HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
Woodrow Wilson As I Know Him
Chapter XL - Prohibition
by Tumulty, Joseph P.

One of the things for which the Wilson Administration was held to "strict accountability" was the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, establishing nation-wide prohibition.

Unfair critics of the President, in their foolish attempt to charge the Administration with every unusual happening in the eight years of Democratic control, had stated that the President was the real motive force that lay back of the movement to establish the Eighteenth Amendment as part of the fundamental law of the country. As a matter of fact, during the discussion of this amendment in the Senate and House, the President maintained toward it an attitude of absolute neutrality. While he was an ardent advocate of temperance, he felt that Congress in enforcing the amendment by the passage of the Volstead Act, so extreme and unreasonable in character, had gone a long way toward alienating the support of every temperance-loving citizen in the country, and that certain of its provisions had struck at the foundation of our government by its arbitrary interference with personal liberty and freedom. He felt that the practical unanimity with which the Eighteenth Amendment was supported arose from a nation-wide resentment against abuses by the American saloon and the economic evils that had grown out of the unorganized liquor traffic. He felt that it was unreasonable for Congress, in the Volstead Act, to declare any beverage containing an excess of one half of one per cent. of alcohol intoxicating and that to frame a law which arbitrarily places intoxicating and non-intoxicating beverages within the same classification was openly to invite mental resentment against it. He was of the opinion that it required no compromise or weakening of the Eighteenth Amendment in order to deal justly and fairly with the serious protests that followed the enactment into law of the Volstead Act. He was, therefore, in favour of permitting the manufacture and sale, under proper governmental regulations, of light wines and beers, which action in his opinion would make it much easier to enforce the amendment in its essential particulars and would help to end the illicit traffic in liquor which the Volstead Act fostered by its very severity. This would put back of the enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment the public sentiment always necessary to the execution of laws. Satisfied with a reasonable recognition of their rights to personal liberty and control of their personal habits, he believed that the American people would be the readier to turn their attention to the grave issues of reconstruction and steadier in meeting these issues which would test to the utmost our capacity for progressive self-government.

Time and time again when we discussed the Volstead Act, he would say: "The wrong way of doing the right thing. You cannot regulate the morals and habits of a great cosmopolitan people by placing unreasonable restrictions upon their liberty and freedom. All such attempts can only end in failure and disappointment. In the last analysis, in these matters that seek to regulate personal habits and customs, public opinion is the great regulator."

In New Jersey, where he served as governor, the liquor question had been for many years a burning issue and had been thrust into every gubernatorial campaign up to the time when Woodrow Wilson as governor took hold of the situation. Many political futures had been wrecked and wasted by ambitious politicians who tried to "pussyfoot" on this issue. But there was no shying away from it by Woodrow Wilson. When the question was presented to him by the ardent advocates of the Anti-Saloon League early in his administration as governor, without evasion of any kind, he stated his views in the following letter addressed to the head of the Anti-Saloon League:
Executive Office,
Trenton, New Jersey.

I am in favour of local option. I am a thorough believer in local self-government and believe that every self-governing community which constitutes a social unit should have the right to control the matter of the regulation or the withholding of licenses.

But the questions involved are social and moral, not political, and are not susceptible of being made parts of a party programme. Whenever they have been made the subject matter of party contests, they have cut the lines of party organization and party action athwart, to the utter confusion of political action in every other field. They have thrown every other question, however important, into the background and have made constructive party action impossible for long years together.

So far as I am myself concerned, therefore, I can never consent to have the question of local option made an issue between political parties in this state. My judgment is very clear in this matter. I do not believe that party programmes of the highest consequence to the political life of the state and the nation ought to be thrust to one side and hopelessly embarrassed for long periods together by making a political issue of a great question that is essentially non- political, non-partisan, moral and social in its nature.
Holding these views, that the liquor question was one which was "essentially non-political, non-partisan, moral and social in its nature," the President refused by any act of his to influence public opinion when the Eighteenth Amendment was up for consideration in the Senate and House.

He deeply resented and strenuously opposed the passage of war-time prohibition as uncalled for and unnecessary. In his opinion, it was not a food-conservation measure, but an out-and-out attempt by the anti-saloon forces to use the war emergency to declare the country "dry" by Congressional action. There was another reason for his attitude of opposition to war-time prohibition. He believed with an embargo placed upon beer, the consumption of whiskey, of which there were large stocks in the country, would be stimulated and increased to a great extent. In this opinion he was supported by Mr Herbert Hoover, Food Administrator. In a letter of May 28, 1918, to Senator Sheppard, the leader of the prohibition forces in the Senate, he explained his opposition to war-time prohibition in these words:

May 28, 1918.

