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How Alcohol Prohibition Was Ended

You saved the very
foundation of our Government. No man can tell where we
would have gone, or to what we would have fallen, had not
this repeal been brought about. -Letter to the VCL, 1933
This is a story about a small, remarkable group of lawyers
who took it upon themselves, as a self- appointed
committee, to propel a revolution in a drug policy: the
repeal of the 18th Amendment. In 1927, nine prominent
New York lawyers associated themselves under the
intentionally-bland name, “Voluntary Committee of
Lawyers,” declaring as their purpose ” to preserve the spirit
of the Constitution of the United States by bringing
about the repeal of the so-called Volstead Act and the
Eighteenth Ammendment.” With the modest platform they
thus commanded, reinforced by their significant stature in
the legal community, they undertook first to draft and
promote repeal resolutions for local and state bar
asssociations. Their success culminated with the American
Bar Association calling for repeal in 1928, after scores of
city and state bar associations in all regions of the country
had spoken unambiguously, in words and ideas cultivated,
shaped, and sharpened by the VCL. As it turned out, this
successwas but prelude to their stunnung achievement
several years later. Due in large to the VCL”s extraordinary
work, the 18tg Amendment was, in less than a year,
surgically struck from the Constitution. Repeal was a
reality. The patient was well. People could drink. Here is
how it happened. Climaxing decades of gathering hostility
towards salloons and moral outrage over the general
degeneracy said to be flowing from bottles and kegs, the
Cocstitution of the United States had been amended,
effective 1920, to progibit the manufacture and sale of
“intoxicating liquors.” the Volstead Act, the federal statute
implementing the prohibitionamindmint, progibited
commerce in beer as well. At first prohibition was popular
among those who had suppored it, and tolerated by the
others. But before long, unmistakable grumbling was heard
in the cities. To meet the uninterrupted demand for alcohol,
there sprang up bathtub ginworks and basement stills, tight
and discrete illegal supply networks, and speakeasies:
secret, illegal bars remembered chiefly today as where, for
the first time, women were seen smoking in public.

Commerse in alcohol plunged underground, and soon fell
under the control of thugs and gangsters, whose
organizations often acquired their merchandise legally in
Canada. Violence aften settled commercial differences-
necessarily, it might be said, as suppliers and distributors
were denied the services of lawyers, insurance companies,
and the civil courts. On the local level, widesspread
disobedience of the progibition laws by otherwise
law-abiding citizens produced numerous arrests. Courts
were badly clogged, in large part because nearly all
defendents demanded jury trials, confident that a jury of
their peers was likely to view their plight sympathetically.

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With the growth of well-organized and serious national
anti-Prohibition groups like Americans Against the
Prohibition Amendment and the Women’s Organization for
National Prohibition Reform, popular support for repeal
grew geometrically during the thirteen years of Prohibition.

In th midst of the 1932 presidential election campaign, it
erupted. It was summer. Millions were broken from
economic depression, beleaguered by crime and
corruption, and thirsty. As expected, the Republicans
nominated the incumbent President, Herbert Hoover, who
was pledged to support Prohibition. The VCL made a
stalwart effort to gain a repeal plank in the platform, taking
the debate as far as the convention floor, where they were
turned away by a preponderance of delegates. The sitution
was much different with the Democrats. Governor Franklin
D. Roosevelt of New York, who led in the delegate count,
had carefully avoided taking a position on repeal. At the
convention, a successful floor fight produced a pro-repeal
plank- drafted and defended by the VCL- in the
Democratic platform, which FDR unambiguously endorsed
in his acceptance speech. “Tjis convention wants repeal,”
he declared. “Your candidate wants repeal.” During the
election campaign, FDR made one unequivocal speech
endorsing repeal. Otherwise, both candidates successfully
aboided the issue, despite- or perhaps because of- their
having takin opposite positions. “Politics is the art of
changing the subject,” observed Walter Mondale many
years later. When the only thing standing in the way of
repeal was the election of FDR, thousnads of “wets” and
hundreds of “wet” organizations moved unambiguously
behind the Democrat. The message was clear: Roosevelt
meant repeal, and repeal meant Roosevelt. People wanted
both, and Roosevelt triumphed in the election. The Number
of “wets” in Congress grew significantly. In the nine states,
voters passed referenda repealing the state prohibition
laws. This is when th VCL stepped forward and took on
the remarkable leadership and responsibility for which they
were so uniquelyequipped. It required no particular insight
into the nature of democracy to know that when the weight
of public opinion demanded repeal of Prohibition,
Prohibition would be repealed. The question was how.

