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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. 



THERE has been a vast amount of controversy over the question whether a majority of the American people favored the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment. There is no possible way to settle that question. Even future votes, if any can be had that may be looked upon as referendum votes, cannot settle it, whichever way they may turn out. If evidence should come to hand which indicates that a majority of the American people favor the retention of the Amendment now that it is an accomplished fact, this will not prove that they favored its adoption in the first place; it may be that they wish to give it a fuller trial, or it may be that they do not wish to go through the upheaval and disturbance of a fresh agitation of the question or it may be some other reason quite different from what was in the situation four years ago. On the other hand, if the referendum should seem adverse, this might be due to disgust at the lawlessness that has developed in connection with the Prohibition Amendment, or to a realization of the vast amount of discontent it has aroused, or to something else that was not in the minds of the majority when the Amendment was put through. But really the question is of very little importance. From the standpoint of fundamental political doctrine, it makes no difference whether 40 million, or 50 million, or 60 million people out of a hundred million desired to put into the Constitution a provision which is an offense against the underlying idea of any Constitution, an injury to the American Federal system, an outrage upon the first principles both of law and of liberty. And if, instead of viewing the matter from the standpoint of fundamental political doctrine, we look upon it as a question of Constitutional procedure, it is again--though for a different reason--a matter of little consequence whether a count of noses would have favored the adoption of the Amendment or not. The Constitution provides a definite method for its own amendment, and this method was strictly carried out--the Amendment received the approval of the requisite number of Representatives, Senators and State Legislatures; from the standpoint of Constitutional procedure the question of popular majorities has nothing to do with the case. But from every standpoint the way in which the Eighteenth Amendment was actually put through Congress and the Legislatures has a great deal to do with the case. Prohibitionists constantly point to the big majority in Congress, and the promptness and almost unanimity of the approval by the Legislatures, as proof of an overwhelming preponderance of public sentiment in favor of the Amendment. It is proof of no such thing. To begin with, nothing is more notorious than the fact that a large proportion of the members of Congress and State Legislatures who voted for the Prohibition Amendment were not themselves in favor of it. Many of them openly declared that they were voting not according to their own judgment but in deference to the desire of their constituents. But there is not the slightest reason to believe that one out of twenty of those gentlemen made any effort to ascertain the desire of a majority of their constituents; nor, for that matter, that they would have followed that desire if they had known what it was. What they were really concerned about was to get the support, or avoid the enmity, of those who held, or were supposed to hold, the balance of power. For that purpose a determined and highly organized body of moderate dimensions may outweigh a body ten times as numerous and ten times as representative of the community. The Anti-Saloon League was the power of which Congressmen and Legislaturemen alike stood in fear. Never in our political history has there been such an example of consummately organized, astutely managed, and unremittingly maintained intimidation; and accordingly never in our history has a measure of such revolutionary character and of such profound importance as the Eighteenth Amendment been put through with anything like such smoothness and celerity. The intimidation exercised by the AntiSaloon League was potent in a degree far beyond the numerical strength of the League and its adherents, not only because of the effective and systematic use of its black-listing methods, but also for another reason. Weak-kneed Congressmen and Legislaturemen succumbed not only to fear of the ballots which the League controlled but also to fear of another kind. A weapon not less powerful than political intimidation was the moral intimidation which the Prohibition propaganda had constantly at command. That such intimidation should be resorted to by a body pushing what it regards as a magnificent reform is not surprising; the pity is that so few people have the moral courage to beat back an attack of this kind. Throughout the entire agitation, it was the invariable habit of Prohibition advocates to stigmatize the anti-Prohibition forces as representing nothing but the "liquor interests." The fight was presented in the light of a struggle between those who wished to coin money out of the degradation of their fellow-creatures and those who sought to save mankind from perdition. That the millions of people who enjoyed drinking, to whom it was a cherished source of refreshment, recuperation, and sociability, had any stake in the matter, the agitators never for a moment acknowledged; if a man stood out against Prohibition he was not the champion of the millions who enjoyed drink, but the servant of the interests who sold drink. This preposterous fiction was allowed to pass current with but little challenge; and many a public man who might have stood out against the Anti-Saloon League's power over the ballot-box cowered at the thought of the moral reprobation which a courageous stand against Prohibition might bring down upon him. Thus the swiftness with which the Prohibition Amendment was adopted by Congress and by State Legislatures, and the overwhelming majorities which it commanded in those bodies, is no proof either of sincere conviction on the part of the lawmakers or of their belief that they were expressing the genuine will of their constituents. As for individual conviction, the personal conduct of a large proportion of the lawmakers who voted for Prohibition is in notorious conflict with their votes; and as for the other question, it has happened in State after State that the Legislature was almost unanimous for Prohibition when the people of the State had quite recently shown by their vote that they were either distinctly against it or almost evenly divided. Of this kind of proceeding, Maryland