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essays

April 1908

The Wet and the Dry: Richard Bartholdt Against Prohibition

“I say to you, my prohibition friends, your movement is doomed to defeat, because you build on a foundation of sand, on a perverted principle.”

Editor’s Introduction:

At the national level, alcohol prohibition was an extremely long, taxing time in the making.  From the local level, prohibitionist organizations more or less spontaneously formed throughout the early nineteenth-century, gradually coalescing into state-wide movements and political parties, eventually reaching the critical constitutional mass necessary to pass the Eighteenth Amendment and outlaw the liquor trade for good.  On their way to ultimate, constitutional victory, however, the Prohibitionists met with a great deal more enemies than the drunken armies of “Demon Rum” and “King Alcohol.”  Liturgical Catholics, especially Irish and German immigrants and their children, were perhaps the most significant contingent of ideologically and politically “wet” Americans.  While the Irish tended to vote as a bloc with the Democrats—who, in opposition to prohibition, called themselves “The Party of Personal Liberty”—Germans tended to vote for the nationalist Republican Party (called “The Party of Public Morality”).  Prohibition, much like the subject of abortion today, remained an important ongoing battle for the soul of the Republican Party throughout the post-Civil War era.  Germans maintaining cultural and religious connections to alcohol represented themselves in the debate with individuals like Congressman Richard Bartholdt of St. Louis, Missouri.

Bartholdt was born and educated in Bismarck’s Germany, moved to New York as a young man and learned the printing trade, and finally settled in Missouri where he edited the St. Louis Tribune and sat on the local Board of Education.  Bartholdt carried a conservative temperament and respect for strong power at the federative level with him from Germany, and once in America he married ideas from the Old and New.  He was elected to Congress in 1892 and served eleven consecutive terms, becoming known primarily for his passionate defense of a limited constitutional order in the face of patently unconstitutional establishment of a national police force to assist states in upholding their own prohibition statutes.  In the following set of speeches, Congressman Bartholdt elaborated the core series of “wet” arguments against national action on alcohol prohibition.  More importantly, however, his speech challenges the “dry” contingents to effect moral change through moral means—eschew the use of force by proxy of the state, change themselves and their communities, and in so doing proclaim the benefits of sobriety for all to hear. 

Bartholdt’s relatively little-known life assuredly deserves more attention from libertarians, and for reasons apart from his opposition to prohibition.  He served as president of the Interparliamentary Union in 1904, campaigned for peace and the prevention of American arms sales to belligerents at the outbreak of World War One, and even campaigned for the adoption of Esperanto in American schools.  In all of these activities, Bartholdt combined a European intellectual commitment to nation-states with an adopted set of libertarian American values.  This mix of Old and New World ideology propelled him to fight for international peace on whatever basis it might be established—through the history-less, universal Esperantist language or the direct interactions of the People’s representatives at international conferences.

Readers will notice that Bartholdt regrettably makes sexist and racist remarks in several places; while we can learn from these mistakes, the text’s value as a positive example lies elsewhere.

 

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

 

 

Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, Sixtieth Congress:  Argument of Hon. Richard Bartholdt, Representative from Missouri, in Opposition to the Several Bills to Restrict Interstate Commerce in Certain Cases

Washington:  Government Printing Office.  1908.

 

The Committee on the Judiciary,

Friday, April 10, 1908

Statement of Hon. Richard Bartholdt, A Member of Congress from the State of Missouri.