United States Senate.


I was very much distressed by the action of the House. I do not think that it is wise or fair to attempt to put such compulsion on the Executive in a matter in which he has already acted almost to the limit of his authority. What is almost entirely overlooked is that there were, as I am informed, very large stocks of whiskey in this country, and it seems to me quite certain that if the brewing of beer were prevented entirely, along with all other drinks, many of them harmless, which are derived from food and food stuffs, the consumption of whiskey would be stimulated and increased to a very considerable extent.

My own judgment is that it is wise and statesmanlike to let the situation stand as it is for the present, until at any rate I shall be apprised by the Food Administration that it is necessary in the way suggested still further to conserve the supply of food and food stuffs. The Food Administration has not thought it necessary to go any further than we have in that matter already gone.

I thank you most cordially, Senator, for your kindness in consulting me in this matter, which is of very considerable importance, and has a very distinct bearing upon many collateral questions.

Cordially and sincerely yours,
War-time prohibition was ingenuously made part of the Agricultural Appropriation Bill, which contained many items necessary for the effective prosecution of the war. So strongly did the President feel about the matter, that I am frank to say that if war-time prohibition had stood alone and was disconnected from any other bill, I believe it would have been vetoed.

After the Armistice, agitation at once began, inspired by the "dry" advocates throughout the country, to prolong war-time prohibition, but the President felt that the object and purpose of war-time prohibition, if any ever existed, having been served, it was only right, proper, and fair that there should be an immediate repeal of it, and that only resentment and restlessness throughout the country would follow the attempt to prolong war-time prohibition beyond the time provided in the statute which created it.

It was unfortunate that the "dry" advocates did not see the thing through the eyes of the President. Apparently not fully satisfied with the victory they had won through the adoption of the Eighteenth Amendment, they sought to push the advantage thus gained still further, and through war-time prohibition to establish their policy of restriction as a permanent policy of the country. Realizing that prohibition as a permanent policy and by constitutional amendment had been definitely established in a constitutional way, the President was reluctant to take a stand that would even in spirit be a violation of this, but he also felt that the "dry" advocates were simply using a war crisis ruthlessly to press forward their views and to cajole vacillating congressmen into supporting it because it was known as a "dry" measure. In a letter which I addressed to the President on September 7, 1918, I strongly urged the veto of the Agricultural Appropriation Bill containing war-time prohibition:

September 7, 1918.


In the discussion we had a few days ago with reference to the pending "dry" legislation, I tried to emphasize the fact that under the Food Control Law you had the power to do what Congress is now seeking to do in a way that will cause great irritation. Your action of yesterday fixing December first as the day on which the prohibition of the manufacture of beer is to take place, I believe, strengthens what I said. Your action and the action of the Senate a day or two ago in giving you the right to establish zones about shipyards and munitions plants again shows the unnecessary character of this legislation. You are, therefore, now in a strong position to veto this legislation as unnecessary and unwarranted.

In view of all of this, I wish to emphasize the dangers, both of a political and industrial character, that confront us should we agree to go forward with those who favour legislation of this radical and restricted character. Even the most ardent prohibitionists fear the reactionary effect of this legislation upon the pending constitutional amendment. I am afraid of its effects upon the voters of our party in the large centres of population throughout the country, and of the deep resentment from all classes that is bound to follow.

In matters of legislation that seek to regulate the morals and habits of the people, the average American feels the only safe course to follow is the method set forth in the Constitution for the regulation of these vital matters. The proponents of this measure agree that it is not a conservation measure, but that it is an out-and-out attempt to declare the country "dry." In my opinion, it is mob legislation, pure and simple.

The danger of submitting quietly to any class legislation that has its basis in intolerance, especially at a time like this where the emotions of people can be whipped into a fury, is obvious. Your strength in the country comes from the feeling on the part of the people that under no circumstances can you be "hazed" by any class. If you yield in this instance, similar demands from other sources will rise to harass and embarrass you.

