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Prohibition Debate - Bruce Frohnen, The American Nation: Primary Sources 
The American Nation: Primary Sources, ed. Bruce Frohnen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008).
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Mr. Speaker, government is but the organized forces of the union formed for strengthening its power and advancing its life. Its highest aim is to suppress those agencies which have a tendency to sap and weaken the nation’s strength, to suppress vice and crime in order that the nation may, unrestrained by these evils, go forward in its efforts for greater liberty, freedom, and achievement; that it may raise itself into a higher civilization more nearly approaching our ideal of a perfect government.
The use of intoxicating liquors for beverage purposes has long attracted the attention of our leading statesmen, and with great unanimity has been condemned as one of the greatest agencies for evil and crime that is now retarding our national growth.
The right to make and use intoxicating beverages has so long been enjoyed, and this right so long licensed and sanctioned by Federal taxing laws, that the ignorant have come to the conclusion that it is one of the inalienable rights of man which the Government should not interfere with. Those with broader mental horizons insist that the long-continued toleration of this evil has given those who claim it a vested right to carry on their business or enjoy their beverage; a kind of immunity from any interference by the Government to aid humanity. The one is as fallacious as the other. Either would deprive the Government of one of its chief reasons to exist.
The resolution now under consideration would submit to the States of the Union the one question, whether the Federal Government shall prohibit “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.”
The submission and ratification of the proposed amendment by the required number of States would be no invasion of States’ rights. It would be but the orderly and legal granting of this power to the Federal Government by the legislatures of the several States in the way the sovereign people of the States have provided for amending their constitution.
The people of the United States, when they ordained and established the Constitution for the United States of America, stating in the preamble that it was “to promote the general welfare” and other objects, realized that in order to accomplish their aims it would become necessary to add to the powers granted, from time to time, as the nation grew in wealth and population, and as the Government from necessity became more complex, that unforeseen conditions and problems would arise and require solution.
In order to meet such conditions and problems the framers of the Constitution wisely provided in Article V:
That Congress, whenever two-thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose amendments to this Constitution . . . which . . . shall be valid to all intents and purposes as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States.
The adoption of the amendment here proposed would not be a move to tear down or weaken this ancient landmark, but would be in keeping with the plan of its framers to add to it a power for “the general welfare” of the people.
If we should hold it too sacred to be changed, we make of it a dead monument to its fathers. Like the “Old Ironsides” that now floats in Boston Harbor, it would still be revered for the splendid service it has performed, but it would not be equipped to meet the modern problems.
If we give it a liberal construction which will afford a reasonable opportunity to amend it as provided for in the fifth article, then like the trees of the forest which add new cells to their structure each recurring season to perpetuate their life and strength, you will make of the Constitution a viral power adapted to this and succeeding generations.
Senator Blair, in a favorable report made to the Senate on a similar resolution in 1888, is authority for the statement that:
It is well known that but for the belief in the conventions of the States that the opportunity to amend the Constitution would be most liberally afforded by Congress in accordance with the forms provided in that instrument, the original ratification never would have been obtained.
The question of the expediency of passing this resolution is primarily addressed to the Members of Congress. It is only after it has been favorably acted upon by Congress that it is passed out to the States for their ratification.
In passing upon this question I think Congress should view it from two angles: First, whether there is such a public sentiment back of it as to justify Congress in submitting it to the States; and, second, whether we, in our wisdom, approve this grant of power.
I do not believe it is the duty of Congress to submit every proposition that might be offered to the States for their ratification. Aside from the merits which the proposition might possess, such a course, would result in a continuous agitation in the States which could not be justified by Congress.
On the other hand, any great question vitally affecting the life of the people that the wisdom of Congress might approve which has found sufficient public favor to lead Congress to believe might be adopted by the requisite number of States should be submitted in order that the sovereign people might pass upon it.
