It was called the "nullification contagion."
And it was a battle royal. Literally.
Once upon-a-time in America, a tumultuous battle over the freedom to drink alcoholic beverages raged across the land. It was the health care battle of early 20th century America, and it was furious, divisive and eventually savagely bloody.
There is debate even today as to where this story actually begins. In fact the issue raised its head in America as early as 1657, when the General Court of Massachusetts banned the sale of intoxicating spirits. Some pinpoint the 1840s. But doubtless as good a place as any to start is with the birth in 1873 of the Women's Christian Temperance Union. The objective, as is the case with government health care enthusiasts today, was portrayed as noble. Alcohol, the group believed, was tearing families -- and hence the larger society -- apart. Echoing the core argument of Obamacare today, to drink, particularly to excess, was portrayed as imposing ultimately unsustainable costs both societal and financial on others. This being the case, there was only one answer: a government ban on the use of alcohol in America.
So it was that in Fredonia, New York, members of the new WCTU, as it became known, hit upon the idea of invading saloons singing and praying, asking the saloon-keepers to stop selling alcohol. It was the opening shot in what would become a decades-long nationwide war, dividing Americans into mutually exclusive and decidedly hostile camps of "wets" (those who favored the freedom to drink alcohol) and "drys" (those who opposed).
As America gradually moved from the post-Civil War era to the new industrial age and on into World War I, a dizzying mix of issues were tossed into the drive for "prohibition" -- eventually discussed everywhere as "Prohibition" with a capital "P". Frances Willard, the second president of the WCTU, believed Prohibition must be broadened to take in the burgeoning drive for women's suffrage. Once women were given the vote, she was certain that women "would come into government and purify it, into politics and cleanse the Stygian pool." Stygian being another word for hellish. As American immigration numbers climbed (legally), the nation was flooded with those fleeing the turmoil of Ireland and Germany, among others. With unerring precision, Irish and German immigrants were singled out from the European immigrants as being particularly prone to drink, adding even more of an urgency to the cause in the eyes of Prohibition proponents.
The WCTU soon found allies, and it became one of dozens of groups that insisted cutting Americans off from their liquor was the answer to the problem. It was in fact replaced as the leading "dry" lobby by the Anti-Saloon League. In a bit of old history that will strike a chord today, the Anti-Saloon League was a leading arm of the blossoming Progressive Movement -- the political and ideological ancestors of today's Obamacare. Composed heavily of Mainline Protestant religious leaders, the group zeroed in on a drive to get states to ban the sale or drinking of alcohol -- and for a constitutional amendment that would finish off the liquor industry and its sinful followers once and for all.
The pressure built on Republican and Democrat politicians alike. A "Prohibition Party" was formed. Candidates for every office from city hall to the state house to the White House were lobbied continuously. Whether it was beer, wine or hard liquor, the objective was to shut down both the purveyors and the consumers. Leaders of the "drys" became famous, none more iconic than Carry Nation, who would enter saloons with a hatchet and start swinging away at liquor bottles. Arrested repeatedly for what she called her "hatchetations," on one occasion she announced, "Men, I have come to save you from a drunkard's fate," then proceeded to smash one bottle after another. Learning of the assassination of Republican President William McKinley by an anarchist, Nation famously cheered -- because she believed the President secretly drank alcohol in the White House and therefore deserved his fate.
Gradually, the Prohibitionists, riding on a wave of moral indignation, began to carry the day for Carry Nation. The first to fall were individual states. By January 1, 1917, four months before U.S. entry into World War I, 19 states had gone dry with several more on the verge of doing the same. Tellingly, the states ranged across the country, from Alabama to North Dakota and Washington to West Virginia. Even the then-territory of Alaska got into the act. Now the push was on for Congress to respond -- and by December 1917, the Democratic controlled U.S. Senate and U.S. House passed an amendment by the required two-thirds vote and sent it to the states for the prescribed three-fourths ratification.
On January 16, 1919, Nebraska -- home of Prohibition and progressive champion and two-time Democratic Presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, Woodrow Wilson's first Secretary of State -- became the 36th state of the then-48 states to ratify. The Eighteenth Amendment was enshrined -- presumably forever -- in the United States Constitution. It would take effect one year from its passage.
In its entirety, it read:
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 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.
The next step was enforcement, and to that end Congress was now required to act.
It did -- passing the National Prohibition Act in 1919. It was named "The Volstead Act" for Minnesota Republican Andrew Volstead, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The GOP had won back control of Congress in the 1918 elections, and hence the job of drafting the enforcing legislation fell to Volstead. In fact, the bill was mostly written by Wayne Wheeler, the lawyer of the Anti-Saloon League, who won the derisive nickname of the "dry boss." Not only were "intoxicating beverages" now prohibited, Americans were expressly forbidden to "manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, or furnish any intoxicating liquor."
Not unlike today's promises about Obamacare, the view of a utopian America without alcohol were extravagant.
Said Evangelist Billy Sunday: "The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs." So confident were Prohibitionists in the invincibility of the 18th Amendment that one congressional supporter swooned: "There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail."
In a page that might be ripped from today's headlines about Americans' furious reaction to Obamacare, a backlash began immediately -- and built.
In spite of repeated assurances from Prohibition supporters, all manner of unintended consequences began showing up. Instead of positive change, America underwent a case of the national bends.
What once were legitimate businesses were instantly replaced by gangsters, the quite legal business of selling alcohol now the sole province of a smuggler's black market paradise. No longer was the nation's attention focused on the likes of Carry Nation, who in fact had died in 1911 as the cause she was devoted to began picking up political steam. New names were being heard.
