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Repealing National Prohibition
by David Kyvig
Copyright 1979 by the University of Chicago
Chapter 10 - Champagne and Sour Grapes
A few hours after Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Utah's conventions completed ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment, 170 directors of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment from across the country gathered for a dinner at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. Once the directors assembled, waiters wheeled in a hammered-silver, six-gallon punch bowl, brimming with cocktails. With the bowl were a matching tray, two ladies, and twenty-four elegant silver goblets. An inscription on the side of the bowl read:
Capt. William Henry Stayton
who from November 12, 1918, until December 5, 1933 led the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment FROM
The Directors of that Association
as a mark of their affection and appreciation on the occasion of their Victory Dinner held in New York City, December 5, 1933
Everyone present as well as many absent directors had contributed to this gift for board chairman Stayton. In addition, executive committee chairman Pierre du Pont had arranged for each director to receive a cocktail glass inscribed to commemorate the occasion. President Jouett Shouse toasted the seventy-two-year-old, white-haired captain "as the founder not merely of an association but the organizer of a group which has had a profound constructive effect upon the economic and social life of America." Then with great relish the group initiated the goblets and glasses by enjoying their first legal drinks in fourteen years.'
Champagne, scotch whiskey, and mutual congratulations continued to flow throughout a long evening of celebration, with Stayton and du Pont receiving most of the accolades. The executive committee planned to formally dissolve the AAPA at the end of the festivities, but a number of directors, perhaps overflowing with feelings of camaraderie, achievement, or power, objected. At a board meeting the next morning, however, no one resisted further, and the oldest antiprohibition society officially disbanded.' More than a month earlier, the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers had suspended its activities. On December 5, treasurer Harrison Tweed simply wrote a personal check for $6.66 to balance an overdrawn bank account and closed the VCL's books.' The Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform had agreed in September to go out of existence once repeal was achieved. Over 300 women from thirty-six states gathered at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on December 7 for the WONPR'S last meeting, a subdued victory dinner in deference to the recently widowed Pauline Sabin. A few weeks later a delegation presented her with a small Renoir landscape as a tribute to her leadership of their society. Finally, a committee used $30,000 of the WONPR'S leftover funds to establish a graduate fellowship in political science to be administered by Barnard College and, in memory of Charles Sabin, donated the remaining $5,000 to the New York City Boys' Club for citizenship education.' Of the major wet groups, only the weakest, the Crusaders, planned to continue to promote temperance and defend the Constitution, but it rapidly withered.' However they chose to wind up their affairs, each of these important antiprohibition organizations disbanded with a feeling of great satisfaction.
As the repeal societies prepared to depart the scene, their leaders expressed to each other and the country their sense of significant accomplishment. Captain Stayton repeatedly praised Pauline Sabin and her organization for abolishing defeatism over the possibility of repeal.' Jouett Shouse and Irenee du Pont congratulated Joseph H. Choate for the VCL's role in the rapid state convention ratification.' AAPA directors prepared for Stayton a year-long desk calendar beginning December 5, 1933, with congratulatory messages on each page. These brief, handwritten comments suggest their assessment of repeal and the association's role. For instance: December 5, "Your great day of victoryl You have restored to the states their rights and to the people of the United States you have made clear the method by which they themselves may govern. What greater good could man accomplish?" Pierre S. du Pont." January 2, "Every liberty loving citizen of the U.S. should feel grateful for your successful efforts in removing from our laws that blot on our Constitution. L. H. Baekeland." April 28, "When the history of our victorious struggle against constitutional desecration and legislative tyranny, as exemplified by the 18th Amendment and the Volstead act, is written your name should be emblazoned upon its pages as the proven leader of a great army of patriotic Americans. C. O'Conor Goolrick."'
Jouett Shouse summarized the antiprohibition movement's self-image in a national radio address on the evening of November 7, 1933, after elections that day in several states had assured adoption of the Twenty-first Amendment. He attributed victory primarily to the efforts of the AAPA and WONPR. He gave special credit to Captain Stayton and also to Al Smith, John Raskob, Pierre du Pont, Henry Curran, and Pauline Sabin. While acknowledging their help in the campaign's final stages, Shouse pointedly objected to claims that Franklin Roosevelt and James Farley bore principal responsibility for repeal. The AAPA and its allies, laboring "through the long years of discouragement when the cause of repeal was unpopular, when the motives of those advocating it were maligned, when a successful result seemed well nigh impossible," deserved credit "for having brought about the most remarkable change in national sentiment and the most far-reaching social reform thus far recorded in the evolution of the American people." The very politicians who had long avoided the issue and were finally compelled to act by a mighty wave of public opinion, he commented indignantly, now were trying to take credit. "I deprecate and condemn the selfish attempt of certain politicians to arrogate to themselves the entire credit for the success of a movement in which they have played small part indeed in its crucial stages and toward the consummation of which their efforts were withheld until the overwhelming popularity of the movement had been assured. "'
Many journalists agreed with Shouse's view of repeal and extolled the wet organizations. Stayton's role in particular drew notice.'O His friend H. L. Mencken called him "the hero of the day" and went on to say, "He was bearing the heat and burden of the day at a time when nine-tenths of all the politicians were skulking. He has done the American people a vast service, and I only wish I could hope that they will not forget it." I I A more objective observer, Arthur Krock of the New York Times, in a lengthy article gave the AAPA credit for forcing an outright repeal plank through the 1932 Democratic convention, electing a wet majority to the Seventy-third Congress, pushing an acceptable repeal resolution through the lame-duck Congress, and accelerating state ratification by at least two years. Captain Stayton and the AAPA, the article continued, convinced an overwhelming national majority that repeal could be achieved and then moved Congress and the states to take action. The association, said Krock, was passing out of existence "with a consciousness of a constructive social task excellently performed. " I I
Thus, repeal leaders had ample reason to believe that lasting acclaim would be theirs. After all, they were being told and were telling each other, while cautious professional politicians had hesitated, they had correctly perceived and expressed the popular will, mobilized the electorate, and achieved a significant victory against enormous odds. They had engineered a tremendous political reversal, aided an ailing economy, set the country on the path to temperance, and redeemed dearly held constitutional principles. They felt certain of historical recognition.