Senator Blair, in 1880, in favorably reporting to the Senate a resolution to amend the Constitution and provide for national prohibition, similar to the one under consideration, says:
When any considerable and respectable portion of the American people desire to plead their cause in the great tribunal of sovereigns, who, in a free country, decide every fundamental issue [in the last] (sic) resort, it is the duty of Congress to enact such preliminary legislation as is here proposed, so that under the forms of the Constitution they can be heard on the question of its own amendment. To deny this is of the very essence of despotism, and for Congress unreasonably to refuse the hearing is just cause of revolution. The people will demand a hearing for every large and respectable minority, and to grant this opportunity is the purpose of this resolution. Whatever may be the result, all must abide by it. But there can be no justification of a denial of the right to be heard.
In 1800 Senator Blair, in making a favorable report to the Senate upon a similar resolution, sums up the duty of Congress as he sees it in the following extract from his report:
It being the fact that a very large proportion of the American people are anxious that the National Constitution be amended in accordance with the resolution, we believe that they have a right to be heard in the forum of the State legislatures, where alone the question can be decided whether the National Constitution shall be amended. That Constitution points out definitely the manner in which a change in its provisions may be effected. The Constitution of the country must be amended from time to time to correspond with the evolution of the Nation itself, for it is impossible to fetter the growth of the Nation in any direction. It will grow, peacefully or otherwise. The Constitution must yield here and there, corresponding to the necessities of the times and of the people, and the necessary changes be peacefully made, in accordance with the methods of amendment pointed out in the Constitution itself, or revolution and bloodshed will perform their work. The Constitution and the spirit of the age must be one. Whenever any considerable and respectable portion of the American people (and no considerable number can fail to be respectable) desire change in the fundamental law and ask respectful consideration of their propositions by the Nation at large, we hold it to be the duty of Congress to give them a status in the court provided by the Constitution for its own amendment.
I do not think this Congress can fail to find, beyond question, that this proposition is backed by a public sentiment of such strength and character as to not only justify, but require us to submit it to the States for ratification.
This movement is not of a temporary, spasmodic character, which may pass away with the summer, but has received the careful thought and approval of the moral and commercial forces of the Nation.
This and preceding Congresses have been overwhelmed by letters and petitions asking and pleading with Congress to submit this question to the States. These requests come from our highest type of law-abiding Christian men and women, who have their country’s welfare closest to their hearts.
As further proof of the strength of this sentiment, it is not improper for me to call attention to the fact that during this Congress the Senate, on the 1st day of August, by a vote of 65 to 20, passed this resolution.
In 1907 only Kansas, North Dakota, and Maine had prohibition laws. Up to September 1, 1914, six additional States had been added. To-day we have legislative prohibition in 27 States of the Union, comprising a population of 61,000,000. Of the [2,597] counties in the United States, 2,238 are dry and only 355 counties in the entire Nation are wet. Over half of the world to-day is dry territory.
In my opinion the time has come when Congress can not fail to recognize the overwhelming demands that are being made from every section of this Nation and from all classes of her people to submit this proposition to the States for their ratification. The aim of the prohibition advocates is that the leaven that has been at work and brought good to the local districts, townships, counties, and finally States, may be permitted to leaven the whole Nation. With such an overwhelming sentiment, making new conquests at each new encounter, is it not reasonable to suppose that this sentiment would be reflected in the action which the several legislatures would take, and that this amendment would be ratified by them?
I appeal to the Members of this House to follow the lead of the Senate and give this proposed amendment your hearty approval as a wise and beneficial policy for this Government to pursue.
The use of alcoholic liquors for beverage purposes has long been regarded as a great national evil, which physically, mentally, and morally unfits man for his greatest usefulness.
The fact has been established by carefully compiled statistics that intemperate use of alcoholic beverages by parents weakens the vitality of their offspring, increases their death rate, increases the number of feeble-minded and defective children, and renders them more susceptible and less able to resist disease.
Alcoholic beverages impair the skill, lessen the power of endurance, increase accidents, and shorten the life of those addicted to its use. Alcoholism claims more victims than does either typhoid fever or smallpox. Drink is one cause of over 66,000 deaths every year in the United States. One insane person out of every four owes his affliction to its use, and it is given credit for breaking up over 9,000 happy homes each year.
The religious world has found it undermines the morals of the Nation. The business world has found that it weakens the intellect and has set the stamp of disapproval upon the use of such beverage by men it employs. The courts of the country find it the cause of crime, and justify this conclusion by the records of their criminal courts.
