Target Rich Environment: Prohibition and the Constitution
Article V of the US Constitution allows Congress to propose an amendment to the state legislatures by a two-thirds vote in both houses. If three quarters of the state legislatures ratify it then it becomes the law of the land, displacing any previous provision if necessary. Alternatively two thirds of the state legislatures may call for a constitutional convention, after which three quarters of the state legislatures or state conventions must ratify.
Both methods of ratification serve to guarantee a substantial national consensus which a minority of one-third would find it difficult to defy, both politically and psychologically.
Wayne B. Wheeler, the forgotten master strategist of the Anti-Saloon League, saw a way the need for a national consensus could be circumvented. He calculated that if the ASL could organize and deliver five to ten percent of the vote it could coerce elected officials and the two major parties into compliance. Five to ten percent is the winning margin in most elections and there were millions of voters convinced that the death of Demon Rum would produce a comprehensive transformation, making America a kinder, gentler place. Crime, domestic abuse, absenteeism, industrial accidents and a raft of bad habits would dwindle and disappear. Family life would flourish, the number of divorces diminish, savings accounts swell, and church attendance grow.
The political landscape was unlike today’s divisions on the social issues. There was no powerful single issue constituency to oppose the ASL. The big brewers and distillers could be denounced as corporate exploiters of human weakness. Even better, they were reviled during World War I as agents of the Kaiser, deliberately undermining Americans’ moral character. In those days German-Americans so dominated the brewing industry that the proceedings of the American Brewers’ Association were conducted in German. Serious drinkers had no countervailing organization and Wheeler probably calculated that deeply dedicated topers would be nursing hang-overs or snoring in gutters on election day. The much larger number of casual drinkers of beer and wine just didn’t feel strongly enough to form a single issue constituency in opposition. They had other priorities.
Wheeler’s genius and energy built an organization that could reliably deliver the winning margins needed to achieve his ends. At the center he built a network of Baptist and Methodist pastors. They were supplemented by support from both the Ku Klux Klan and the Progressives. In those days the KKK was experiencing a revival because of hostility to immigrants. A lot of native Americans had no use for whiskey-swigging Irishmen, wine-sipping Italians and beer-guzzling Germans. And there was the older racial terror that if Blacks had free access to alcohol they would terrorize white women and revert to cannibalism. The Progressive, otherwise determined enemies of the KKK, couldn’t resist an experiment in social engineering. Fifteen of the sixteen progressive congressmen voted for the prohibition amendment.
Although its leader concentrated the ASL’s attention on its single issue, he saw the importance of backing the 16th Amendment, authorizing the income tax. Income taxes were needed to replace the 30 percent of the U.S. government’s revenue derived from liquor taxes. High-minded millionaire Drys like John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and S.S. Kresge, were willing to subordinate their distaste for income taxes to a higher cause and provided generous funding for the ASL’s powerful propaganda machine and organizational infrastructure.
The ASL also backed the 19th Amendment, figuring that women, being generally more abstemious than men, would vote to protect dry legislation once they had the vote.
I offer a prime example of Wayne B. Wheeler’s strategic genius. He targeted a popular but wet governor of Ohio and defeated him on his one issue. This was effective in terrifying other politicians, including the tipplers, drunks and dipsomaniacs among them, into voting dry. He understood that drying out Congress was a hopeless task and aimed only to coerce its members into voting as commanded. That guy was good. We haven’t seen his like since.
Political opposition to Prohibition was strong among working class ethnic Democrats and upper class Republicans, but as long as its mastermind lived the Anti-Saloon League’s defense of the 18th Amendment and its enabling Volstead Act remained impregnable. He had only to twiddle his fingers and his political puppets danced. It wasn’t long before it became apparent that all the Volstead Act enforcement managed to do was increase the price and lower the quality of illegal booze. It didn’t matter, the Drys kept Prohibition going for fourteen years.
The prohibition amendment and enforcement legislation put a lot of strain on the 4th, 5th and 10th Amendments in the Bill of Rights, and the eminent Republican lawyer, Elihu Root attempted to persuade the United States Supreme Court to overturn it on those grounds. An impossible project, the court was not about to overturn a constitutional amendment passed according to the provisions of Article V on constitutional grounds. It was up to Congress to initiate the process. The majority cowered before the ASL and dodged the question.
The point of this story is to illustrate how lightly most politicians take their oath to uphold the Constitution when their political careers are at risk. And in our days the word “oath” has an archaic sound. It suggest an immoderate commitment to principle and an obstacle to pragmatic compromise.
Does this conclusion sound too severe? Consider Article I, Section 2, requires reapportionment of the House of Representatives after each decennial census. The 1910, 1900, and 1890 reapportionments were all accomplished in nine months, but Wheeler calculated that reapportionment would enhance the representation of the wet urban populations. So the ASL succeeded in delaying reapportionment until 1928! In short the drys ordained that millions of voters should be denied representation through three elections cycles. A majority of Republican and Democratic congressmen obediently knocked down 42 reapportionment bills
Is there, perhaps, an enduring lesson here about the fidelity of most politicians to our Constitution?