Ending Mistake of Prohibition
Two of the greatest influences shaping American’s opinion on Prohibition, which took effect in 1920, were economic and moral. Before World War I, most of the federal government’s revenues came from taxing alcoholic beverages. One of the arguments for the constitutional amendment to tax personal income was to take the tax burden off the poor drinker and place it on the shoulders of rich Americans. Once accomplished, the system appeared to work as the 1920s roared and income taxes rolled in. Then came the crash of 1929.
As income tax revenues dried up, there was a call from the wets to end Prohibition in order to bring back tax money and create legal jobs for the countless numbers of unemployed. But as the economists debated, there was still the moral question, and in 1932 John D. Rockefeller Jr., a millionaire financier son of the oil baron and owner of one of the largest mansions in Ocean County, entered the fray.
The Asbury Park Press of June 7 wrote, “Banners of jubilation fluttered in the wet camp today, for John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong dry has decided that the Eighteenth Amendment ought to be deleted from the Constitution.
“The oil magnate’s change of opinion, disclosed in a letter to Dr. Nicolas Murray Butler, brought expressions of amazement and sharp disagreement from supporters of the prohibition amendment, which Rockefeller and his father helped make the law of the land.”
What had Rockefeller said?
“I was born a teetotaler; all my life I have been a teetotaler on principle. Neither my father nor his father ever tasted a drop of intoxicating liquor, nor have I. … Although a teetotaler on principle and in practice, I have always stood for whatever measure seemed at the time to give promise of best promoting temperance. With my father, I for years supported the Anti-Saloon League in both its state and national work. It was at one time reported that our contributions toward the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment amounted to between $15,000,000 and $20,000,000.
“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 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 generally has increased; that the speakeasy has replaced the saloon, not only unit for unit, but probably two-fold if not three-fold; that a vast army of lawbreakers has been recruited; that many of our best citizens, piqued at what they regarded as an infringement of their private rights, have openly and unabashed 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.”
This was a bombshell, and the Press reported the next day, “Encouraged by the stand taken by Rockefeller, who hitherto was looked upon as one of the most influential drys, leaders of six national anti-prohibition organizations met in New York and formed the United Repeal Council, with the avowed purpose of placing planks in both the Republican and Democratic platforms calling for repeal of prohibition. A campaign to this end was begun immediately.”
As the summer of 1932 wore on, both political parties knew prohibition’s days were numbered, and in November Franklin D. Roosevelt was swept into the White House by a landslide, but Congress didn’t wait for him to take office. On Feb. 20, 1933, the Press carried, “Congress today put repeal of the prohibition amendment up to the states by a vote of 289 to 121.
“The house of representatives mustered more than the two-thirds vote required after a brief but fervid debate that roused the packed galleries.
“The senate already having voted 53 to 23 to submit the repealer, the states now for the first time in history must act on such a change to the Constitution.”
This time Congress decided the people would take part in the decision rather than have the state legislatures vote to ratify the amendment.
“Conventions in 36 states must approve to put the new amendment, the twenty-first into effect. It requires federal protection from liquor imports for dry states. … As soon as today’s outcome was known, the congressional quarrel on how state conventions should be called to act swung into full light.”
The next day, according to the Press, “Predominately wet, the New Jersey legislature will seek Monday to devise a program for assembling a convention for either ratification or rejection of prohibition repeal. … The legislature, preparing for approval of the new amendment, discarded the proposal that it constitute itself a convention for purposes of ratification. It immediately turned to the new proposals.”
The New Jersey Courier explained the election on May 12.
“Ocean County concurred with the other counties of New Jersey at the primary election, on Tuesday, May 15, when it voted to repeal the 18th Amendment by the ratio of more than 5 to 1.
“Voters in all sections of the state, disregarding the stormy weather and the absence of state wide issues in the election, went to the polls and named delegates pledged to repeal to represent them at the state convention next week.
“The voting was a mere technicality and the result a foregone conclusion, since the dry forces have defaulted in 11 counties by their failure to secure enough signatures for nominating petitions.”
The selected representatives of the people met on June 1 in Trenton, and the convention chose Emerson Richards as chairman. He gave the only speech before calling for the vote.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Convention:
“When we have made a mistake the American people are big enough to admit it. Today we meet to lend New Jersey’s sanction to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment. After fifteen years of trial we have concluded almost unanimously that laws will not make us a temperate people. We are about to begin again.
“It is significant that in righting a wrong that we have done to our government and ourselves we should return to this ancient form of popular expression – the convention. The structure of our government was wrought in the fires of debate in the colonial convention. We return to the convention to expunge from our Constitution a political and moral heresy.
“Today, not by revolution – not by bloody strife, but by a determined, clear-thinking and resolved citizenry we strike from that constitution the dangerous adventure which has so nearly wrecked our ship of state.”
The vote was taken, and New Jersey was the fourth state to ratify the amendment for repeal. Throughout the summer other states followed suit until the Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “WASHINGTON, Dec. 5. – National prohibition came to an end at 5:32 P.M. today, Eastern Standard Time, with the ratification of the repeal amendment by a State convention in Utah.
“The official word was flashed to Washington by telegraph in three minutes and the adoption of the substitute amendment was formally proclaimed at 5.49 P.M. by William Phillips, acting Secretary of State.
“President Roosevelt, at 6.55 P.M., issued a proclamation.”
The proclamation read, “Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.”
But FDR reminded the country there would be a price.
“I enjoin upon all citizens of the United States and upon others resident within the jurisdiction thereof, to cooperate with the Government in its endeavor to restore greater respect for law and order by confining such purchases of alcoholic beverages as they may make solely to those dealers or agencies which have been duly licensed by state or Federal license.”
And finally, with freedom comes responsibility.
“I ask wholehearted cooperation of all our citizens to the end that this return of individual freedom shall not be accompanied by the repugnant conditions that obtained prior to the adoption of the eighteenth amendment and those that have existed since its adoption. Failure to do this honestly and courageously will be a living reproach to us all.”
Prohibition was over. Americans could now legally drink to forget the Depression – if they could afford it.
Next Week: March to war.