Al Capone, Bugsy Moran, the "speakeasy," "bootlegging," "moonshine," and "bathtub gin" became household names and terms. Alcohol poisoning is said to have risen some 400% because a lot of the illegal booze was considerably impure. A weapon produced by Colt (the makers of the legendary Colt .45 of Western lore) and intended for the use of American troops in World War I wound up being used in a different fashion altogether. The war had ended by the time Colt was ready to go with the weapon, but thus invested Colt sold it to the public instead. So the lightweight Thompson submachine gun entered the headlines as the "Tommy Gun," the weapon of choice for gangsters as America's streets blazed with gunfire. The St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which six members of Moran's North Side Gang were slaughtered presumably by Capone lieutenants (two of whom were dressed as Chicago police officers), horrified the nation. As always, the unholy alliance between progressives and the Ku Klux Klan brought out the Klan, this time as a defender of the 18th Amendment.
Not to be forgotten was the surge in political corruption. One raid in Detroit scooped up the mayor, the sheriff and the congressman. To the despair of honest government officials, the loss of tax revenue from alcohol caused their government tills to empty.
Was there anything positive that happened? Well, in North Carolina, successful attempts to outrun the authorities in fast cars would eventually become a legitimate race known as NASCAR. The drys were not pleased. Nor were they happy to hear of another trend gathering steam, a drink called the "cocktail."
Support for repeal began to take legitimate shape. Journalist H.L. Mencken trenchantly observed:
Five years of prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.
New York made one of the first moves.
Ill in his Albany hotel room, a determined Assemblyman Louis Cuvillier, a Democrat, insisted on sending over a resolution to the legislature that called for a petition from the New York legislature to Congress. The demand? That a Constitutional Convention be called for the sole purpose of repealing the 18th Amendment. In the meantime, Cuvillier wanted more concrete results in New York, so he spent his time scribbling out a resolution calling for an investigation into the finances of the powerful Anti-Saloon League.
Now opposition groups began sprouting in earnest as the headlines screamed the news of the latest gangster shoot-outs over liquor. With World War I over, and the "return to normalcy" as President Warren Harding promised, Americans wanted to have the freedom to drink. They wanted a cocktail after a hard days work. They wanted a cold beer on a hot day. Yes, they liked a glass of wine. And who were all these Anti-Saloon types to say no?
"Nullification contagion" began to catch on.
Prominent Manhattan lawyer Frederic Coudert put it even more bluntly then Mencken:
The 18th Amendment does not represent a law.… It is a piece of fanaticism.… Call out the Navy.… Put every citizen who violates the law into jail and have accommodations for 50 or 60 million. Then take the consequences of the government that does that of being swept out of existence.
There is one startling connection between the drive to repeal Prohibition and the move to defeat Obamacare.
That would be the health connection.
While the understanding of alcohol's effect on the body wasn't as advanced as it is today, even in the 1920s and early 1930s doctors suspected that the use of alcohol in moderation was beneficial to health, something now widely understood by doctors. Doubtless this was understood in an instinctive if not formal fashion by the millions of Americans who were not abusing alcohol but rather using it as it should be -- in moderation. Congress decided to hold hearings on the medicinal uses of alcohol, an opening shot in the campaign for repeal.
The Prohibitionists were in fact a mixture of groups and movements with varying political pedigrees, from left-wing progressives who insisted banning alcohol would help women to Christian fundamentalists who said it would save souls.
Now, some of America's elites began to turn against the cause. The du Pont brothers formed the Association Against the Prohibition Amendment. Other groups sprang to life. To the horror of progressive women, a wealthy woman named Pauline Sabin indignantly formed the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform after she learned the head of the WCTU claim she spoke for all women. Echoing today's struggles between feminists and conservative women, Sabin was a supporter of free-markets (and would later be a strong opponent of the New Deal.) She turned the Prohibitionists' arguments around on them, saying repeal would bring choice on alcohol back to individual families, protect families by reducing both crime and what had become an epidemic of the alcoholic hidden drinker. Not to mention outrageous hypocrisy. Said she:
Today in any speakeasy in the United States you can find boys and girls in their teens drinking liquor and this situation has become so acute that the mothers of the country feel something must be done to protect their children.
Perhaps tellingly, as a wealthy woman of society, as with the du Ponts Sabin made it socially OK to support repeal. Perhaps the final blow came from long-time Prohibition supporter John D. Rockefeller, Jr.:
When the Eighteenth Amendment was passed I earnestly hoped -- with a host of advocates of temperance -- that it would be generally supported by public opinion and thus the day be hastened when the value to society of men with minds and bodies free from the undermining effects of alcohol would be generally realized. That this has not been the result, but rather that drinking has generally increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast array of lawbreakers has been recruited and financed on a colossal scale; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashedly disregarded the Eighteenth Amendment; that as an inevitable result respect for all law has been greatly lessened; that crime has increased to an unprecedented degree -- I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe.
The tale of Prohibition and its repeal should serve as a cautionary tale to Obamacare supporters -- and a source of inspiration to its opponents.
Simultaneously it shows in vivid historical fashion the impact of the law of unintended consequences on ambitious societal reforms -- while showing with precision that it is certainly possible to reverse Obamacare if in fact it is passed.
By the end of the Prohibition period, politicians demanding repeal were a dime a dozen so politically safe was it support the cause.
On February 20, 1933, Congress officially passed the 21st amendment to the Constitution. It read, in the simplest of fashions, this way:
Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.
Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.
Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.
It was over.
The so-called "noble experiment" had been tried, had failed miserably, and was undone by a furious American population that had learned something the hard way about how to reform -- and how not to reform -- society's ills.
Said FDR on signing into law the first stage of legislation that re-legalized beer and wine: "I think I'll have a beer."
Yes it can be done. You can drink to it.