However, the antiprohibitionists' moment of exhilaration and glory faded rapidly, even though repeal brought better control of alcoholic beverages, an end to bootlegging and speakeasies, and sizable revenues for state and federal government. For both contemporaries and later historians, the ongoing problems of the depression and the Roosevelt administration's struggles to cope with it quickly overshadowed repeal. Before long, prohibition came to be generally remembered as an absurd and costly mistake, "the noble experiment" whose repeal was inevitable; forgotten were the initial widespread optimism and support for creating a temperate nation by law and then the tremendous obstacles to removing that law from the Constitution once it had proved unsatisfactory. Also, subsequent events blackened the reputation of the repeal movement's leadership. Any one of these factors could easily blur hindsight, and together they consigned the organized wets to historical oblivion. Under these circumstances, placing prohibition repeal and its leading advocates in better perspective becomes both worthwhile and difficult.
The return of liquor itself generally produced the temperate drinking, law observance, and economic stimulus for which its advocates had hoped. Repeal itself provoked less of a celebratory public binge than the return of 3.2 beer eight months earlier. Whereas large quantities of beer could be brewed and made available very rapidly, supplies of wine and liquor could only expand gradually because of the time needed to age or import them. In 1936, when stocks of wine and spirits had reached levels judged adequate to meet demand, consumption remained significantly below preprohibition rates. Unquestionably, some people now drank who had been unable to afford bootlegger's prices or unwilling to violate the law. Nevertheless, according to estimates based on federal liquor tax payments, the most comprehensive and reliable indicator, per capita consumption of alcohol from 1936 through 1941 was only 60 percent of what it had been in 1915, the last comparable period before widespread state prohibition. II Once the legal liquor business was fully established, most bootleggers and speakeasies could not compete profitably, and so abandoned the effort. In 1940 the legal manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages generated, according to the Distilled Spirits Institute's estimate, 1,229,000 jobs and a billion dollars in wages. Federal, state, and local tax and license receipts amounted to another one billion dollars." Certainly many problems of individual alcohol abuse remained, but the return of legal drinking proved as successful as it did because both state and federal governments took pains to assure that it would be so.
Antiprohibition organizations were called upon to propose a post repeal liquor regulation system and were criticized for not doing so. " Jouett Shouse declared that the AAPA was adhering to long-standing beliefs. "The whole basis upon which the repeal fight has been waged is the theory that each state should handle the matter of liquor control in such way as seems best to its citizens and as meets its needs and conditions. We must not depart from that basic principle,- he continued. "It is none of my business, it is none of your business what liquor laws may be adopted by a state of which we are not residents."" Joseph Choate explained that the VCL did not prepare a liquor control bill because its executive committee "was satisfied that conditions in the various states were so diverse that no single system would satisfy any considerable number of them.""
Though they refused in principle to propose any one national solution, wets offered assistance to individual states as they considered what to do. The AAPA called attention to models provided by its various studies of foreign systems of alcoholic beverage control, and the WONPR summarized even more foreign approaches, fifty in all, in two publications. James W. Wadsworth spent two hours testifying before the New York State Liquor Control Board while it considered the matter of regulations. He urged careful consideration of the Swedish private-monopoly and the Quebec government monopoly systems. The governor of Delaware appointed Pierre du Pont chairman of a five-member committee to draw up a state liquor control act. The plan, drafted and adopted with minor amendments by the legislature within two months, authorized a state commission either to operate a monopoly or license private retailers. Only beer was to be available for consumption where purchased. The anticipated large initial capital investment caused eventual rejection of the Quebec-style monopoly approach. The governor then named Pierre du Pont Delaware's first liquor commissioner. Elsewhere other AAPA members offered assistance to their state officials."