Such being its established reputation, it is not surprising to find the moral and religious forces of the Nation up in arms against it and trying to crush it by whatever means they have.
Is it not time for us to become aroused to the necessity of using the strong arm of the National Government to help suppress this great source of national weakness? This Government can be no stronger than the combined strength and vitality of the people. The Government can not serve its people better than by helping to preserve its people’s strength and life.
It would be hard to understand why a National Government that has, with a lavish hand, reached out into the domain of the State and for the sake of protecting property smote down upon the cattle tick and the boll weevil and stopped the ravages of the foot-and-mouth disease, or that strained its power to regulate the commerce from the great manufacturing industries of the Nation in order to cure a practice that might weaken the vitality of the people, would then hesitate to lend its helping hand to meet and blot out the greatest agency for the destruction of property, life, and morals known to man.
The problem of suppressing the use of alcohol as a beverage is bigger than a county or a State. It is a national problem. Local regulations have been of great help in curbing the evil but they are not adequate. It has been demonstrated by an honest effort to regulate the traffic that one wet county in a State will inflict this evil upon the rest of the State. The same is true of a wet State in relation to the other States of the Union. You can not, by regulations, localize the bad effects that flow from this national evil.
Aside from the great difficulty in preventing the transportation of alcoholic beverages from a place where they can be legally made and sold into the dry territory, there would be no local boundary line to stop the degenerates, inebriates, weak-minded criminals, and diseased persons whom it had produced, and keep them within the political division of the country that had permitted the manufacture and sale of the poison that had caused their sad condition. These would travel faster and with less restraint than the cattle tick, the boll weevil, or the cattle disease, and would become a menace to the health and morals of, and perhaps a public charge upon, some community that maybe had pleaded for an opportunity to help blot out these sore spots in our body politic.
Those engaged in fighting this great national evil think that this Government should cease to be a partner of the liquor manufacturer and seller by licensing such business in return for the tax which such a policy is made to pay. It is estimated that for every dollar collected by the Government in the shape of a tax $20 is paid into the pockets of the men carrying on this business by the poor, diseased slaves of drink. The Government can not afford to pursue this policy for the sake of the revenue it derives, when by doing so it puts it within the power of the liquor interests to collect for their own pockets many times this tax, and often from those who deprive their families of comforts and necessities to pay it. There is no way to accurately estimate the cost to the Government of accidents, crimes, and diseases caused by the traffic, but it must be appalling, and if it could be accurately stated in figures, I feel safe in predicting that no man, in opposition to this resolution would ever have the temerity to speak or vote against its adoption on account of the incidental loss of taxes that might result from its ratification by the States.
Other solutions have been attempted to solve this liquor problem, but with only partial success. Opponents of the prohibition cause tell us our fight is all wrong; that it is a moral issue and we should appeal to the individual to restrain himself.
This disease of alcoholism is of stealthy character. It stimulates its victim into hilarity while it creeps upon him and binds him as its slave before he feels its grasp, even while the poor victim still boasts of his strength and power to resist it. They are to be pitied, for they need help to free themselves from its bondage. These victims should be able to look to their Government for protection against so dangerous an enemy.
We have already tried moral suasion. Godly men for all these years have preached temperance to the people and have saved many a poor soul from a drunkard’s grave, but they still find that their weaker wards stumble on their journey through life and succumb to this frailty of humanity when faced by the alluring invitation of an open bar room, licensed, protected, and taxed, if not encouraged, by this Government of ours. Since we have not been successful in keeping our weaker brother from whisky, let us try keeping whisky from our weaker brother.
Here is a note I have just received from Miss Gordon:
Congressman Webb: It is an honor to present to you, and through you, to the House of Representatives, the appeal of 500,000 members of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, praying for the passage of the joint resolution providing for a referendum to the States on national constitutional prohibition. This appeal comes from a host of home-loving women who with untiring energy and unstinted devotion have wrought marvelously for the moral and spiritual advancement of our country. This appeal comes from half a million patriots who answered promptly the call to the colors. The nobility of woman’s sacrifice, the fine quality of her patriotic service, her keen discernment in the adjustment of industrial conditions for women and children, her tender ministrations at home and on the battlefield should entitle her to the granting by the Congress of this appeal.
