Study Guide

18th and 21st Amendments Compare and Contrast

By United States Congress

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  • "Temperance Address" by Abraham Lincoln

    In 1842, a young Abe Lincoln gave a speech to the Springfield, IL, Temperance Union. The speech was delivered a little less than eighty years before Prohibition was passed, and Lincoln himself would be dead in a little over twenty. Lincoln was sympathetic to the Temperance Movement, or else he decided it was politically expedient to support them. The interesting part of this speech is that he doesn't support the Temperance Movement whole hog.

    Much of the speech, which Lincoln fans can read here, discusses the important and mostly happy role of alcohol in human history. Drinking's not a bad thing, says Lincoln—it's a very good thing that just gets abused sometimes. He then goes on to praise those unfortunate souls who've fallen victim to drink. If anything, they're more intelligent, generous, and sensitive than any other group of people you could compare them with. Who are we to condemn or judge them?

    Lincoln's not going for Prohibition here at all. He thinks that if you'd just reason with people, they'd see how bad drunkenness can be and they'd cut it out or moderate their drinking. No need to carry on and get all up in their face. Or risk eliminating all the fun stuff from parties just because some people can't control themselves.

    You'll probably notice that Lincoln's rhetoric is used a lot by people worried about the change brought on by revolutionary social movements: calm down, be patient. Women's suffrage, civil rights—the message was to back off and wait for people to come around to your way of thinking.

    Should temperance advocates have calmed down? Or is the first hint of success the time to step up efforts? It's the essential question all activists face. In the case of the Temperance Movement crusaders, they didn't wait or show much temperance themselves, and it got them what they wanted.

  • "Address of Frances E. Willard"

    Willard was the President of the Women's Christian Temperance Union as well as the Women's Council. In the "Address of Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman's National Council of the United States, at its first triennial meeting," she addresses a wide range of issues important to women—everything from equal status in marriage, society, and politics to not having to wear clothing that makes it impossible to walk or breathe: "[…] she is swathed by her skirts, splintered by her stays, bandaged by her tight waist, and pinioned by her sleeves until—alas, that I should live to say it!—a trussed turkey or a spitted goose are her most appropriate emblems" (source).

    Wait, what? We didn't know they had Spanx in the 1890s.

    The speech describes the progress that women have made in the past decades in business and education, and she sings the praises of Wyoming, which granted women the right to vote in 1869. Willard spends a paragraph on supporting Prohibition, but it's really just one step toward a much greater goal. This is a women's movement-building speech. Willard herself would likely have been far more impressed with the 19th Amendment, which granted women the vote, than with the 18th. Although she was a driving force behind both, she didn't live to see either Amendment passed.

  • "The Maine Law" by Neal Dow

    Think of the Maine Law of 1851 as a prototype for the 18th Amendment. This is it, the first successful prohibition law in the United States: gaze upon it and tremble. The law prohibited the manufacture or sale of liquor, and allowed search and seizure of a building if there was credible evidence that booze was inside.

    Its author, Portland mayor Neil Dow, was catapulted to national recognition and he became the first presidential candidate of the Prohibition Party in 1880 (source). The language of the Maine Law is remarkably similar to the 18th, but this shouldn't surprise you. It's basically legalese, and there is one specific way to write it.

    The Maine Law had one other big thing in common with the 18th Amendment: it didn't work all that well. Enforcement was lax, "rum riots" erupted, and bootleggers thrived. In fact, many places that served alcohol illegally did it according to what was called the "Bangor Plan." It worked like this: twice a year, the owners of restaurants and hotels would go to court and pay a fine. The rest of the year, they'd be left alone (source). Just the cost of doing business, right?

    The law was so unsuccessful that President Theodore Roosevelt, lobbied by temperance activists, pointed to Maine as a warning about what might happen if national prohibition became law:

    The state of Maine has been trying prohibition for 60 years. That is long enough to try anything. What has been accomplished in the state? The American people down in Alabama, Tennessee and other states are waiting to hear the facts. (Source)

    Facts or not, other states jumped on Maine's bandwagon and passed prohibition laws of their own.

  • Fiorello LaGuardia

    Yep, he's the guy with the airport named after him in New York. He also thought Prohibition was a terrible idea and testified about it before the Senate in 1926. He probably had the best line about Prohibition when he opened his testimony by saying "It is impossible to tell whether prohibition is a good thing or a bad thing. It has never been enforced in this country" (source).

    LaGuardia's beef was primarily that Prohibition didn't prevent drinking and it encouraged corruption: treasury agents driving around in private chauffeured limousines, for example. A billion dollars a year was lost to the government in taxes. Speakeasies, pool rooms, and even hat shops were selling alcohol. The government was colluding with criminals by printing bills in denominations of $10,000. Now who would deal in $10,000 bills except bootleggers and gangsters? Fiorello LaGuardia wants to know.

    LaGuardia thought it was crazy to let temperance organizations be the ones to evaluate the effects of Prohibition. He called for the government to establish a commission to investigate. The speech was full of impressive statistics, for which he gave no evidence. LaGuardia was correct in that Prohibition had the effect of both increasing corruption and violent crime.

    Seriously, though: cite your sources.

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