Nearly every state moved quickly to establish statewide alcoholic beverage regulations. This contrasted sharply with preprohibition practice, when controls remained largely in local hands and a chaotic jumble of approaches resulted. With states proceeding independently, each system of control developed its individual characteristics, but some general patterns emerged. The majority of states, twenty-five by 1936, established agencies to license and regulate private sale. Some states seemed primarily concerned with tax collection, while others established very exact and detailed requirements as to how the trade should be conducted. Most regulated hours of sale, location with respect to schools and churches, advertising, and the physical characteristics of retail outlets. At the same time, a second group of fifteen states decided to sell distilled spirits through government stores. About half of these established government monopolies, while the others also licensed private retailers. The states which took on the liquor business themselves tended to be those bordering Canada and able to closely observe its example, or else those where a third or more the voters in 1933 had opposed repeal. Legislators in states which decided to operate liquor stores shared a concern that private business would exploit liquor sales. They desired strict control over the trade more than they feared the precedent of state takeover of a formerly private business. Eight states chose to continue banning liquor sales as of 1936, but every state except Alabama and Kansas allowed the sale of beer. By 1940, 3.2 beer was available everywhere, and only Kansas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma barred liquor sales. Seventeen states had undertaken at least some government sales by then, while the other twenty-eight had placed the business in the hands of licensed retailers. "
Nothing in the reestablishment of legal drinking caused more concern than the return of the saloon. Temperance advocates from T. S. Arthur, the author of the 1854 Ten Nights in a Bar-room, to the leaders of the AntiSaloon League focused attention on the saloon as the symbol of the corrupting influence of the liquor business. Many antiprohibitionists viewed the saloon as a social and political center of dubious virtue and agreed that its return should be prevented. Following repeal, fifteen states prohibited all liquor sales for consumption at the place of purchase, and most others restricted on-premise consumption to hotels, restaurants, and clubs where food accompanied the drink. At first only nine states licensed retail establishments to sell drinks without food. Even here strict requirements often applied: no Sunday sales, no sales to minors or intoxicated persons, no treating, gambling, dancing, disorderly conduct, or concealment of the interior from the street. Some states insisted that patrons be served seated at tables rather than standing at the bar, presumably because the latter position encouraged overindulgence and other unseemly behavior. The ownership or control of retail outlets by brewers or distillers-so-called "tied houses" was almost universally prohibited on the grounds that such arrangements in the past had put pressure on the proprietor to encourage consumption at any cost. Jouett Shouse, for one, questioned efforts to entirely eliminate the sale of liquor by the drink. If, at least in large cities, people could not legally and openly buy a single drink without having to purchase food as well, he predicted that they would continue to patronize speakeasies." Yet states regarded the saloon as a danger and closely monitored those which were allowed.
The old saloon did not reappear either in name or form, although gradually more states permitted liquor sale by the drink. In the first place, retailers thought it bad business and worse politics to call their establishments saloons and chose to label them taverns, bars, or something else. Far more important, state regulation and policing by image-conscious brewers prevented the reappearance of many saloon conditions, while other changes encouraged home consumption instead. Before 1920 most beer and liquor was packaged in barrels and kegs, too easily spoiled or too costly for home consumption. Improvements in bottling technology by the soft drink industry during prohibition, and the widespread introduction of home refrigerators made it possible to keep beer at home. Soon after repeal, the development of canned beer and nonreturn bottles, together with new advertising approaches, further stimulated home consumption. While in 1934, draught beer accounted for three-fourths of all beer sales, by 1941 package sales captured a majority of the market. The proportion of distilled liquor consumed at home increased as well, in part because the federal government, seeking to insure that nothing escaped taxation, required that all spirits destined for retail sale be packaged in nonreusable bottles no larger than one gallon. When it became as convenient and inexpensive to imbibe spirits at home, fewer people went to the saloon. Wine had always been consumed primarily in the home. Such factors insured that the saloon--or whatever the public drinking establishment was now to be called-would never regain its pre-1920 position." American drinking practices and social patterns, especially in urban areas, would therefore differ markedly from those of the era before national prohibition. The saloon as principal neighborhood gathering place, information exchange, paycheck cashing service, employment bureau, and political club had disappeared forever.
The federal government settled on limited regulation of the liquor trade after repeal, but not until after the Roosevelt administration had attempted a more active role and given serious consideration to even fuller participation. The rush of states to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment caught administration leaders by surprise. In October 1933 the White House hastily formed an interdepartmental wine and spirits committee to recommend a federal policy. The committee met with Roosevelt and his cabinet on November 9, two days after state elections had assured repeal within a month, and again alone with the president a week later. Roosevelt and several close advisors, including Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Commerce Secretary Daniel Roper, and "brain trust" advisor Rex Tugwell, appeared to favor a federal government monopoly of the wholesale liquor trade with close regulation of the retail business. The interdepartmental committee wanted to establish strict federal control over imports in order to persuade producing nations to accept more American surplus agricultural products in return for the right to increase wine and liquor shipments to the United States. On the other hand, the committee viewed complete federal control of the liquor business as an "immense and troublesome task.""
Eventually the interdepartmental committee persuaded Roosevelt to establish a Federal Alcohol Control Administration under the National Recovery Administration. This plan, which the president ordered into effect on December 4, allowed private business to obtain permits to engage in the liquor trade under the terms of codes of fair competition drafted by the government. These codes, which were to encourage self-regulation by the industry, covered everything from labeling and advertising to production and pricing, from restrictions on relationships between manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers to prevention of shipment of liquor into a state in violation of its laws. Roosevelt appointed Joseph H. Choate to head the federal alcohol agency, and the former VCL leader monitored the liquor industry in a relaxed fashion until the Supreme Court declared the NRA unconstitutional in 1935. The attempt to negotiate reciprocal import agreements proved unsuccessful, as foreign nations failed to cooperate and demand for wine and liquor imports became irresistible. The federal government gradually adopted a policy of concerning itself primarily, indeed after 1935 almost exclusively, with collection of liquor taxes. Regulation of the business fell almost entirely to the states."
