On January 16, 1919, the ratification of the 18th amendment was certified by the US Congress. This amendment had been ratified by 46 of 48 states and said:
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The 18th amendment was repealed by the 21st amendment on December 5, 1933.
Before I started researching for this article, what I thought I knew about the prohibition era went something like this: The 18th amendment was passed. Organized crime took over in New York and Chicago. The mob thrived. People danced “the Charleston”. Al Capone got arrested for tax evasion. And eventually the 18th amendment was repealed by the 21st. It occurred to me recently that learning more about prohibition era America might provide some useful lessons for today, so I have done some reading. I am still far from expert on the period, but what I have learned so far is absolutely fascinating.
What strikes me most about prohibition and its repeal is that this is a familiar recipe. We have seen how nullification helped pave the way to freedom for Pennsylvania’s black population during the 19th century. Pennsylvania’s resistance to the federal fugitive slave acts spanned decades and included jury nullification, individual nullification in the form of the underground railroad, state-level nullification in the form of personal freedom acts, and electoral efforts at the national level, eventually culminating in the Civil War and the 13th amendment.
Similarly, the Whiskey Rebellion, consisted of a combination of jury nullification, individual nullification in the form of non-compliance, and organized nullification in the western counties of many of the states. It came to fruition when Thomas Jefferson was elected President. Jefferson appointed Pennsylvanian and accused whiskey rebel, Albert Gallatin, to be his Treasury Secretary and to oversee the repeal of the unpopular whiskey tax.
This article will demonstrate how the same basic template was used in order to bring about the 21st amendment. Can the nullification deniers continue to bury their heads in the sand when nullification has played a role in not one, but two Constitutional amendments? It’s sort-of hard to argue that nullification isn’t a valid part of the Constitutional process when there are two real, live, examples where nullification was part of the process that led up to a Constitutional amendment.
Was Prohibition Constitutional?
I am aware that this question seems almost nonsensical. How could an amendment to the Constitution possibly be unconstitutional? The thing to remember, though, is that prohibition involved more than just the 18th amendment. After the amendment came federal legislation, and after that came interpretations by the Supreme Court. I would invite you to look at section 1 of the amendment again. What was actually prohibited by the amendment? According to Last Call, the phrase “intoxicating liquors” was intentionally chosen in order to be misleading.
This conscious dodge had enabled fence-sitters, conflict avoiders, and wishful thinkers to support the amendment in the hope that the eventual definition would leave room for some of the milder forms of liquid stimulation.
When you see the word “liquor” in that amendment, does it include “beer”? I don’t know what the language was in 1919, but to my understanding, beer, wine, and liquor are three different types of alcoholic drinks. The amendment was enabled by the Volstead Act, which prohibited drinks with more than 0.5% alcohol, including beer and wine. This is a classic bait and switch. Is an agreement valid when it is made under intentionally false pretense? Jack S. Blocker, Jr. wrote in the Journal of the American Public Health Association,
The Volstead Act defined “intoxicating” as containing 0.5% or more alcohol by volume, thereby prohibiting virtually all alcoholic drinks. The brewers, who had expected beer of moderate strength to remain legal, were stunned, but their efforts to overturn the definition were unavailing.
The Supreme Court’s decisions upheld Congress’ bait and switch and added on some power grabs of its own. Section 2 of the amendment said that the federal government and the states had concurrent enforcement power. According to Robert Post of Yale Law School, writing in the William and Mary Law Review, over the prohibition years, the supreme court modified its interpretations of the 4th, 5th, and 10th amendments in order to uphold the Volstead Act and interpret the enforcement power in the 18th amendment expansively. The court allowed wiretaps without a warrant, allowed a person to be charged twice for the same crime under state and federal statutes, and allowed warrantless searches of motor vehicles – establishing the “reasonable suspicion” standard.
Post writes that Supreme Court Justice McReynolds sputtered in dissent to United States vs. Carroll:
“Has it come about that merely because a man once agreed to deliver whisky, but did not, he may be arrested whenever thereafter he ventures to drive an automobile on the road to Detroit!”
And to that, political scientist Robert Cusman answered:
Simplistically – the phrase concurrent enforcement could mean two things. It could mean that the states enforce the law in their own spheres of influence – inside their borders; and the federal government enforces it in its sphere – interstate commerce and foreign trade. This understanding would not have involved reinterpreting the Bill of Rights.
Post cites advocates as arguing,
the dual sovereignty in our federal system of Nation and State each supreme within its own sphere did not signify a merely functional division of labor between state and federal governments, but instead a fundamental constitutional commitment, symbolized by the Tenth Amendment, to maintain ‘state control over local affairs.’
Instead of accepting this argument, which would have left the Bill of Rights intact, the court interpreted it to mean that the federal government could enforce the amendment anywhere, including domains that had been reserved to the states by the Tenth Amendment. Post goes on to say,
- San Diego Mayor Calls for Jury Nullification (thcfinder.com)
- Nullification 101: A Intro to Defending Liberty (tenthamendmentcenter.com)
- States react to fed agenda with nullification (wnd.com)
- Mayor Filner Calls for “Jury Nullification” in Federal Marijuana Prosecution (obrag.org)
- Nullification – The Rightful Remedy and Our Last Hope (ncrenegade.com)
- Mo. Gov. May Allow Gun Control Nullification to Pass Without His Signature (rinf.com)
- Time to Nullify the Drug Laws (fff.org)
- Americans answer to feds: Nullification (wnd.com)