In my judgment there is not now, and there never was, a more important question before Congress than the one involved in these bills, because none affects more vitally our governmental structure and the foundation upon which it rests.  In one of its decisions the Supreme Court of the United States has characterized the laws guaranteeing free and unobstructed commerce between the States as sacred statutes, and no less a term will aptly describe them because they convey to us the true significance of our union of States and of a union inseparable and indestructible.  The right of free interchange of commodities opens up the whole country as a market to every producer and every consumer.  It makes the citizen of Maine a customer of the citizen of California, and the citizen of Florida a purveyor to the citizen of Oregon.  It makes the United States in geographical extent, the largest free-trade territory in the world.  And what is of still greater importance, it carries home to every American fireside the lesson of our unity and of a common country.  Erect barriers on the boundary lines of the States, stop the flow of trade, and you do not only lay violent hands upon a sacred law, but you undermine the foundation of the Government.  The Constitution prohibits the levying of a tax by one State upon imports from another State of the Union.  In other words, within the extended domain of the Republic custom duties are absolutely prohibited.  Now, it is proposed to substitute the policeman for the tax collector, and instead of levying tribute from the merchants of other commonwealths the police of prohibition States are to be enabled, by this proposed legislation, to destroy their goods altogether.  Why, gentlemen, if such a law could be enacted, without doing violence to the spirit of the Constitution, then we would be bound to admit that, instead of a Federal Government with power to regulate interstate commerce, we merely have a loose federation of sovereign States; instead of 1 republic, 45 republics; instead of a common country, a divided country…

We are all under oath to uphold the Constitution, and it is not for the Supreme Court, but for us, in the first instance, to decide a constitutional question.  If the adoption of any proposition means a step outside of the organic law we are not permitted, under our oaths, to take the step.  And if anywhere in our great country the Constitution ought to be safe, it is right here in the house of its friends…

Now, let us turn to another aspect of the case.  The advocates of prohibition are asking for the passage of one of these bills for what purpose?  To prop up their cause in prohibition States.  In other words, wherever prohibition has carried there always is a minority of citizens, large or small, who will not allow any sumptuary State law to interfere with their personal habits and individual right to drink when and what they please.  And it is no libel to say that even among the majority there are many who will continue to make use of that right, because by voting for prohibition they meant it for the other fellow and not for the restriction of their own liberty and comfort.  And because this is true it is even being claimed that the quickest way to dispose of the prohibition movement would be the strict and relentless enforcement of the laws it has placed on the statute books.  I myself would be in favor of such a course if it did not involve an unwarranted restriction of personal liberty, an insult to the rights and dignity of manhood, a ruin of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and a waste of untold fortunes in property values.  But that is neither here nor there.  I want to say here and now, and without fear of successful contradiction, that the Federal law which our prohibition friends are urging us to enact is absolutely unnecessary if the States themselves will honestly enforce their prohibition laws…

It may be argued that an enormous police force will be necessary to watch violations, but, gentlemen, that is the penalty of the enactment of Russian statutes.  And, certainly, it will take a police apparatus of no smaller proportions to watch and search every railroad train, every boat, every farmer’s wagon and the basket of every man and woman as they are crossing the boundary line of a State.  The real facts are, my friends—and I address myself to the advocates of prohibition—that your laws are incapable of strict enforcement either with or without the aid of Congress, because total abstinence is not a result of law, but of sentiment and education.  The man who wants to indulge and can not do so because there is a policeman around the corner, will do it clandestinely, and as long as people are not satisfied that to drink is injurious and wrong just so long will your laws against indulgence of this kind be ineffective…

Prohibition is a failure wherever it has been tried…We have seen that if the traffic could be suppressed at all, the State police power would be amply sufficient to suppress it, but the partial or complete failure to do so is admitted on all sides, even by our prohibition friends, or they would not be here asking for this legislation.  There can be but two reasons for such failure.  Either the State is not exhausting its powers to that end, or the natural human desire for liquor can not be suppressed—i.e., its satisfaction prevented by law.  In either case there is not the shadow of an excuse for interference by Congress…

But I will go further and say that even if the importations could be inhibited, no human ingenuity has as yet been able to devise a law by which a farmer, for instance, could be estopped from making all the liquor he wants for his own use.  Apples and a cider press is all he needs for that purpose.  So you would not even gain anything if Congress, in the exercise of its constitutional powers, deprived liquor of its character as one of the legitimate articles of interstate commerce…

