union has profited by the warning. But, highly important as is this aspect of State independence, the most essential benefits of it are the training in self-government which is emphasized in the above quotation from Mr. Nordhoff, and the adaptation of laws to the particular needs and the particular character of the people of the various States. That modern conditions have inevitably led to a vast enlargement of the powers of the central government, no thinking person can deny. It would be folly to attempt to stick to the exact division of State functions as against national which was natural when the Union was first formed. The railroad, the telegraph, and the telephone, the immense development of industrial, commercial, and financial organization, the growth of interwoven interests of a thousand kinds, have brought the people of California and New York, of Michigan and Texas, into closer relations than were common between those of Massachusetts and Virginia in the days of Washington and John Adams. In so far as the process of centralization has been dictated by the clear necessities of the times, it would be idle to obstruct it or to cry out against it. But, so far from this being an argument against the preservation of the essentials of local self-government, it is the strongest possible argument in favor of that preservation. With the progress of science, invention, and business organization, the power and prestige of the central government are bound to grow, the power and prestige of the State governments are bound to decline, under the pressure of economic necessity and social convenience; all the more, then, does it behoove us to sustain those essentials of State authority which are not comprised within the domain of those overmastering economic forces. If we do not hold the line where the line can be held, we give up the cause altogether; and it will be only a question of time when we shall have drifted into complete subjection to a centralized government, and State boundaries will have no more serious significance than county boundaries have now. But if there is one thing in the wide world the control of which naturally and preeminently belongs to the individual State and not to the central government at Washington, that thing is the personal conduct and habits of the people of the State. If it is right and proper that the people of New York or Illinois or Maryland shall be subjected to a national law which declares what they may or may not eat or drink--a law which they cannot themselves alter, no matter how strongly they may desire it--then there is no act of centralization whatsoever which can be justly objected to as an act of centralization. The Prohibition Amendment is not merely an impairment of the principle of self-government of the States; it constitutes an absolute abandonment of that principle. This does not mean, of course, an immediate abandonment of the practice of State self-government; established institutions have a tenacious life, and moreover there are a thousand practical advantages in State selfgovernment which nobody will think of giving up. But the principle, I repeat, is abandoned altogether if we accept the Eighteenth Amendment as right and proper; and if anybody imagines that the abandonment of the principle is of no practical consequence, he is woefully deluded. So long as the principle is held in esteem, it is always possible to make a stout fight against any particular encroachment upon State authority; any proposed encroachment must prove its claim to acceptance not only as a practical desideratum but as not too flagrant an invasion of State prerogatives. But with the Eighteenth Amendment accepted as a proper part of our system, it will be impossible to object to any invasion as more flagrant than that to which the nation has already given its approval. A striking illustration of this has, curiously enough, been furnished in the brief time that has passed since the adoption or the eighteenth Amendment. Southern Senators and Representatives and Legislaturemen who, for getting all about their cherished doctrine of State rights, had fallen over themselves in their eagerness to fasten the Eighteenth Amendment upon the country, suddenly discovered that they were deeply devoted to that doctrine when the Nineteenth Amendment came up for consideration. But nobody would listen to them. They professed--and doubtless some of them sincerely professed-- to find an essential difference between putting Woman Suffrage into the Constitution and putting Prohibition into the Constitution. The determination of the right of suffrage was, they said, the most fundamental attribute of a sovereign State; national Prohibition did not strike at the heart of State sovereignty as did national regulation of the suffrage. But the abstract question of sovereignty has had little interest for the nation since the Civil War; and if we waive that abstract question, the Prohibition Amendment was an infinitely more vital thrust at the principle of State selfgovernment. The Woman Suffrage Amendment was the assertion of a fundamental principle of government, and if it was an abridgment of sovereignty it was an abridgment of the same character as those embodied in the Constitution from the beginning, the Prohibition Amendment brought the Federal Government into control of precisely those intimate concerns of daily life which, above all else, had theretofore been left untouched by the central power, and subject to the independent jurisdiction of each individual State. The South had eagerly swallowed a camel, and when it asked the country to strain at a gnat it found nobody to listen. Our public men, and our leaders of opinion, frequently and earnestly express their concern over the decline of importance in our State governments, the lessened vigor of the State spirit. The sentiment is not peculiar to any party or to any section; it is expressed with equal emphasis and with equal frequency by leading Republicans and leading Democrats, by Northerners and Southerners. All feel alike that with the decay of State spirit a virtue will go out of our national spirit--that a centralized America will be a devitalized America. But when they discuss the subject, they are in the habit of referring chiefly to defects in administration; to neglect of duty by the average citizen or perhaps by those in high places in business or the professions; to want of intelligence in the Legislature, etc. And for all this there is much reason; yet all this we have had always with us, and it is not always that we have had with us this sense of the decline of State spirit. For that decline the chief cause is the gradual, yet steady and rapid, extension of national power and lowering of the comparative importance of the functions of the State. However, the functions that still remain to the State--and its subdivisions, the municipalities and counties --are still of enormous importance; and, with the growth of public-welfare activities which are ramifying in so many directions, that importance may be far greater in the future. But what is to become of it if we are ready to surrender to the central government the control of our most intimate concerns? And what concern can be so intimate as that of the conduct of the individual citizen in the pursuit of his daily life? How can the idea of the State as an object of pride or as a source of authority flourish when the most elementary of its functions is supinely abandoned to the custody of a higher and a stronger power? The Prohibition Amendment has done more to sap the vitality of our State system than could be done by a hundred years of misrule at Albany or Harrisburg or Springfield. The effects of that misrule are more directly apparent, but they leave the State spirit untouched in its vital parts. The Prohibition Amendment strikes at the root of that spirit, and its evil precedent, if unreversed, will steadily cut off the source from which that spirit derives its life.