In addition to the petition of women members of the National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, I beg to present a huge petition of the indorsers of the joint resolution for a referendum to the States on national constitutional prohibition secured through the efforts of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and representing 8,000,000 men and women of our Republic. Adding to these the petitions sent directly to Members of Congress it is safe to say that our appeal is backed by more than 11,000,000 people. If these petitioners could be massed in solid phalanx in our Capital City you would see more than thirty times the population of the District of Columbia. Unquestionably it is an appeal for an act of true democracy, an appeal for a patriotic measure. Autocracy and alcohol must both be overthrown. “Speed up” is the urgent cry echoing back to us from the awful battle fronts of Europe. Speed up on the prohibition legislation is the respectful appeal of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to the Congress of the United States. We pray that in this crucial time of a stupendous world crisis the House of Representatives will rise to this exalted opportunity and give to the legislatures of the various States the chance to deal with a question so enormously vital to the economic and moral interests of our Republic. When the war is over and a righteous peace has been secured, only the clear brain of a sober Nation can be intrusted with the solution of the mighty problems that will then confront the greatest democracy on earth—the United States of America.
Anna A. Gordon
Mr. Small. Mr. Speaker, this resolution proposes an amendment to the Federal Constitution which prohibits the manufacture, sale, and transportation of intoxicating liquors, or the importation thereof, into the United States. I am constrained upon my conscience and in the exercise of my best judgment to vote against this proposed amendment. I shall not discuss the merits or demerits of prohibition. The attitude of a citizen or a Member of the House upon that question should not determine his vote upon this resolution. There are those who gravely doubt whether the attempt to enforce throughout the country total abstinence is the best solution. Many believe that the discouragement of the manufacture and use of distilled liquors and the encouragement of the use of light beers and wines would best subserve the interests of genuine temperance and good citizenship. But, as I have just stated, total prohibition, or partial prohibition, is not the issue before us. We are called upon to determine whether we will propose an amendment to the Constitution depriving the States of their present exclusive jurisdiction to regulate and control intoxicating liquors and transfer the same in whole or in part to the Federal Government.
I am opposed to this resolution because it proposes to incorporate into our organic law a proposition which is distinctly legislative. There have been 17 amendments to our Constitution and not one of them invaded the field of legislative action. They all relate to the Bill of Rights or the instruments of government itself, or, in other words, they relate to the form of government or the powers of Congress. If the Constitution is to forbid the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors there is no reason why in the future, in response to reformers, it should not forbid the manufacture and consumption of other products which may be deemed deleterious to humanity. The Constitution has been the great charter of our liberties. It describes the powers of our Federal Government and fixes the fine balance between the States and the Central Government. It has been the cohesive bond which has bound together the sovereign States into one indestructible union. We should not mar this great instrument by making it the receptacle of prohibitive or permissive legislation and thus mar this fine structure and bring it into disrepute.
I am opposed to this amendment because it proposes to take away from the States an essential right of local self-government. It proposes to impair the police power of the States. This is concededly true, else this amendment would not be proposed. If Congress had jurisdiction to regulate or prohibit the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors it would not be necessary to incorporate this legislative provision into the Constitution. The perpetuity of this Republic is based on the maintenance of the right of local self-government in each of the States of the Union. If the time ever comes when the States are shorn of the right to govern themselves in all local matters and are deprived of the right to exercise their untrammeled police powers in the enforcement of the same we will see the beginning of the end of this Republic. When all government is centralized at Washington there will come local and State disaffection, loyalty to the Central Government will be impaired, and ultimately revolution will stalk abroad throughout the land. It may be said that this invasion of the right of the States constitutes only one instance and that other invasions will not necessarily follow. In a matter of such supreme import even one invasion of local self-government may not be justified, but unfortunately this is only one of a number which are now being pressed by zealous reformers. The first error will make easier subsequent efforts. When we have once weakened the fine balance of powers between the States and the Federal Government we will have endangered the stability of the entire structure.
