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Repealing National Prohibition

by David Kyvig

Copyright 1979 by the University of Chicago


 On the morning of December 12, 1927, eighteen middle-aged men, many of them prominent in American business or politics, met at the home of exUnited States senator James W. Wadsworth in northwest Washington, D.C., to discuss launching a political campaign which most contemporary observers considered a hopeless folly. The group which gathered at 2800 Woodland Drive included Pierre S. du Pont, retired chairman of the board of both General Motors and E. 1. du Pont de Nemours Company; Charles H. Sabin, president of Guaranty Trust Company of New York; Senators Walter E. Edge of New Jersey and William Cabell Bruce of Maryland; Edward S. Harkness, philanthropist and heir to one of the nation's largest fortunes; and World War I Assistant Secretary of War Benedict Crowell. All that day and part of the next these men talked about their common desire for what seemed impossible: repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.'

The amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating beverages, had been adopted less than nine years earlier. Although frequently criticized and often violated, national prohibition apparently enjoyed widespread public support and, even more important, an impregnable constitutional position. "Drys," as defenders of national prohibition were termed, appeared numerous, ardent, and highly organized, while "wets," opponents of the law, though of uncertain number, seemed definitely less fervent and not at all well organized. The host of the meeting, for instance, had recently lost his New York Senate seat for opposing national prohibition. Several of Wadsworth's guests had devoted years to seeking repeal without making noticeable progress. Among them were leaders of the lone national organization publicly advocating repeal, the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, and two state repeal societies, the Constitutional Liberty League of Massachusetts and the Moderation League of New York. All three groups appeared stagnant. In 1927 the prospects of repeal seemed, at best, extremely remote.

Prohibitionists had waged a tremendous effort to install their reform in the Constitution, believing that if they succeeded, it would be impossible to dislodge. The ban on alcoholic beverages, they felt, would become an unchallengeable permanent feature of American law. A confident Anti-Saloon League leader explained why. 

There is but one way of changing the Constitution of the United States, consequently there is but one way of changing or repealing the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Two-thirds of the members of each of the two houses of Congress would first of all have to submit a proposed change in the Eighteenth Amendment to the several states. After such a submission three-fourths of the states would need to ratify such a proposal before any such change or repeal could be made, Therefore, so long as thirteen of the forty-eight states stand firm for the Eighteenth Amendment there can be no repeal of that portion of the Constitution. The leaders of the opposition understand full well that there is not the slightest hope of securing the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. I 

A reversal seemed most unlikely indeed. The Eighteenth Amendment had passed the test of wide acceptability devised by the Founding Fathers for additions to the nation's basic law. Between 1917 and 1922, after all, two thirds of Congress approved and forty-six state legislatures ratified the new amendment. Much less support was needed thereafter to keep the amendment in place. For instance, the thirteen smallest states in 1920 had a combined population of only about five million, less than five percent of the nation's total, yet under the constitutional system they possessed sufficient power to stymie a repeal attempt. Consequently, one of the amendment's authors, Texas senator Morris Sheppard, had reason for boasting: "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a humming-bird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."' Even as thirsty an observer as President Warren Harding concluded that the amendment would never be repealed.'

The men who met in December 1927 to discuss a campaign for repeal fully recognized the enormity of the task facing them. However, they regarded national prohibition as the foremost public issue of the day. The Eighteenth Amendment, they felt, raised larger and more disturbing public policy questions than merely the control of alcoholic beverages. To them prohibition represented a major expansion of the scope of federal government activity, particularly in regard to individual behavior, and it was based on assumptions which might logically lead to further growth of federal authority. Concurrently, widespread violation of the liquor ban was creating an image of a government unable or unwilling to enforce its statutes. Support for the government appeared to be eroding, and a dangerous social instability seemed to be developing.

Wadsworth and his colleagues were so aroused that they waved aside all advice that their efforts would be futile. In their two-day December meeting and a subsequent session on January 6, 1928, they agreed to revive and reorganize the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. A single purpose bipartisan organization to publicize objections and generate pressure for reform seemed to them the most likely device for bringing about a change. Their commitment to such a battle for repeal proved to be an important turning point in the long struggle over national prohibition.

Not even the greatest optimist at the Wadsworth home that December day, AAPA founder William H. Stayton, would have predicted that one week short of six years later the Eighteenth Amendment would be abolished. However, in February 1933, Congress, by a better than two-thirds vote, approved a new amendment, the Twenty-first, overturning the old, and by December 5, more than three-fourths of the states had ratified it in popularly elected conventions. Stayton, Wadsworth, Pierre du Pont, and the others who in December 1927 prepared to battle national prohibition could not foresee the outcome, much less the social, political, or constitutional consequences of the struggle. They could not know, of course, that the Eighteenth Amendment would fall even more abruptly than it rose.

In hindsight, abolition of the Eighteenth Amendment appears inevitable, the logical outcome of a foolish, unpopular reform. The group which gathered at the Wadsworth home in Washington hardly viewed the situation that way, and rightly so. National prohibition had gained wide support as a righteous effort to deal with the serious social problem of alcoholic overindulgence. Even after experience demonstrated the inadequacies and attendant liabilities of this solution, the obstacles of constitutional amendment appeared to prevent change. Repealists, however, proved as determined and resourceful as prohibitionists. Their thirst for restoration of what they considered social and constitutional righteousness combined with an effective political effort and fortunate timing to produce the constitutional reversal of 1933, one of the most improbable and unexpected political events of its time--and one of the most significant.

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