The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Prohibition: another case for treatment

Happening on the chapter in Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday on the subject (p245ff), and find the words that have characterised the venture for me:
The country accepted it not only willingly, but almost absent-mindedly.

He goes on
When the Eighteenth Amendment came before the Senate, in 1917, it was passed by a lop-sided vote after only thirteen hours of debate...

In fact, the vote [1] was 65-20.

Now, legislating in haste and repenting at leisure is a classic problem with popular democracy. But, with prohibition, there was no haste: the Senate vote overriding Woodrow Wilson's veto of the Volstead Act only passed on October 2 1919, 26 months after the amendment resolution became law.

Allen says
so half-hearted and ineffective were the forces of the opposition and so completely did the country as a whole take for granted the inevitability of a dry régime, that few of the arguments in the press or around the dinner table raised the question whether the law would or would not prove enforceable...

Now, Prohibition is not an area I've studied at all. And I've no inclination to hare off on a wild goose chase. As it were.

But the details of RC 121 are suggestive of lines of inquiry.

For instance, the large number of states - 14 in all - whose delegations were split down the middle, with a plain for and against [2]: AL, CA, GA, IL, KY, LA, MO, NE, OH, PA, RI, TX, WI, WY.

Pretty much all sections are represented on the list.

Of the Confederacy, AR, FL, MS, NC, TN and VA were solid for the amendment. SC's Tillman is shown as paired in favour. Why the four erring sisters? No idea.

And - what about Wilson? A South Carolina boy, brought up in North Carolina - a closet Wet all those years? There is no sign online of Wilson's veto message [3], which would have been a start [4] in the task of explaining his action.

Why would Wilson have chosen to defy national expectations and veto the implementing legislation for such a popular amendment? Again, no idea.

After the current antebellum jag has run its course (still three volumes of Nevins to go!), the mechanics of installing Prohibition looks a likely target. Assuming that I can lay my hands on enough explanatory material - which a cursory search suggests is not available online.

  1. It was RC 121 on August 1 1917, to pass S J Res 17. Voteview shows seven or eight RCVs on the resolution.

  2. Voteview says eight votes in favour were pairs, one vote against. How can an unequal number be paired? For another time...

  3. The useful UCSB presidential papers site only has the papers for Hoover and later presidents.

  4. A paper on the history of prohibition generally says that, sometime in the 1890s (I infer)
    South Carolina introduced a state dispensary system in order to eliminate the motive of private gain from the liquor business.
    Hey! Socialized medicine!

    Also, the Carolinas were the only two states to vote against ratifying the 21st Amendment in 1933. And this case from the SC Supreme Court says

    South Carolina first criminalized the sale of alcohol to an intoxicated person in 1909, South Carolina enacted total prohibition...Although alcohol sales were also legalized in South Carolina in 1933, this state did not permit full-blown sale of liquor by the drink until 1973.
    Not that Ol' Strom was much inhibited by such petty local tyranny, I'll be bound...


Another useful-looking page summarising the history of prohibition.


There is some information on Wilson's views on the Volstead Act in Chapter XL (!) of the bio Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him by his secretary Joseph Tumulty.

Wilson's objection was not to the amendment but to the act:
While he was an ardent advocate of temperance, he felt that Congress in enforcing the amendment by the passage of the Volstead Act, so extreme and unreasonable in character, had gone a long way toward alienating the support of every temperance-loving citizen in the country, and that certain of its provisions had struck at the foundation of our government by its arbitrary interference with personal liberty and freedom.

He preferred a law allowing the sale of light beers and wines which would have freed enforcement officers for dealing with the real evil of hard liquor.

Oh, and a shout-out from Tumulty for an old friend:
This war-time prohibition act is breeding social, industrial, and economic discontent every day...If it is not repealed it is bound to cause more trouble than any other piece of Federal legislation since the Fugitive Slave Act.

This piece - Two of the Famous Stories About Woodrow Wilson -- And They're Not True - suggests that Tumulty is an unreliable narrator of his boss's doings and thinkings.

  1. Quoting a cable to Wilson at Versailles, which quotes a New York World editorial on the wartime predecessor of the Volstead Act.


One the URLs thrown up is a Snopes forum page examining sources for the famous Wilson quote on Birth of a Nation that it was history written with lightning. Some thorough-looking dead-tree research, by the look of it.

Since it's a quote I've been known to refer to, I dare say I should return it to it.

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