Certainly, lest the repeal process- like any important
undertaking- become mired in political and legal
entanglements, a thorough and solid legal plan was
essential. For years, repeal advocates had urged that the
repeal question should be resolved by conventions in the
states, which is one of two methods prescribed in the
Constitution for ratifying amendments. Problem was, this
method had never been used. Always, the matter of
amending the Constitution had been (and to this day has
been) decided by state legislatures. But to “wets,” that was
out of the question, as state legislatures were notoriousy
“dry,” being dominated by rural, fundamentalist interests,
passionate in their defense of progibition. (The “one man,
one vote” rule would not become law for another thirty-one
years.) The repeal resolution had to bypass state
legislatures and go th popularly- elected conventions, if it
were to succeed. But by whom were such conventions to
be called? How were delegated to be chosen? When and
where were they to convene? Who would preside? By
what rules should the convention conduct itself? What
rights and priveleges would delegates have? How were
conflicts between state and federal law to be resolved?
Heavy questions, these and neither Congress nor any state
had spoken on the subject. Enter the VCL. Conferring with
eminent Constitutional scholars, conducting exhaustive legal
and historical research, feverishly circulating drafts of
statutes, memoranda, briefs, summaries, etc.- the working
drawings of legal change- the VCL quickly produced a
prototype state statute, which dealt with all of the
organizational problims involved in setting up Constitutional
camventions in the states. It was as invulnerable to legal
challenge as the best legal- minds could make it. Called
“truly representative,” the conventions were carefully set up
to mirror exactly the priferences of voters. This was
accomplished by voters electing delegates pledged for or
against repeal, and apportioning delegates based for or
against vote. Thus the convention process became
essentially a two- step referendum: voters would speak,
and delegates would vote accordingly. In no way were the
conventions to be deliberative bodies. The pretense of
debvate was not to stand in the way of repeal. Copies of
the draft bills were sent to every governor and legislative
leader in all the states. Utilizing their impressive network of
affiliate- members throughout the forty-eight states, as well
as their expuisite and plucky legal skills, the VCL provided
expert witnesses for legislative hearings, submitted thorough
legal briefs, defended legalchallenges, answered
Constitutional questions- in short, enable states to prepare
for the day that Congress would pass a repeal resolution
and send it to the states for ratification. Congress finally
loosened the steamroller on February 20, 1933, an by
December 5, in thirty-six states (the necessary
three-fourths) legislation setting up conventions had been
enacted, the conventions had been called, delegates had
been elected and convened, and repeal resolution had
passed! the final rollcall vote, in Utah, was eagerly
monitored by millions over a national radio broadcast.

Nearly all the states that ratified the repeal resolution relied
heavily on the prototype statute promulgated by the VCL.

Many enacted it verbatim, others borrowed from it heavily.

Several hours after Utah ratified the 21st Amendment,
while millions of Americans were celebrating, the VCL
treasurer quietly balanced the books by making a final
contribution from his own pocket in the amount of $6.66,
and closed them permanently. Who were they? At its peak,
the VCL claimed around 3,500 “affiliate” lawyers in all
states among its members. The organization was managed,
however, by tight coterie of nine impeccably established
“white shoe” lawyers. For the entire term of its existence,
the VCL was chaired by Joseph H. Choate, Jr., son of
Theodore Roosevelt’s ambassador to England, and an
eminent Park Avenue lawyer. The organization’s treasurer
was Harrison Tweed, another Harvard/Harvard man, one
of the country’s most successful lawyers, and a prime
mover in many important civic causes. Choate and Tweed
and seven others, similarily pedigreed, called themselves
the Executive Committee, and prudently managed the
affaurs of the organization. They were elite, but by no
means elitist. They solicited affiliates in every state and
participation by as many lawyers as possible, using ads
placed in lawyers’ magazines. very inquiry brought a
thoughtful and deliberate response, as well as an appeal for
financial support. The executive committee hired an
Executive Secretary, Mrs. H.P. Rhoudy, who ran the
national office, and visited many state capitals, inlisting local
lawyers and political figures in the cause. Her dispatches
back to New York ring of diplomacy at its best. What
motivated these men? Their formal corporate charter,
adopted in 1927, declared their grievances: The Eighteenth
Amendment and the Volstead Act violate the basic
principles of our law and government and encroach upon
the powers properly reserved to the States and the people.

The attempt to enforce them has been productive of such
evils and abuses as are necessarily incident to violation of
those principles, insluding disrespect for laws; obstruction
of the due administration of justice; corruption of public
officials; abuse of legal process; resort by the Government
to improper and illegal acts int procurement of evidence;
infringement of such constitutional guarantees as immunity
from double jeopardy and illegal search and seizure.

Surely, the VCL executive committee were men of sociey
where Prohibition was decidely unpopular, but their
declared objective was to exise from the Constitution a
vexatious and festering sore. When they achieved that
objective, they disbanded. What are the lessons of their
success? Certainly, timing, preparation, and the creed of
any good lobbyist: that one doesn’t have to be a politician
to make policy. A more foreboding lesson is that the
United States Constitution, upon which we ultimately rely
for the preservation of our form of government and our
sacred individual liberties, is highly vulnerable to the force
public opinion. If the 18th Amendment can be repealed in a
mere 288 days, cannot the First, or the Fifth? As the VCL
prototype stature was not specific to repeal, the mechanism
they helped put in place likely remains on the book in all
states that enacted it. Leaders of the VCL were railroad
lawyers. What railroads paid them handsomely for, they
did for the public gratis. They saw a train coming, and
hurriedly secured all the rights and easements necessary if it
were to reach its destination, avoiding a morass of
debilitating lawsuits and other legal complications. Had they
not made this vital contribution, ratification may well have

Category: History


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