The Constitution was framed to protect the States in the right of local self-government. It was particularly intended to protect the small States. All the early efforts to amend the Constitution were prohibitions against the Federal Government and in favor of the integrity of the States. In the first 10 amendments which were adopted soon after the original Constitution, their provisions were so basic and fundamental that they have been universally denominated as the “Bill of Rights.” So jealous were our fathers that some of the reserved and essential rights of the States might be impaired that in the tenth amendment it was provided that—
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
They thought they had settled for all time any possibility that the right of local self-government reserved to the States should ever be successfully attacked.
This amendment is not necessary to enable any State to control or prohibit the manufacture, sale, consumption, or importation into such State of intoxicating liquors. Each State has the power, to use a familiar expression, to make itself “bone dry.” Not only may each State pass laws prohibiting within its borders the manufacture, sale, or consumption of intoxicating liquors in any form, but under the Webb law, as interpreted by the Supreme Court of the United States, it may prevent the importation of any intoxicating liquors into such State. Through its administrative officers and by its own courts each State may literally enforce such laws. The statement may be emphasized that each State now has the exclusive power over intoxicating liquors.
It may be asked, then, What is the necessity of this amendment to the Constitution? Is it to enable one State in combination with others to exercise power over another State? To express it baldly, the purpose of this amendment is to enable the legislature of one State to join with the legislatures of 36 other States and impose absolute prohibition over the remaining 12 unwilling States. If the subject of prohibition is now a matter of local self-government with each State, which will be admitted, then it may be stated with equal force that it was never intended in our scheme of government that three-quarters of the States should take away from the remaining one-quarter any reserved right of local self-government. My own State of North Carolina, which is dry, can not consistently claim the right to join with 36 other States and impose prohibition upon the States of New York or Massachusetts or Wisconsin against the will of the people of those States. Such a result would be resented by the people of those States who are not yet ready to adopt prohibition. Let me give a concrete illustration. In 1881 there was a referendum in North Carolina upon the question of State-wide prohibition. There were cast for Prohibition 48,000 votes and against prohibition 166,000 votes, an adverse majority of 118,000 votes. So long as the majority of the people of North Carolina were opposed to prohibition, I ask in all good faith what impression would have been made on the people of that State if 36 other States in a proposition to amend the Federal Constitution had decreed that North Carolina should be dry, contrary to the solemn vote of the electorate of the State? The question answers itself. There would have followed resentment, and the people of the State would have felt that they had been deprived of a sovereign right to settle this question for themselves. In 1908, 27 years later, North Carolina had another referendum upon prohibition, at which time a majority was recorded in its favor. May I ask if this change in the attitude of the people of the State toward a sumptuary law necessarily changes the fundamental proposition involved? If the people of North Carolina would have resented in 1882 the action of 36 other States in imposing upon them prohibition against their will, are the people of that State justified in 1917 in trying to impose prohibition upon the people of an unwilling State simply because the people of North Carolina have reversed themselves upon this question? The query answers itself.
It is contended that national prohibition is necessary in the interest of good morals. The leaders of the Anti-Saloon League say that they can not await the slow process of adopting prohibition State by State, and that they prefer the summary method of imposing it upon all of the States without having to undergo the trouble of discussion and education, in order to effect a change of public opinion in each of the States. I submit that the maintenance of the basis and the fundamentals of our Government is superior to the virtues of prohibition, even if we concede all its blessings by the most enthusiastic advocates. I confess that I deem it of more importance to defend the integrity of the States and to assume the perpetuity of our Republic than to anticipate the will of the people and to attempt to force prohibition by this summary process upon unwilling States.
There have been 17 amendments to our Constitution. Each one of these amendments dealt with the fundamentals of government and did not attempt to invade the reserved right of local self-government in the States except the fifteenth amendment. This amendment forbade any State to deny the right of suffrage to any citizen on account of race or color. It was intended to compel the Southern States to give to the negro equal rights of franchise with the whites. I shall not combat the righteous motives which actuated the advocates of that amendment. But I do submit these comments. Until the fifteenth amendment the right of the States to fix and regulate the qualifications of the franchise was not denied. It has always been conceded that the right to vote comes as a privilege from the States and not from the Federal Government. This amendment was an attempt to control this right of the States in so far as the negro was concerned by giving him equality of suffrage. It was contended by the white citizens of the South that the negroes as a whole were not qualified for the suffrage, and that to give literal effect to this amendment would imperil their civilization and make possible bad government. It is unnecessary to describe the results of the amendment. Reconstruction followed in its wake, racial disturbances were frequent, progress was checked, and evil government prevailed. The fifteenth amendment still remains, but by common consent in all sections of the country, the intelligence and the civic virtues of those who are qualified to ordain and preserve good government are left in the several States to settle this matter in the light of their consciences and their responsibilities.
