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] 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,