Why, if I were a pronounced States-rights man, instead of a Federalist and Unionist, I would regard the bills under consideration as a pernicious attempt at further encouraging the States to sleep on their sovereign power…

If you, my southern friends, will by an appeal to the Federal Government allow the nation to supply the power which the State fails or refuses to exercise, though it is competent to exercise it, then I predict it is only a question of time when you will be entirely governed from Washington instead of from your State capitols.  But you say you want the national power in this case to halt at the border of the State in order to give full sway to the police power of the State.  Well and good; but don’t you see the efficacy of your police power would be more firmly established and better demonstrated by conquering the alleged evil in spite of the concurrent operation of the interstate-commerce law?  The evil you complain of exists, not because of a lack of State authority or because of an interference with it by the nation, but because of a failure to fully exercise it.  The legislator who would be willing to sacrifice, aye, under the circumstances needlessly sacrifice, the inviolability of interstate commerce in order to hush up the failure of a sumptuary State law and its enforcement may be a good prohibitionist, but to my mind he is not a good American…

But perhaps this merely gives us a foretaste of what will happen when the two great parties have been crushed and the Prohibitionists will run the Government.  No, my good friends, we can not follow you at such a gait in spite of what I regard as a passing fancy or a temporary popular clamor.  You may capture women and children, intimidate village councils, and crack the whip over State legislatures, but when you come to Congress you strike a level where people are in the habit of doing a little thinking all for themselves…

So far the Congress has never yet gone on record directly in favor of the principle of prohibition; at least not as affecting the people at large.  It has prohibited the sale of intoxicants to Indians, to soldiers and inmates of soldiers’ homes, and others within Government buildings, military reservations, or immigrant stations; but beyond that the arm of Uncle Sam has not reached.  Now, we are asked for the first time to lend aid and assistance to the States in the enforcement of their sumptuary laws…

I have the highest regard for those well-meaning men and women who honestly strive to promote temperance and sobriety, and in all my manhood years I have prided myself with being of their number.  But it is as clear to me as if it were one of the Creator’s revelations that those who honestly favor sobriety must not advocate prohibition.

There our ways part, for I regard that alleged preventative against drunkenness, and shall prove it to be such, as a devilish device to nail the human family the more securely to the cross of King Alcohol.  I do not hurl this as a wholesale indictment against its advocates, though many of them certainly thrive by the agitation, but I do charge that they are either honestly blind to the truth, or intentionally shut their eyes to facts and figures, which are patent to every sane and discriminating person…And outside of insanity, Mr. Chairman, there is only one state of the human mind which the force of reason can not penetrate, and that is fanaticism.  The belief in witchcraft was that kind of fanaticism.  It sent thousands of innocent women to torture and death, and the men who had the courage to protest and who, by an appeal to reason, endeavored to restore the mind of people to their normal condition were first made, by insufferable torture, to recent and then put to death so that their lips might never tell how their forged confessions were secured…And so it will be in this case.  The “pipe dream” of many of our people in the omnipotence of legislation is bound to be followed by a rude awakening.  The belief, almost childish in its naivete, in the all-powerful curative effects of law will be rudely shaken by the discovery that legislation will always be a failure when it attempts to correct human nature.  And since as good citizens we are interested in maintaining a common respect for law, might I not venture to suggest that it might be more conducive to the welfare of the country not to undermine the authority of law by attempting the impossible by legislation?…

Therefore, I say to you, my prohibition friends, your movement is doomed to defeat, because you build on a foundation of sand, on a perverted principle, namely, the idea that you can promote sobriety from without instead of from within, by law instead of by moral suasion…

[The Congressman continued his remarks on Friday, May 1.]