The initial federal plan for the liquor industry became known just as the AAPA was preparing to disband. A highly suspicious executive committee authorized Jouett Shouse to make a statement at the December 5 victory dinner expressing concern about the codes "which give autocratic authority to a Federal agency to exercise the power of life and death over the industry, which enable the Federal Government to limit production and to fix prices in any arbitrary manner." Shouse recalled the demand of repeal groups that liquor control be returned to the states. "If I have any knowledge of the motives which animated the people of America in voting for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, one of the strongest was the desire to throw off the yoke of Federal liquor domination." In the liquor industry code written by federal officials, Shouse saw "possible danger of corruption and of political favoritism far beyond the opportunities created by the Eighteenth Amendment." The appointment of Joseph Choate to chair the Federal Alcohol Control Administration provided reassurance, but Shouse nevertheless insisted that the codes be modified. "Otherwise there may be ultimately fastened upon the people of America a degree of Federal autocracy which exceeds in its potentialities the pernicious practices associated with attempted enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment." Three days later, speaking in Philadelphia, Shouse repeated this message, complaining particularly that the industry involved had not been allowed to participate in the code writing, as was common practice under the NRA. He pointedly warned that "it may well be that the people of America will once more be compelled to register their protest against Federal control of the liquor industry."" AAPA fears about the degree of control which federal officials might try to exercise over the alcoholic beverage business proved to be exaggerated, but their instant expression revealed a great deal about how they viewed themselves and the Roosevelt administration.
Antiprohibitionist leaders felt that they had won the repeal fight because the American people shared their view that traditional constitutional arrangements, especially a limited degree of federal authority, ought to be continued. When all other issues were stripped away in the 1933 repeal convention elections, they believed, voters had overwhelmingly vindicated this principle. Now they began to see the very thing they had fought---Centralization in federal hands of authority to deal with local affairs-returning in the shape of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Roosevelt, they felt, had never appreciated their objections to national prohibition, had sought to ignore them, and was now proceeding in a contrary direction.
Rather than disband altogether, AAPA leaders decided to maintain a small Washington office under Stayton's direction, ostensibly to advise states on liquor control, but also to monitor administration policies on a broad front. "Recent emergency legislation and action have raised grave Constitutional doubts and problems analogous to those which have formed the basis of our work, and have led some of our Directors to suggest that our group should, in some proper fashion, be held together for a time, even after repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment," Stayton explained. The AAPA executive committee authorized this successor organization, Repeal Associates, because of concern that "Federal regulation and control might possibly become an entire refutation of the basis upon which repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment was sought by our Association." Stayton and the others worried that the new administration might be thinking of "an attempt at a continuance of Federal and State functions."" Repeal Associates, with an original executive committee composed entirely of former AAPA leaders, Pierre du Pont (chairman), Robert Cassatt, Benedict Crowell, Grayson Murphy, Ralph Shaw, William Stayton, and James Wadsworth, itself did little besides publish a quarterly journal." Nevertheless, it helped keep together for the time being a core of like-minded antiprohibitionists ready to launch other efforts to defend their viewpoint on governmental matters.
By the spring of 1934, some repeal leaders, among them John Raskob, the du Pont brothers, Jouett Shouse, William Stayton, and James Beck, were becoming upset with what they regarded as the increasingly radical course of the New Deal. They began discussing, among themselves and with a few others, the creation of a new national organization to call for "a return to the Constitution."" Goaded on by Raskob especially, during the summer they made arrangements and on August 22 announced formation of the American Liberty League. The Liberty League practically reincarnated the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. Jouett Shouse served as league president, Captain Stayton as secretary, and Grayson Murphy as treasurer. A small executive committee directed the Liberty League's affairs; its members included Shouse, Irenee du Pont, James Wadsworth, and Pauline Sabin as well as two former Democratic presidential nominees who had both been friendly to the AAPA, John W. Davis and Alfred E. Smith, and the only Republican to defeat Smith for the New York governorship, Nathan L. Miller. Raskob often met with this committee but preferred not to hold office. The Liberty League also established a larger national advisory board of prominent individuals to enhance its stature. This too contained many names from the repeal campaign, such as Representative James M. Beck, Mrs. Henry B. Joy and Mrs. James Ross Todd of the WONPR, Frederic R. Coudert, Jr., of the VCL, Edward F. Hutton, board chairman of General Foods Corporation and one of the Crusaders' leading financial backers, and Samuel Harden Church, Edward S. Harkness, Henry B. Joy, and Ralph Shaw of the AAPA. Pierre, Irenee, and Lammot du Pont and John Raskob became the Liberty League's heaviest contributors. Stayton used the AAPA and WONPR membership rolls to solicit members, while Sabin, Shouse, and Raskob were delegated to enlist the Crusaders as well. Although Al Smith, John W. Davis, and many of the prominent businessmen who joined had not been directly involved in an antiprohibition organization, the Liberty League's leadership, membership, organizational structure, publicity techniques, and doctrines nevertheless bore a striking resemblance to those of the AAPA.28
Liberty League president Shouse went to the White House late on the afternoon of August 15, 1934, for a private meeting he had requested with Franklin Roosevelt. He told Roosevelt that a powerful, nonpartisan group was being formed "to defend and uphold the Constitution of the United States and to gather and disseminate information that (1) will teach the necessity of respect for the rights of persons and property as fundamental to every successful form of government, and (2) will teach the duty of governments to encourage and protect individual and group initiative and enterprise, to foster the right to work, earn, save and acquire property, and to preserve the ownership and lawful use of property when acquired." According to Shouse, Roosevelt replied that he could "subscribe to that one hundred per cent" and, in Shouse's presence, told his press secretary to issue a statement of hearty approval when the league's establishment was announced." Nine days later, however, after the league had proclaimed its existence and received considerable initial attention, Roosevelt struck a much different note, one to which he would adhere thereafter whenever he spoke of the Liberty League. Dismissing its stated constitutional concerns, he told a press conference that the league appeared to lay too much stress on protection of property and too little on protection of the average citizen. Roosevelt reportedly repeated a remark made to him that the league's tenets seemed to be "love thy God but forget thy neighbor," and God in this case appeared to be property."' The president's comments reinforced the hostility and distrust which league leaders had felt toward him since the repeal campaign. Open warfare between the White House and the American Liberty League now began.