The viewpoint of the gentlemen on the Hill in charge of this bill is provincial. They have no idea of the readjustments that will have to come in the finances of our largest cities and municipalities through the country. Tax rates are bound to go up. Increased taxation in large cities, coming at a time when federal taxes are growing more burdensome, is bound to play a large part in the opinion of the people, and we cannot escape our responsibility if we seem to be afraid to oppose legislation of this kind. Our policy in every matter at this time should be one based upon magnanimity and tolerance toward every class and interest in the country.
Under date of May 9, 1919, I sent the following cable to the President who was then in Paris:
I sincerely hope you will consider the advisability of raising the embargo on beer. The most violent reaction has taken place throughout the country since the enactment of this law, especially in the larger cities. It is not, I assure you, the result of brewery propaganda. It comes from many of the humbler sort who resent this kind of federal interference with their rights. We are being blamed for all this restrictive legislation because you insist upon closing down all breweries and thus making prohibition effective July first. The country would be more ready to accept prohibition brought about by Constitutional amendment than have it made effective by Presidential ukase. The psychological effect of raising this embargo would be of incalculable benefit to America in every way at this time. The Springfield Republican says, Quote The establishment of national prohibition by Federal statute, through the mere act of Congress, does not appeal to one as so desirable as the establishment of national prohibition by the direct action of three fourths of the states End Quote. The war-time Prohibition Law, according to the text of the Act, was enacted for the purpose of conserving the man-power of the nation and to increase the efficiency in the production of arms, munitions, ships, and for the Army and Navy.

The New York World, in an editorial, says: Quote This war-time prohibition act is breeding social, industrial, and economic discontent every day. What makes it still more infamous is that under its provisions the rich man, because he has money, can accumulate for his personal consumption whatever stocks of wines and liquors he pleases, but the workingman, because he cannot afford to lay in a supply of anything, is deprived even of a glass of beer with his evening meal. There has never been another such measure of outrageous class and social discrimination on the statute books of the United States. It should never have been enacted by Congress. It should never have been signed by the President. If it is not repealed it is bound to cause more trouble than any other piece of Federal legislation since the Fugitive Slave Act End quote.

By taking vigorous action in this matter, you would do more for the cause of real temperance and hearten those people who feel the sting of the wave of intolerance which is now spreading over the country than anything you could think of. I wish I could meet you face to face and try to impress upon you the utter necessity for this action. You will have to take action soon.

On May 12, 1919, I received the following cable from the President:

TUMULTY, White House,

Please ask the Attorney General to advise me what action I can take with regard to removing the ban from the manufacture of drink and as to the form the action should take.

On May 12, 1919, I replied to this cable as follows:
White House, Washington,
May 12, 1919.

Paris, France.

Have consulted Attorney General with regard to removing ban upon manufacture of alcoholic liquor. Am in receipt of a letter from him in which he says: Quote The only action you can take until demobilization may be determined and proclaimed, will be to issue a public statement or send a message to Congress declaring that since the purpose of the Act has been entirely satisfied, nothing prevents your lifting the ban on the manufacture and sale of beer, wine, or other intoxicating malt or vinous liquors except the limitations imposed by the Act which maintains it in force until demobilization is terminated after the conclusion of the war. End quote

On May 20, 1919, in a message to Congress, the President made the following recommendation with reference to war-time prohibition:
The demobilization of the military forces of the country has progressed to such a point that it seems to me entirely safe now to remove the ban upon the manufacture and sale of wines and beers, but I am advised that without further legislation I have not the legal authority to remove the present restrictions. I therefore recommend that the Act approved November 21, 1918, entitled "an Act to enable the Secretary of Agriculture to carry out, during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1919, the purposes of the Act, entitled 'An Act to provide further for the national security and defense by stimulating agriculture and facilitating the distribution of agricultural products, and for other purposes,' be amended and repealed in so far as it applies to wines and beers."
Congress refused to act upon the President's recommendation.

Under date of June 27, 1919, I sent the following cable to the President:
There are only four days left until nation-wide prohibition becomes effective and the country will go on a whiskey basis unless you act to suspend it. Everything that has happened in the last few weeks confirms the views I expressed to you in May excepting that added force has been given to every argument made, especially by the action of the American Federation of Labour whose membership almost unanimously voted at its convention for lifting the ban. The action of Canada in lifting the ban is regarded by the country as significant. Workingmen and common people all over the country cannot understand why light wines and beer cannot be permitted until the Constitutional amendment becomes effective. Only this week the Pennsylvania Legislature voted to legalize two and three-quarters per cent, beer and light wines. Similar action will follow in other states. The consensus of opinion in the press is that if prohibition is to be effective, it might better be by action of three quarters of the states rather than by Presidential proclamation for which you alone and our party would bear the responsibility. The prohibitionists in Congress are fearful that the enforcement of wartime prohibition will cause a harmful reaction on real prohibition, and I believe that they are secretly in favour of your lifting the ban for this reason. Demobilization figures officially announced by the War Department show that the number of troops now remaining in service is practically only the number of troops in the Regular Army. Samuel Gompers, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mrs. Douglass Robinson, sister of the late Theodore Roosevelt, Miss Gertrude Atherton, Frank S. Goodnow, president of Johns Hopkins University, and Cardinal Gibbons out in strong statement favouring retention of beer and light wines. If you do not intend to lift the ban on July first, you can announce your intention to suspend it as soon as the War Department notifies you demobilization is accomplished which, the best opinion says, will be August first. The feeling all over the country is one of harmful uncertainty and I strongly recommend that a definite announcement, of some nature which will clear the atmosphere, be made.