Neither a monarchical nor even a despotic government has ever attempted to prohibit what in itself is not morally wrong.  In all countries and at all times it has been held to be wrong to deny an individual a natural right where its exercise does not conflict with the equal right of his fellow-man.  Especially is this true as relating to mere personal habits.  Deviations from this wise rule have invariably caused social disturbances, bloodshed, and revolution.  Lawful liberty is nothing more and nothing less than a guaranty of the natural rights of man, as I have just circumscribed them, and constitutions are made to protect these rights.

The right to eat and to drink can never be interfered with by any majority, and a law prohibiting it, namely, the act of eating and drinking itself, if put upon the statute books by the 51 outvoting the 49, would immediately be declared unconstitutional.  That is the reason why our friends on the other side seek to accomplish their purpose by indirection.  They shrewdly do not prohibit the use of spirituous and malt liquors and wines, but only their manufacture and sale.  But what will the American people do when they awaken to a full realization of the fact that the exercise of a personal right, dear even to the serf of Russia and cherished by all as a right, whether really exercised or not, has been or is to be denied them by a trick?  Or do you believe for one moment that the present generation of Americans places a less valuation on their priceless heritage than do other nations on whatever liberty they may enjoy, merely because they have inherited it and hence lack a true appreciation of its value?  Wait and see.  I hold that the people have been misled.  Prohibition is parading in the respectable garments of a church movement and an alleged moral revival.  Every shortcoming of youth, for which no one but the parents themselves are responsible owing to the laxity in discipline and educational methods, every crime in the Decalogue, poverty, misery, unhappiness in matrimony—all these have been ascribed to the influence of the “demon rum,” the same as in the age of witchcraft all ills and misfortunes were traced back to the influence of witches.

It is comforting, perhaps, to seek the cause for our troubles outside of us instead of in us, and it is so convenient to assign one cause for all the ills of society; but is it just and is it true?  Surely people will learn to discriminate.  While up to this time we may have regarded it as an unseemly task to be our brothers’ keepers and as unworthy of a great people to make the personal habits of man and the private lockers of families a paramount political issue, we may yet have occasion to thank these good men and women and the many reverend gentlemen who are engaged in this movement for having opened the Pandora box of social problems.  Only we shall not stop where they stop.  We shall investigate whether it is not true that many American homes are deserted because the wives and mothers are out upon the streets and the hustings and in legislative halls agitating for prohibition; whether they would not benefit the cause of true temperance immeasurably more by inculcating the right ideas of moderation into the minds of their children; whether the so-called temperance drinks which American women are in the habit of consuming in sickening quantities and at all times of the day are not really more harmful and more alcoholic than the milder of the men’s beverages which they propose to put under the ban; whether the charms of “Home Sweet Home” are not marred by an agitation which, under the leadership of certain modern clergymen, makes women and children participants in public political demonstrations.

And those of us who believe in the old sound maxim, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, etc.” will also try and ascertain whether those clergymen, on behalf of their churches, are not grasping for political power and whether a gratification of their desires would not tear the old ship of state from its safe moorings and carry it into that dangerous whirlpool caused by a mingling of church and state.  In a word, the spirits you have conjured up will never again be banished.  I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet, but I predict here and now that as soon as the masses of the American people will discover that the dominion of the church can not be established in affairs of state except at the expense of the heritage handed down to them by the fathers, the prohibition movement will disappear from the soil of this free country as rapidly as does the mist in the rays of the sun…

Shall we constantly walk in the shadow of penitence with stern faces and bent heads, or shall we be permitted to bask, occasionally at least, in the sunshine of life’s pleasures?  The struggle for existence is intense, and those who visit the public taverns are mostly, yes, 90 per cent of them, hard-working men.  Will any reasonable and well-meaning man deny that, in view of the crowded conditions in a laboring man’s home, such places are a necessity?