For the next two years, the Liberty League and the administration battled. On both sides the weapons were vitriol and scorn; the tactics, protestations of wounded virtue and escalating criticism of the opposition. The league issued a more than one-a-week barrage of pamphlets, radio broadcasts, leaflets, and bulletins, presenting statements by its leaders or reports by its research staff. Its attack concentrated on aspects of the New Deal, such as the NRA and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, which shifted governmental responsibility, in the league's eyes usurping congressional functions and placing legislative power in the hands of the bureaucratic structures of the executive branch. Roosevelt's criticism of the Supreme Court's overturning of the NRA and AAA provoked an impassioned defense from the league of the Court's constitutional privileges and responsibilities. Roosevelt appeared set on building an omnipotent presidency, the league charged. Other measures involving large expenditures for relief drew fire for violating the 1932 platform pledge of a balanced budget and for creating huge deficits, stimulating inflation, and requiring higher taxes, all of which would hamper business and retard recovery."
James Wadsworth expressed a typical league view in 1935 when he wrote, "The common man is beginning to understand that these experiments launched, presumably, for his benefit have not only failed to benefit him financially but have resulted in robbing him of a large portion of that liberty which the Constitution seeks to guarantee to him. I feel very much about the issue as I did about the eighteenth amendment, except that I realize that it is far greater in its ramifications." He told his former Senate and repealcrusade colleague, William Cabell Bruce, "We must of course bring to the common man the seriousness of some of the experiments but we must forever pound upon the fundamentals involved regardless of the price of wheat or cotton or the slaying of hogs, etc. These last are but incidents." Wadsworth was doing his part. "I mentioned some of these incidents last night over the radio, but I repeated as best I could the assertion that from the beginning these experiments were intended as the first great steps toward the complete transformation of our government and that as such they must be resisted else the transformation will be achieved and our liberties lost."
The climax of the assault came at a dinner of 2,000 Liberty Leaguers in Washington, January 25, 1936. Al Smith leveled a savage blast at the New Deal for turning class against class, establishing presidential autocracy with the aid of an army of bureaucrats, failing to carry out the 1932 Democratic platform, and introducing socialism. "The young brain trusters caught the Socialists in swimming and they ran away with their clothes" was one of the few of Smith's lines that had a light touch. His peroration was somber and apocalyptic: "There can only be one capitol, Washington or Moscow. There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clear, pure, fresh air of free America, or the foul air of communistic Russia. There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes or the flag of the godless union of the Soviets. There can be only one national anthem, 'The Star-Spangled Banner' or the 'Internationale.' There can be only one victor. If the Constitution wins, we win.""
The Roosevelt administration challenged the Liberty League from its inception, ignoring its constitutional arguments and focusing on its economic concerns. The president's August 1934 press conference remarks begat caustic references by other administration spokesmen to wealthy league members' selfish motives." In his state of the union address on January 3, 1936, Roosevelt described his critics as "unscrupulous money-changers" who steal the livery of great national constitutional ideals to serve discredited special interests. " These forces of "entrenched greed, " Roosevelt suggested, bore responsibility for the nation's economic collapse." He returned to the same themes in June during his speech accepting renomination: "These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. In vain they seek to hide behind the Flag and the Constitution.""
Roosevelt and his aides treated the Liberty League as a serious threat, especially in the winter of 1935-36, when the president's popularity reached an all-time low, when he was being severely criticized from both right and left, and when a difficult reelection campaign appeared to lie ahead. The White House knew that leaders of the league were the same people who had mustered far more support for prohibition repeal, both in the 1932 Democratic convention and the 1933 repeal elections, than FDR and his staff, usually astute judges of voter preferences, had expected. Using the same appeals to defend the Constitution against the New Deal which had proved so successful against national prohibition, could they again mobilize support? Having underestimated this group once, Roosevelt certainly did not want to make the same mistake twice.
James Farley, as Roosevelt's campaign manager, thought enough of the Liberty League threat to hire a full-time publicist for the Democratic national committee to do nothing but plan attacks on the league, or as he would label it, "the millionaire's union."" Throughout the campaign, the administration chose to concentrate its attention on the league as the source of Republican funds and ideas rather than criticize the party directly. The tactic of identifying the league as a group of selfish, wealthy businessmen who wished to return to pre-1932 conditions and of spotlighting them as the primary foe helped rally the left and wavering moderates to the New Deal. The administration continued to flail the Liberty League during the summer and fall of 1936, even though by then the league had clearly failed to generate a following.
