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Essay/Term paper: How alcohol prohibition was ended

Essay, term paper, research paper:  Humanities

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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] bring[ing]

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.

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


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