It is safe to say that 95 out of 100 men visiting such places are sober and respectable citizens who simply feel the necessity, so thoroughly human, of enjoying a sociable chat with their neighbors, comrades, or friends and with most of them drinking is only a secondary consideration.  They really wish less for the drink than the momentary diversion, the good cheer, the sociability connected with it.  Where is the good wife and mother who is willing to deny to him, the breadwinner, this little recreation?  The wealthy can, of course, go to their clubs, and these never run dry, especially not in prohibition States, but the middle and poorer classes who can not afford to keep well-stocked ice boxes and sideboards are depending absolutely on the place which has very aptly been called “the poor man’s club.”  And this class of men are entitled to the same respectful consideration as are the members of millionaire clubs…

A man eats and drinks in obedience to a natural law and the only power between heaven and earth which can stop him from eating and drinking when and what he wants is his own intellect and his instinctive regard for the preservation of health and life.  Attempt to stop him, and he will violate law and overthrow even constitutions…Our friends on the other side foolishly believe that by removing the temptation they will kill the desire.  How childish!  You might as well say that the way to prevent those unspeakable crimes committed by negroes in the South is to abolish white women because their existence constitutes the temptation.  And you would certainly have to abolish money, for there is no gainsaying the fact that the existence of money has caused more crimes in the world than all other temptations put together.  And by the time you would get through removing temptations the earth would be desolate, the human race extinct, and there would be nothing left but the stones to cry to heaven and bewail the idiocy of those who had once been made in the image of the Creator…

The only logical conclusion from this is that temptation can successfully be resisted only from within…The fact is sobriety, the same as charity, begins at home.  Hence we had better turn our faces homeward.  And if it were not presumptuous to undertake the teaching of teachers, I would say to my reverend friends:  Retrace your steps, because you are on the wrong track.  You do not need the Government to make the world better.  You are already in possession of the only means by which the evils you complain of can be cured—namely, by good example and precept…

Viewed in this light, your presence in the halls of Congress is really an indictment against the American people in that you make it appear as if this nation were incapable of attaining the high state of sobriety which other nations, without invoking the power of the state, have attained, and in the name of the people I have the honor to represent here, I protest against such an insinuation.  In my judgment and theirs, the real cause of the failure which is here alleged is not the lack of State authority, but the unholy hankering after such authority and the waste of so much valuable time on the part of those whose influence on hearts, minds, and souls a nation must largely rely on for its moral welfare…We must learn to turn from the police club to educational means, from a meddlesome interference with the personal affairs of our neighbors to higher ideas and ideals, from undemocratic retrogression to progress, from prohibition to liberty…

On the other hand, it is a positive insult to the American people to assume that the only citizens ready to defend the cause of individual rights and personal liberty are the men engaged in the liquor business…I resent this insinuation with all the scorn that is in me, and predict that the time will come when these very men will be universally recognized as patriots…I fear the flame of intolerance and fanaticism which has been kindled by this agitation will eventually consume our bill of rights, for when it has come to such a pass that majorities can be deceived by sophistry and fraud, it will not be long before popular self-government will have proved a failure and the beginning of the end of our liberties will have been reached.

Constitution and laws have drawn a sacred circle around the individual which marks the domain of his inviolable rights.  Let that domain once be invaded, and there will be no stop to further regulations and infringements until the gallows are erected alongside of the remnants of our boasted liberties…

To get drunk is certainly a sin and a disgrace…It is a moral duty to prevent drunkenness when we can.  It is a legal duty to punish it…As a matter of fact, however, the battle is not between the sin of drunkenness and prohibition…

Thus there is no need for this party calling itself prohibition, no actual work for it to do in the cause of temperance, and none recognizes this better than the politicians who jump into prohibition’s band wagon.  Therefore we find them minimizing the actual fight against drunkenness, though preaching this fight in public.  Their efforts are aimed at the temperate as well as at the intemperate, and many good people, though seeing the inadvisability and unwisdom of fighting the temperate, yet pass laws to this effect because they fear the people will construe contrary action as supporting intemperance.

No wonder these laws are not enforced.  They do not strike at the real crime at all…