The memory of the repeal episode not only helps explain Roosevelt's uncharacteristically vocal and harsh response to his critics, it also provides a rationale for the Liberty League's rather unusual behavior during 1936. Despite great unhappiness with New Deal policies and the way administration spokesmen behaved toward it, the league declined to sever all ties to the Democratic party and openly make common cause with the Republicans. For all of Al Smith's celebrated talk of "taking a walk" and Republican campaign contributions by several individuals prominent in the league, including the du Pont brothers, the league could not bring itself to officially support the Landon-Knox ticket. The league's former antiprohibitionists held fresh and vivid memories of how unsympathetically Republicans had treated their calls for a revival of traditional constitutional values and in contrast how much support had surfaced in the Democratic party between 1928 and 1932.
Memories of how earlier defeats at Democratic hands had been followed, despite Roosevelt's opposition, by their great platform victory in 1932 undoubtedly kindled the hopes of Liberty League veterans of the repeal crusade. League leaders made it clear that they believed the Democrats had temporarily fallen under the sway of an unrepresentative clique and might heed their voices of reason once again. On the eve of the 1936 Democratic convention, delegates received an appeal signed by Al Smith and four other prominent league members. The letter urged the convention to revive the economy by taking the hand of the government off business and balancing the federal budget and to preserve the constitutional separation of powers by preventing the president from making the Congress a rubber stamp or intimidating the judiciary. This "would necessarily involve the putting aside of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the substitution of some genuine Democrat."" Even later, on August 5, when the league stated that it would endorse neither party and neither candidate, it declared, "The League is neither an adjunct nor an ally of the Republican party." The league's own principles, it said, "harmonized" with the "excellent platform" adopted by the Democrats in 1932, but not "the New Deal party which for the moment has usurped control of the party of Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland, and Wilson."" Roosevelt's renomination by acclamation and his subsequent landslide reelection with over 60 percent of the popular vote shattered Liberty League illusions that they more accurately represented the Democratic party and the American people than the man in the White House.
The American Liberty League badly misjudged the extent of its own influence and the changes in issues, conditions, and political circumstances between 1932 and 1936. Their exhilarating victory in overturning the Eighteenth Amendment had led Liberty League organizers to make unwarranted assumptions that they accurately reflected popular concerns about constitutional principles and could again summon a large following. The bulk of repeal voters may not have shared the organized wets' motives, but at least they shared a common goal. When the league continued to preach the same ideas in the midst of a different and much greater crisis, it offered nothing of appeal to people whose overriding concern was obtaining economic relief and who were indifferent about constitutional niceties. In light of the depressed nation's grave economic and social problems, an organization which spoke in terms of preserving constitutional forms and limiting federal initiatives appeared to most people as crass, unfeeling, self-centered, and elitist. The wealth and status of many prominent league members only strengthened popular resentment under the circumstances.
Obviously repudiated, the Liberty League sank quickly from view following the 1936 election. The du Ponts, Raskob, Shouse, and Stayton along with most of their allies thereafter avoided politics. Three months after his reelection, Roosevelt launched an assault on the Supreme Court, which had been overturning New Deal legislation. The Liberty League did not rouse itself to criticize Roosevelt's court-packing plan, although this issue would certainly have drawn its fire earlier. Shouse later claimed this was deliberate strategy to let administration supporters feel free to oppose the proposal rather than force them to defend the president against attack. If so, the league displayed more restraint and tactical flexibility than ever before. Buoyed by his great victory, Roosevelt clearly did not worry that the Liberty League could mount a conservative constitutional defense with the strength to rebuff him. Ironically, others filled the departed leaguer's places, using many of its familiar anticentralization arguments in opposing the court reorganization bill, and the bill floundered. The most striking rejection of Roosevelt's conception of expanded executive authority occurred in the absence of those most clearly identified as its critics.
The transformation of the antiprohibition movement into a shrill, embittered, and ineffectual political splinter group distorted its historical image. The Roosevelt administration's use of the Liberty League as a Political whipping boy further blackened that reputation. Prohibitionists were happy to blame their defeat on a little group of insensitive opponents of the public welfare, skillful propagandists and political manipulators who had considered only their own selfish financial interests. The image of the Liberty League having been interposed, no one disputed such charges. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment found itself discredited and soon largely forgotten. The Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, one of the first significant postsuffrage mass political activities of American women, fell into obscurity as well.
The severe condemnation by New Dealers and prohibitionists of those who had led the prohibition repeal movement provides no more accurate a picture of the character and influence of the organized wets than does the lavish praise they received during the December 1933 ratification celebrations. Given the importance of the change in national policy which the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment represented, their influence and motives merit a fairer appraisal. Several important facts emerge. The major antiprohibition societies, although they may have had little in common with the average citizen and no feeling for his real concerns, nevertheless created a set of unusual circumstances which allowed popular opinion on the Eighteenth Amendment to be expressed in a politically effective fashion. Furthermore, the prohibition episode, and wet groups' role in it, reshaped partisan politics and attitudes toward constitutional reform. Finally, the wet organizations influenced America's postrepeal pattern of liquor regulation.
The general public's widespread dissatisfaction with national prohibition became evident at least by the mid-1920s. Public opinion on the dry law cannot be precisely measured, but the flow of illicit liquor, the reluctance of legislators and voters in state referendums to authorize enforcement measures, and the declining strength of temperance organizations all provide signs of the popular mood. With discontent increasing, some alert politicians took up repeal on their own as a popular and rewarding cause. Urban and ethnic political leaders such as Anton Cermak and Adolph J. Sabath in Chicago, Fiorello LaGuardia and Al Smith in New York, David 1. Walsh in Boston, and a handful of others saw value in opposing prohibition. But with the constitutional amending requirements creating the widespread belief that repeal was politically impossible, most legislators avoided the subject. Public unhappiness needed a vehicle, a means of visibly, measurably demonstrating its strength before it would be taken seriously. The first significant contribution of the wet organizations, then, lay in their making opposition to prohibition tangible. By articulating basic objections to the liquor ban and showing that large numbers of responsible citizens held such views, the AAPA made repeal an issue to be earnestly considered rather than dismissed as hopeless fantasy or the province of law-breakers. The WONPR demonstraicd that not all women were dry and thus that women did not automatically render repeal unreachable.
