Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Toast the Constitution and the work to save it

Today is the 75th anniversary of Prohibition's repeal.

New Jersey residents protesting Prohibition in 1933. By the time the year ended, they had received their wish: an end to 13 years of a mistaken public policy.
New Jersey residents protesting Prohibition in 1933. By the time the year ended, they had received their wish: an end to 13 years of a mistaken public policy.Read more

On this, the 75th anniversary of the end of Prohibition, the temptation is obvious: Have a drink. To which I say: Be my guest. Celebrate!

But I hope you'll toast your right to drink, rather than the drink itself, because this anniversary isn't about alcohol. It's about the Constitution.

We all know the story of Prohibition: Beginning in 1920, the 18th Amendment closed the door on alcohol and unleashed a 13-year exercise in inebriation and crime. Newspapers chronicled gangland slayings and the exploits of Al Capone. Speakeasies and bathtub gin became part of the cultural landscape, as did moonshine and Jamaican ginger (an often toxic, high-alcohol potion sold as "medicine").

Many Americans, perhaps most, obeyed the law. But their enthusiasm for doing so waned as the years wore on. By the late 1920s, even some of those who originally supported the idea of a dry nation had concluded that Prohibition was a mistake.

Some believed that the closures of distilleries and breweries amounted to illegal seizures of property. Others argued that the Volstead Act, the federal legislation that established the machinery of enforcement, fostered excessive government intrusion into private lives and clouded the distinctions between state and federal authority.

Discontent accelerated in 1931, when the National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement, a group appointed by President Herbert Hoover, released the results of a two-year study of Prohibition. The report confirmed the insidious criminality spawned by the 18th Amendment. Policemen had become rumrunners, and rumrunners had become gun-toters. Conspiracy and corruption oozed into and out of every level of government, from Washington to the smallest municipality.

Worse, when it came to Prohibition, enforcement trumped the most basic constitutional guarantees, the report found. Officials charged with keeping Americans dry endorsed "high-handed methods" ranging from spying to murder, and they routinely engaged in "unwarranted searches and seizures."

It was no surprise, the commissioners noted, that the more flagrantly authorities disregarded citizens' rights, the more cynical Americans became. Young adults in particular - the very people who would become "leaders in the next generation" - demonstrated overt "hostility to or contempt for the law."

Put simply, the 18th Amendment had spawned not just crime, but disrespect for the Constitution. Many wondered what was next. Suspension of the Bill of Rights? Refusal to follow the Constitution's requirement of regular elections? Would authorities toss Article II or ignore Article III?

That sounds improbable to us now, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s, many Americans feared it could happen. After all, much of Europe, wracked by social and economic turmoil, was collapsing into authoritarianism.

Was the United States next? Would the economic chaos of the Great Depression, which had left millions unemployed and homeless, propel the United States toward a similar fate? Might Americans seek refuge from rampant criminality by turning away from the give-and-take of democracy and toward the oppressive grip of dictatorship?

The answer was no. In 1933, just after the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Americans began the process of repealing the constitutional amendment that threatened the Constitution itself. On Dec. 5 of that year, the assent of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Utah completed ratification of the 21st Amendment.

Yes, the onset of the Great Depression hastened the end of Prohibition; alcohol manufacture would employ millions and generate tax revenues. But the wellspring of repeal was concern for and love of the republic.

So, on this 75th anniversary of the repeal, go ahead: Hoist one in honor of those Americans who set aside their personal differences in order to preserve the Constitution. Better still, find a copy and read it. It's the perfect accompaniment to a drink.