presented an example so flagrant as to deserve special mention. Although popular votes in the State had, within quite a short time, recorded strong anti-Prohibition majorities, the Legislature rushed its ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment through in the very first days of its session; and this in face of the fact that Maryland has always held strongly by State rights and cherished its State individuality, and that the leading newspapers of the State and many of its foremost citizens came out courageously and energetically against the Amendment. In these circumstances, nothing but a mean subserviency to political intimidation can possibly account for the indecent haste with which the ratification was pushed through. It is interesting to note a subsequent episode which casts a further interesting light on the matter, and tends to show that there are limits beyond which the whip-and-spur rule of the Anti-Saloon League cannot go. In the session of the present year, the Anti-Saloon League tried to get a State Prohibition enforcement bill passed. Although there was a great public protest, the bill was put through the lower House of the Legislature; but in the Senate it encountered resistance of an effective kind. The Senate did not reject the bill; but, in spite of bitter opposition by the Anti-Saloon League, it attached to the bill a referendum clause. With that clause attached, the Anti-Saloon League ceased to desire the passage of the bill, and allowed it to be killed on its return to the lower House of the Legislature. Is this not a fine exhibition of the nature of the League's hold on legislation? And is there not abundant evidence that the whole of this Maryland story is typical of what has been going on throughout the country? Charges are made that the Anti-Saloon League has expended vast sums of money in its campaigns; money largely supplied, it is often alleged, by one of the world's richest men, running into the tens of millions or higher. r do not believe that these charges are true. More weight is to be attached to another factor in the case--the adoption of the Amendment by Congress while we were in the midst of the excitement and exaltation of the war, and two million of our young men were overseas. Unquestionably, advantage was taken of this situation, there can be little doubt that the Eighteenth Amendment would have had much harder sledding at a normal time. And it is right, accordingly, to insist that the Amendment was not subjected to the kind of discussion, nor put through the kind of test of national approval, which ought to precede any such permanent and radical change in our Constitutional organization. This is especially true because National Prohibition was not even remotely an issue in the preceding election, nor in any earlier one. All these things must weigh in our judgment of the moral weight to be attached to the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment; but there is another aspect of that adoption which is more important. The gravest reproach which attaches to that unfortunate act, the one which causes deepest concern among thinking citizens, does not relate to any incidental feature of the Prohibition manoevres. The fundamental trouble lay in a deplorable absence of any general understanding of the seriousness of making a vital change in the Constitution--incomparably the most vital to which it has ever been subjected--and of the solemn responsibility of those upon whom rested the decision to make or not to make that change. Even in newspapers in which one would expect, as a matter of course, that this aspect of the question would be earnestly impressed upon their readers, it was, as a rule, passed over without so much as a mention. And this is not all. One of the shrewdest and most successful of the devices which the League and its supporters constantly made use of was to represent the function of Congress as being merely that of submitting the question to the State Legislatures; as though the passage of the Amendment by a two-thirds vote of Congress did not necessarily imply approval, but only a willingness to let the sentiment of the several States decide. Of course, such a view is preposterous; of course, if such were the purpose of the Constitutional procedure there would be no requirement of a two-thirds vote.* But many members of Congress were glad enough to take refuge behind this view of their duty, absurd though it was; and no one can say how large a part it played in securing the requisite two-thirds of House and Senate. Yet from the moment the Amendment was thus adopted by Congress, nothing more was heard of this notion of that body having performed the merely ministerial act of passing the question on to the Legislatures. On the contrary, the two-thirds vote (and more) was pointed to as conclusive evidence of the overwhelming support of the Amendment by the nation; the Legislatures were expected to get with alacrity into the band-wagon into which Congress had so eagerly climbed. Evidently, it would have been far more difficult to get the Eighteenth Amendment into the Constitution if the two-thirds vote of Congress had been the sole requirement for its adoption. Congressmen disposed to take their responsibility lightly, and yet not altogether without conscience, voted with the feeling that their act was not final, when they might otherwise have shrunk from doing what their Judgment told them was wrong; and, the thing once through Congress, Legislatures hastened to ratify in the feeling that ratification by the requisite number of Legislatures was manifestly a foregone conclusion. Thus at no stage of the game was there given to this tremendous Constitutional departure anything even distantly approaching the kind of consideration that such a step demands. The country was jockeyed and stampeded into the folly it has committed; and who can say what may be the next folly into which we shall fall, if we do not awaken to a truer sense of the duty that rests upon every member of a lawmaking body--to decide these grave questions in accordance with the dictates of his own honest and intelligent judgment?

* This should be self-evident; but if there were any room for doubt. it would be removed by a reference to the language of Article V of the Constitution: "The Congress, whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution" which shall be valid "when ratified by the Legislatures of three-fourths of the States." Thus Congress does not submit an amendment, but proposes it; and it does this only when two-thirds of both Houses deem it necessary. The primary act of judgment is performed by Congress; what remains for the Legislatures is to ratify or not to ratify that act.