The reasoning of the mass of Americans who rejected the Eighteenth Amendment did not, of course, necessarily follow that of the leaders of repeal organizations. Undoubtedly a wide variety of motives were involved. Traditional explanations which focus solely on ethnic, religious, or urban-versusrural concerns do, however, appear too narrow. Also excessively restrictive are explanations which look no further than the desire for a drink or the economic distress of the great depression.
A mood of crisis, a feeling of threat, a fear of social disintegration permeated the criticism which antiprohibition organizations aimed at the liquor ban. They did not view the world of the 1920s with the complacency and satisfaction often thought to characterize popular attitudes during that decade. Instead, the sense of a society in turmoil, teetering between anarchy and authoritarianism, gripped them. Among the vast number of voters who endorsed repeal in 1933, as among the wet leadership, could be found many old-stock, middle-class Americans who opposed changes which disrupted their stable social and political world. The nearly three-fourths of the electorate which eventually voted to abolish national prohibition was much larger than the proportion of the population which used alcoholic beverages before or after 1933. Thus a desire for a return to tried and trusted governmental arrangements of the past must have played a part in popular thinking.
William Stayton, John Raskob, Pauline Sabin, the du Ponts, and most of their colleagues represented a social and business elite, but they generally lacked political experience or sophistication. These novices in politics felt certain that states' rights and decentralized, limited government were important in their own right. Such principles protected social, political, and economic relationships from which they benefitted and which they sincerely felt were good and healthy for America. Social upheaval, loss of respect for law, and destruction of assumed constitutional protections loomed to them as foremost among the unacceptable costs of national prohibition. Wet leaders could claim as much old-stock, middle-class respectability as drys, and they were prepared to defend their vision of traditional American values just as righteously as temperance crusaders. Antiprohibitionists diverged from the law's supporters principally in their unwillingness to accept the progressive notion of using federal power to reshape social patterns and individual behavior. They would accept strict regulation and even government operation of the liquor industry, providing it were carried out at the state or local level where the people directly affected, or at least people of standing in the community like themselves, could determine policies to be followed. In agitating for an end to the Eighteenth Amendment, they did not simply seek their own economic betterment, as often charged. Organized wets did offer economic reasons for repeal during the depression, but arguments which appeared during the final stages of the campaign and in an understandable context should not have their importance exaggerated. Their personal backgrounds in business, law, and government led antiprohibitionist leaders much earlier to a shared distrust of federal activism with its concomitant loss of local decision-making power. Economic considerations assuredly played a part in shaping these strongly Jeffersonian attitudes, but such ideas took on a life of their own, to be advanced without reference to any economic sources.
Single-minded pressure exerted by antiprohibition societies on the major political parties, and especially their role in pasting a wet label on the Democratic party, eventually proved very significant. Their persistent efforts finally obtained a means for popular opposition to national prohibition, whatever its motivation, to express itself. The Great Depression generated new arguments and enthusiasm for repeal, but unless both voters and politicians perceived alternatives at the polls in 1932, the depression might not have contributed much to repeal. However, Republican-Democratic polarization on the repeal issue coincided with a depression election. When voters threw out a dry Republican administration and installed a Democratic president and Congress, observers considered it not only a demand for new economic policies but also for repeal. Legislators moved quickly once they perceived the public verdict. The differentiation of the two parties on prohibition was taking place regardless of the depression, but the juxtaposition produced one of those rare situations where the electoral mandate seemed unmistakable. Very likely, repeal was only possible under such circumstances. At the very least, it was dramatically hastened by them.
Finally, the VCL and the AAPA shaped and greatly speeded the repeal process once it was underway. Ever since 1919 wet leaders had been sensitive to the significance of the procedure which Congress had selected for ratification of an amendment, and they successfully demanded use of the untried state-convention method. By pressing for congressional submission of a repeal amendment before the 1933 lame-duck session ended, then by working out confusing legal technicalities so that ratification conventions could be held quickly, antiprohibition leaders reduced the time required to ratify the Twenty-first Amendment by many months, probably years. No constitutional amendment had ever run the ratification gauntlet so quickly, even though all others used the less complicated method of legislative approval.
The extraordinary achievement of altering the Constitution led to the overestimation of repeal leaders' power and influence. They themselves misjudged the extent to which the public shared their commitment to traditional forms and principles of government. Frightened by steps taken by the New Deal to relieve economic and social distress, these former wets remained blind to the changing nature of their society and the fact that not all were as well served as they by the existing system. The AAPA and WONPR had elicited tremendous electoral support for ending the federal liquor ban, but, as the Liberty League episode demonstrated, they failed to comprehend that many voters simply used channels which they had provided and did not also subscribe to all their particular motives for seeking repeal. When more basic matters of social and economic well-being arose, traditional constitutional arrangements simply were not important. Prohibition repeal's success in rolling back the onrushing tide of federal centralization and activism during the 1930s eventually appeared a unique triumph to its greatest advocates.
