Friday, January 17, 2020

The shameful occurrence one hundred years ago today, 17 January 1920.

One hundred years ago, today, the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution took effect, on 17 January 1920.

Its issue, National Prohibition, would remain in effect for thirteen years. Beer, wine, and distilled spirits had become unconstitutional.

18th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

Section 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 the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 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 actually had passed a year earlier, on 16 January 1919, when the Nebraska legislature became the 36th state to approve the amendment, satisfying the Constitution's 2/3-of-the-states requirement. The amendment's wording mandated a year's delay until implementation. Praise be to the enlightened citizens of Connecticut and Rhode Island: their states were the only to vote nay.

To this day, the 18th Amendment remains the only amendment to the Constitution that eliminates rights. It did not, however, prohibit the drinking of "intoxicating beverages," 'merely' their manufacture, inter-state distribution, and sale. In its collective wisdom, Congress, authorized by section 2, defined an intoxicating beverage as anything containing in excess of one half of one percent alcohol by volume. That was, of course, just enough.

Prohibition would not be repealed until 5 December 1933, with the adoption of the superseding 21st Amendment.

Who or what was responsible? Distilling an answer might be reductive sociology, but four movers stand above the others: the alcohol industry itself, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, The Anti-Saloon League, and the 16th Amendment.

About the last, first. Since the Civil War, the federal government had been growing hand-in-hand with a bourgeoning population. Revenue from excise taxes and other fees had become insufficient. The 16th Amendment, ratified in 1916, constitutionalized the income tax, which up to that time, the Supreme Court had repeatedly disallowed. Its passage made excise taxes less integral. (Were that viewpoint as sanguine today!)

The temperance movement had been growing in strength for a hundred years, especially so in the early 20th-century. Its proponents laid crime, health problems, spousal abuse, and other social ills at the feet of the alcohol industry, which —with such as 'gin joints'— was far from blameless. And the beer industry, seeing beer as indeed the beverage of temperance —that is, not of prohibition but of moderation— did little, and too late, to stem the tide.

But maybe the arch-villain of the story is Wayne Wheeler, president of the Anti-Saloon League. Single-minded in his crusade against alcoholic beverages, Wheeler became, at one point, powerful enough to influence national elections. He was to alcohol as the virulently racist Harry Anslinger later was to marijuana.

The Woman's Christian Temperance Union continues today, albeit in more quiescent form. The Anti-Saloon League also survives, but now known more politely as the American Council on Alcohol Problems. And income tax? Well, you know that story.


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