On June 28, 1919, I again cabled the President, as follows:
The White House, Washington,
28 June, 1919.


Received your message saying that you do not intend to lift the ban. The Republicans have been industriously spreading the story throughout the country that you in fact have power under the Act of November 21, 1918, to lift the ban. I think it important, wise, and politic, therefore, for you to make a statement which we can issue from the White House along the following lines: Quote I am convinced that I have no legal power at this time in the matter of the ban of liquor. Under the Act of November 21, 1918, my power to take action is restricted. The Act provides that after June 30, 1919, until the conclusion of the present war and thereafter until the termination of demobilization, the date of which shall be determined and proclaimed by the President, it shall be unlawful, etc. This law does not specify that the ban shall be lifted with the signing of peace but with the termination of the demobilization of the troops, and I cannot say that that has been accomplished. My information from the War Department is that there are still a million men in the service under the emergency call. It is clear, therefore, that the failure of Congress to act upon the suggestion contained in my message of the 20th of May, 1919, asking for a repeal of the Act of November 21, 1918, so far as it applies to wines and beers, makes it impossible to act in this matter at this time. Of course when demobilization is terminated, my power to act without congressional action will be exercised End quote.

The President replied to my cables as follows:
Paris, June 28, 1919.

White House, Washington.

Please issue following statement: I am convinced that the Attorney General is right in advising me that I have no legal power at this time in the matter of the ban on liquor. Under the act of November, 1918, my power to take action is restricted. The act provides that after June 30, 1919, until the conclusion of the present war and thereafter until the termination of demobilization, the date of which shall be determined and proclaimed by the President, it shall be unlawful, etc. This law does not specify that the ban shall be lifted with the signing of peace but with the termination of the demobilization of the troops and I cannot say that that has been accomplished. My information from the War Department is that there are still a million men in the service under the emergency call. It is clear therefore that the failure of Congress to act upon the suggestion contained in my message of the twentieth of May, 1919, asking for a repeal of the Act of November 21, 1918, so far as it applies to wines and beers makes it impossible to act in this matter at this time. When demobilization is terminated my power to act without congressional action will be exercised.

When the Volstead Act reached the President, he found, upon examining it, that it in no way repealed war-time prohibition, and so he vetoed it.

In vetoing it, he admonished Congress, that "in all matters having to do with the personal habits and customs of large numbers of people, we must be certain that the established processes of legal change are followed. In no other way can the salutary object sought to be accomplished by great reforms of this character be made satisfactory and permanent."

The House of Representatives with its overwhelming "dry" majority passed the Volstead Act over the President's veto. The President clearly foresaw the inevitable reaction that would follow its passage and its enforcement throughout the country.

As the days of the San Francisco Convention approached, he felt that it was the duty of the Democratic party frankly to speak out regarding the matter and boldly avow its attitude toward the unreasonable features of the Volstead enforcement act. In his conferences with the Democratic leaders he took advantage of every opportunity to put before them the necessity for frank and courageous action. So deep were his convictions about this vital matter, that it was his intention, shortly after the passage of the Volstead Act over his veto, to send a special message to Congress regarding the matter, asking for the repeal of the Volstead Act and the passage of legislation permitting the manufacture and sale of light wines, or at least a modification of the Volstead Act, changing the alcoholic content of beer.

Upon further consideration of the matter it was agreed that it would be unwise to ask for any change at the hands of a congress that had so overwhelmingly expressed its opinion in opposition to any such modification. We, therefore, thought it wise to conserve our energies and to await the psychological moment at the Convention for putting forward the President's programme.

A few days before the Convention the President delivered to a trusted friend a copy of a proposed "wet" plank, and asked his friend to submit it to the Committee on Resolutions at the Convention in San Francisco. The tentative draft of the plank was as follows:
We recognize that the American saloon is opposed to all social, moral, and economic order, and we pledge ourselves to its absolute elimination by the passage of such laws as will finally and effectually exterminate it. But we favour the repeal of the Volstead Act and the substitution for it of a law permitting the manufacture and sale of light wines and beer.
Evidently, the trusted friend who had this matter in charge felt that the "dry" atmosphere of the Convention was unfavourable and so the President's plank, prepared by himself, was not even given a hearing before the Committee on Resolutions.


Terms Defined

Referenced Works