Yet the antiprohibition leadership may have accomplished more than they realized. Repeal and the continued presence of its principal architects impressed Franklin Roosevelt. During the New Deal's early years, when many significant legislative programs were being developed, the president seemed wary of the American Liberty League. The extent to which Roosevelt's assessment of the political situation between 1933 and 1936 shaped his behavior and tempered his reform proposals cannot be measured precisely, but his confidence and boldness definitely increased as soon as the 1936 verdict was delivered and the Liberty League collapsed. Had it not been for the national prohibition episode, the course of the New Deal might have been different.
In the final analysis, then, what did the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and passage of the Twenty-first Amendment signify? In the first place, it represented a reaction against some progressive ideas of law-making. National prohibition came to be generally regarded as a serious mistake. The
failure to halt widespread consumption of alcoholic beverages simply by passing a federal law forbidding their use helped discredit the view that society could be reformed and uplifted simply through passage of the proper statutes. The prohibition episode helped legislators and reformers recognize that laws must be voluntarily accepted by the vast majority of those affected in order to succeed. Changes in commonplace social and cultural patterns could not be imposed otherwise. Enforcing a widely unpopular law on an uncooperative public had proved impossible. After prohibition, American lawmakers became cautious about launching another major attempt to reshape individual behavior. The New Deal, for instance, setting a pattern of reform which would persist for decades, confined itself to efforts to remold the institutions of finance, commerce, industry, and government so as to improve people's economic, social, and political opportunities. Roosevelt's influential advisor Rex Tugwell acknowledged that "the New Deal is attempting to do nothing to people and does not seek at all to alter their way of life, their wants and desires. " If behavior modification occurred as a result of government action, it was an indirect result of legislation with more limited aspirations. The soaring progressive sense of the possibilities of legislation was dampened, if never totally extinguished.
A more specific reaction against progressive tendencies took place as the prohibition episode also changed twentieth-century attitudes about amending the Constitution of the United States. After a century during which the Constitution had been amended only three times, numerous progressive amendments were passed or proposed during the 1910s. Direct election of Senators, a federal income tax, and women's suffrage gained approval in the same decade as national prohibition. Reaction against the antiliquor amendment blunted enthusiasm for further constitutional innovation, including the proposed amendment prohibiting child labor which gained Congressional approval in 1924 but languished in state legislatures thereafter. The prohibition experience helped set some limits, although imprecise ones, to the amending power. Moreover, the view gained acceptance that ordinary legislation did not belong in the Constitution, even if the goal was to put it beyond the reach of a simple majority. The pace of amendment slowed again.
Prohibition also clarified some relationships between the Constitution and democracy. The Founding Fathers had deliberately made constitutional change difficult by putting it beyond the reach of a simple majority. The procedure employed for the first time in ratifying the Twenty-first Amendment demonstrated that citizens could be directly involved in a constitutional reform. The quasi-referendum convention ratification system showed itself to be fairly easy to implement, and, most importantly, it produced a general satisfaction for once that the Constitution reflected the popular will. Nevertheless, Congress, which authorized convention ratification only under extreme pressure in 1933, has not chosen to repeat the process since.
While the history of prohibition repeal demonstrated the difficulty of overturning a constitutional provision and the massive, sustained effort required, it also showed that the venerable charter could be changed-and rapidly. Only twenty years elapsed from the time the Anti-Saloon League first proposed constitutional prohibition of alcoholic beverages to its passage and subsequent removal from the Constitution. The amending procedure posed no insurmountable obstacle or defense when an aroused majority wanted something badly and found means to express their wishes. Those who consider the Constitution and Bill of Rights an absolute protection of their interests should carefully consider the implications of this.
On another front, the reaction against national prohibition helped bring about one of the great shifts in American partisan politics: the emergence of the Democratic party as the nation's normal governing party after nearly a century of minority status. Prohibition brought to political consciousness a group of men and women who turned to the Democrats because of the prohibition issue, who helped rebuild the party after its 1928 defeat, and who helped label it the party of repeal. The great masses who turned to the Democrats in the 1920s and early 1930s, becoming the well-spring of its continued power, were attracted in part by the party's position on repeal. Ironically, the leaders of the antiprohibition movement rapidly became disenchanted with the Democratic administration they helped elect. Nevertheless, bonds they helped forge persisted long after their goal was reached, and the men and women of the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment, the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform, and the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers were forgotten.
Finally, ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment marked the admission that another in the more-than-century-long series of efforts to deal with the serious social problem of alcoholic beverage abuse had failed. Organized opponents of national prohibition showed concern for creating a temperate society and establishing more effective control over the liquor traffic, but they foreclosed certain approaches to a solution. They contended, and an overwhelming number of Americans eventually went on record as agreeing, that federally compelled abstinence offered neither a desirable nor a workable solution. In the process, they rejected a compromise often suggested during the 1920s, that is, modification of prohibition to allow beer and wine while continuing to outlaw more potent distilled spirits. There can be no certainty as to how well such a restriction would have worked, since neither the drys who insisted on a total alcohol ban in the Volstead Act nor the wets who demanded absolute repeal gave it a chance to be tested. Furthermore, by their opposition to federal solutions, the wets bear, willingly of course, considerable responsibility for the fragmented pattern of liquor control which emerged in the United States after repeal. To be sure, the antiprohibitionists cannot be held responsible for the abuse of intoxicants which went
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