Guest Essayist: Joerg Knipprath, Professor of Law at Southwestern Law School
1: After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.
2: The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
3: This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
Prohibition was not a novel idea in 1919. It was part of a social reform movement, the first waves of which had lapped American shores during the middle of the 19th century. It was a movement different from the ecclesiastical Great Awakenings that had surged periodically through the American colonies, though it shared some connection with those movements. Still, these reforms were sufficiently novel and widespread to lead Ralph Waldo Emerson to characterize them as a “war between intellect and affection” and its adherents as “young men…born with knives in their brain.”
Thirteen states had passed laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol by 1857, including, incredibly from a 20th-century perspective, New York. Following the Civil War and abolition of slavery, the enthusiasm for social reforms in general was exhausted in favor of a general yearning for a return to normalcy. But it returned with a vengeance towards the end of the century, with prohibitionists joining women’s rights groups to combat “demon rum.” That urge fed into a broader social movement to better the human condition and, indeed, human nature. While reformation of the human soul previously had been mainly the province of religion, the remaking of human nature had become, by the 20th century, as much a secular as a religious project. The growing middle class, “social science” movements in the study of human institutions, modern psychology, and old-style political power calculations combined in the Progressive Movement. Its adherents sought to improve human beings, as well as institutions, whether or not those human beings or institutions wanted to be improved.
The Progressives looked to the power of the state, not to individuals or private groups, to get things done efficiently. For many of their leaders, such as Princeton professor (and eventual U.S. President) Woodrow Wilson and his later advisers, such as Herbert Croly, the old institutions, such as the Constitution and the courts, were anachronisms that prevented the emergence of a better order, led by an enlightened and [P]rogressive elite. To achieve what critics then and now have characterized as totalitarianism of more or less soft type, these Progressives looked to the law as the tool to forge the new order. Law was no longer a series of constructs that reflected an inherent reason and that was useful to provide some rules to maintain a basic order in society. For the Progressives, the law was nothing less than an extension of social policy.
Alcohol prohibition also reflected the Progressive impulse to national mobilization to address issues, and the desire for a strong national government led by a strong and charismatic leader. It is not coincidental that these traits were also found in various continental European mass movements that sought to establish the new man, freed of traditional human weaknesses. The American version may have lacked some of the more pugnacious aspects of its European counterparts in Italy, Spain, Germany, and the Soviet Union, but it was close enough. As the National Review writer Jonah Goldberg has written, the period was one episode of America’s “Liberal Fascism.”
Prohibition previously had primarily been the project of the states, with Congress and the Supreme Court assisting “dry” states by declaring that their prohibitions did not violate federal control over interstate commerce. By 1913, in the Webb-Kenyon Act, Congress went further, by affirmatively forbidding the shipment of liquor in interstate commerce into dry states. Thus, prohibition became a national matter, a development also reflected in federal criminalization of drug trafficking, gambling, and prostitution. All of those were vices that the Progressives (just like their reformist ancestors) saw as products of a craven humanity that needed to be—and could be—reformed, while their critics saw such activities as necessary social safety valves, inevitable for societies composed of humans that could, at most, be nudged towards slight and gradual enlightenment at the cost of great personal effort of which most people were incapable. For the critics, laws against such behavior had the same effect as telling the tides not to come in (or commanding the sea levels not to rise).
By 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment completed the process by prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors within the United States. Later that year, Congress acted on the authority it had under that amendment and enforced national prohibition through the Volstead Act. That law set the maximum permissible alcohol content at 0.5%, an amount that outlawed anything stronger than juice from stored oranges.
In light of the negative historical reputation that has developed around Prohibition, it bears remembering that the concept was hugely popular initially. It took barely one year for the needed 36 states to approve the 18th Amendment. However, that support turned to opposition within a very brief time, in the process raising a number of constitutional questions about that amendment specifically, and about the constitutional amendment process more generally.
A novel attribute of the 18th Amendment was a clause that required the amendment to be adopted within 7 years. When the issue was presented to the Supreme Court in Dillon v. Gloss in 1921, Justice Willis Van Devanter upheld this limitation for a unanimous court. Van Devanter concluded this clause was not part of the amendment, but part of Congress’s resolution of submission of the amendment to the states. Therefore, such a clause did not violate Article V, which deals with amendment of the Constitution.
Van Devanter’s opinion was important for the proposed Equal Rights Amendment of the 1970s. When that amendment failed to gain passage during the time (7 years) set, Congress by a majority vote—but not two-thirds—added three years to the timetable for adoption. While this action arguably was constitutional in light of Dillon, it came at a political price. Opponents made an effective case that the extension was political overreaching, at best, and unconstitutional, at worst.
The Dillon court had also declared that it was a good idea that constitutional amendments be adopted within a certain time-frame, to reflect a dominant political consensus at a particular time. Van Devanter noted that there were still several proposed amendments that had not been ratified, including two from the original twelve in the Bill of Rights. He questioned whether such an amendment would be legitimate, if adopted after such long dormancy. That hypothetical became concrete when the 27th Amendment (dealing with Congressional pay changes) was adopted by the requisite number of states in 1992, after two centuries of constitutional purgatory.
Interestingly, Van Devanter may have had a point because the practice has been not to allow states to rescind their approval of an amendment even though the amendment may not have been adopted on the date of the attempted rescission. Of course, states are free to approve after having previously refused to adopt the proposal. This one-way ratchet in favor of approval has little to recommend it jurisprudentially over the opposite view. It was simply the product of political necessity, when Congress refused to allow states to rescind approval of the 14th Amendment because the unpopular and controversial amendment’s congressional supporters needed every state they could to get it past the constitutional finish line.
Another curiosity of the 18th Amendment was that, as disillusion set in, many of the new opponents were Progressives and elites of all political stripes. Due to the perceived difficulty of repealing the amendment, they urged nullification by having the states refuse to enforce the federal laws and decline to make their own. The irony of their position was not lost on them, as they openly appealed to the success that Southerners had enjoyed with their refusal to enforce the 14th and 15th Amendments. Sounding like John C. Calhoun and other 19th-century Southern apostles of nullification, these good liberals distinguished between lawbreaking and orderly, principled, majoritarian nullification.
Another question involved whether the Ohio legislature could approve the 18th Amendment when a non-binding popular referendum had resoundingly rejected it. In Hawke v. Smith in 1920, Justice William Day’s opinion for a unanimous Supreme Court held that the legislature, voting on a constitutional amendment was performing a federal function under Article V, not a state function. Since Article V did not provide for popular referenda, the voters of Ohio had nothing to say about the matter, a proposition of some delicacy, since state legislative elections rarely turn on how a legislator proposes to vote on a federal constitutional amendment that, typically, is not submitted until after such election.
Finally, a number of opponents urged that any amendment, such as the 18th, that curtailed individual rights, must be adopted by state constitutional conventions, not state legislatures. Though it was not expressly required by Article V, such had been the approach for the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court rejected that argument unanimously in U.S. v. Sprague in 1931, but the argument had such political appeal that Congress directed that the repeal of prohibition through the 21st Amendment be decided by state constitutional conventions.
An expert on constitutional law, Prof. Joerg W. Knipprath has been interviewed by print and broadcast media on a number of related topics ranging from recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to presidential succession. He has written opinion pieces and articles on business and securities law as well as constitutional issues, and has focused his more recent research on the effect of judicial review on the evolution of constitutional law. He has also spoken on business law and contemporary constitutional issues before professional and community forums. Read more from Professor Knipprath at: http://www.tokenconservative.com/.