In the face of the result of this attempt to invade the rights of the States to fix the qualifications of suffrage, I am left to inquire, What ought to be the attitude of the Members of this House from the Southern States in the consideration of this proposed amendment? Simply because most of the Southern States have adopted prohibition, shall they favor an amendment which would deprive other States of settling for themselves this question of prohibition? If they vote for this amendment, they will be doing an act which they would openly resent if an attempt was made by other States to invade their rights of local self-government. Very soon this House may be called upon to vote for another amendment to the Federal Constitution for woman suffrage. It so happens that in most of the Southern States public opinion does not yet favor equal suffrage, and they will vote against such an amendment. Why not be consistent? As a great fundamental of government, is the right of local self-government upon any one question to be determined by the attitude of the voters of a particular State upon that question?
The very fact that an amendment proposed by Congress is to be ratified by the legislatures of the several States rather than by the popular vote throughout the country indicates the firm attitude of the fathers in preserving the rights of the small States against the encroachments of the large States. It never occurred to the framers of the Constitution that Delaware and Rhode Island, or Nevada, would join in depriving the people of the State of New York of any essential and reserved right of local self-government. The fear was that New York and Pennsylvania and Virginia might unite with other large States and deprive Delaware and Rhode Island of some essential local power. Therefore, they provided in the ratification of an amendment that the vote of Delaware and of Rhode Island should count just as much as the vote of New York and Pennsylvania.
What is the duty of a Member of this House? A high official of the Anti-Saloon League recently made this statement:
The Anti-Saloon League is not asking any Member of Congress to declare that he is in favor of national prohibition, but simply that he shall not become an avowed exponent and protector of the liquor traffic by refusing to vote to allow the people of the Nation, by States, through their representatives, to determine this question in the manner provided therefor by the framers of the Constitution.
This has been a familiar form of expression by some of the advocates of this amendment. In other words, they contend it is the duty of a Member of Congress to vote for any proposed amendment if a considerable number of the voters of the country appear to favor same. There can be no more solemn duty imposed upon a Member than in determining his attitude toward a proposition to amend the Federal Constitution. Congress must initiate the amendment, and each Member must consider it in the light of his intelligence and patriotic judgment. We are not mere automatons to register the will of the Anti-Saloon League or any other organization of reformers. We are sworn to defend the Constitution as it stands, and it is our solemn duty to avoid any action which will impair or imperil the foundations of our Government. Any Member who votes for or against this amendment solely actuated by fear of his political fortunes has little comprehension of the fundamentals of our Government and is elevating his political preferment above the preservation of the essentials of sound democracy. There has already been too much of intimidation and coercion. The highest ideal is to discharge one’s duty, and if one is to adopt the personal view it is also the best politics.
We are engaged in a great war. The President, in his recent epochal address before Congress, invoked unity upon the part of all the people. He declared that we should mobilize every resource, material and spiritual, in the successful prosecution of this war. The adoption of this amendment will thrust before the people a mooted question upon which there are strong differences. In the famous “Shannon” letter of the President in 1911, while he was governor of New Jersey, he referred to the acute divisions in public sentiment which followed the injection of the liquor question into any party organization. This proposition ought not to have been brought into Congress at this supreme moment in the national life. Congress has heretofore enacted all necessary legislation regarding intoxicating liquors for the period of the war. The further production of distilled liquors has been forbidden. The President, under the authority of law, has decreased the production of beer and the percentage of alcoholic contents. The great body of the people are satisfied. For patriotic reasons alone we would be justified in defeating this measure at this inopportune time. [Applause.]