Thursday, December 5, 2019

The Politics of Prohibition's Repeal

Today marks the 86th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition. Before December 5, 1933 the production, transportation and sale of beverage alcohol was illegal in all 48 states. It wasn’t just the law, it was part of the Constitution, the 18th Amendment. Getting rid of that would take lawyers, lots of them. Rising to the task, nine prominent New York attorneys formed the Voluntary Committee of Lawyers in 1927 to get the ball rolling. Their main contribution was designing a system of state constitutional conventions to ratify the repeal amendment, rather than putting it before the state legislatures.

Broader public messaging was handled by the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment.

Repeal was an issue in the 1928 presidential election. As a big city Catholic, Democrat Al Smith didn’t need to declare his support for repeal; it was assumed. Republican Herbert Hoover endorsed Prohibition but promised, if elected, to appoint a commission to study the effectiveness of Prohibition enforcement. He won and did.

In its 1931 report, the Wickersham Commission concluded that:

"There have been more sustained pressures to enforce this law than on the whole has been true of any other federal statute, although this pressure in the last four or five years has met with increasing resistance as the sentiment against prohibition has developed.”

It noted that, “a very large number of respectable citizens in most of our large cities and in several states” now supported repeal, and contrasted this with the attitude toward narcotics, whose prohibition was still universally supported.

Notwithstanding their analysis, all but one of the eleven commissioners opposed the repeal of the 18th Amendment, the entry of the Federal or state governments into the liquor business, or even the modification of national prohibition to permit the sale of light wines and beer, a popular compromise being proposed at the time.

The 1932 presidential election was largely a referendum on President Hoover’s response to the Great Depression, but the Democrats had endorsed repeal and the Republicans had not. As he accepted his nomination at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Roosevelt, a one-time dry, said, “I congratulate this convention for having had the courage, fearlessly to write into its declaration of principles what an overwhelming majority here assembled really thinks about the 18th Amendment. This convention wants repeal. Your candidate wants repeal. And I am confident that the United States of America wants repeal.”

Roosevelt’s election virtually assured passage of a repeal amendment, but ratification remained a concern. Congress passed the 21st Amendment in February of 1933. The measure then had to be ratified by 36 states, three-fourths of what was then a 48-state union. This was accomplished on November 7. Congress on December 5 declared the amendment adopted and Prohibition was over. The Constitution had been changed in 18 months, a new record.

After repeal a new regulatory regimen for the industry was established, most of which is still with us today. Labeling standards were set nationally while codes to control marketing and distribution were enacted by individual states. Some states fixed wholesale and retail prices, others let market forces rule. All manufacturers, distributors and retailers were licensed. Manufacturers were prohibited from selling directly to retailers. Every alcohol control authority–federal, state and local–got a piece of the tax pie.


Tim Cuthbertson said...

Excellent research, Chuck, and well presented, Thank you.

Anonymous said...

And we still have not recovered! Prohibition, will its nightmare ever be over?