The Original Voluntary Committee of Lawyers (1927-33)

By Richard M. Evans

In 1927, nine prominent New York lawyers associated themselves under the intentionally-bland name, “Voluntary Committee of Lawyers,” declaring as their purpose “to preserve the spirit of the Constitution of the United States [by] bringing about the repeal of the so-called Volstead Act and the 18th Amendment.” They propelled nothing short of a revolution in drug policy, the repeal of the 18th Amendment, playing a vital role in bringing the “Noble Experiment” to an end.

With the modest platform they commanded, and reinforced by their significant stature in the legal community, they undertook first to draft and encourage local and state bar associations to pass resolutions calling for the repeal of alcohol prohibition. Their success led the American Bar Association to call for repeal in 1928, following scores of city and state bar associations in all regions of the country which had adopted resolutions containing words and ideas cultivated, shaped and sharpened by the VCL.

This success was merely prelude to their stunning achievements several years later. Due in large part to the VCL’s extraordinary contributions, the 18th Amendment was, in less than a year, struck from the Constitution. Repeal was a reality. People could drink, without filling the coffers of criminals and corrupting democratic institutions. Violence abated.

This is how it happened.

Climaxing decades of gathering hostility toward saloons and moral outrage over the general degeneracy and debauchery said to be flowing from bottles and kegs, the Constitution of the United States had been amended, effective 1920, to prohibit the manufacture and sale of “intoxicating liquors.” The Volstead Act, the federal statute implementing the prohibition amendment, included beer in that category. At first, prohibition was cheered by its victorious supporters, and generally tolerated by others. But before long, unmistakable grumbling was heard in the cities. To meet the barely interrupted demand for alcohol, there sprang up bathtub ginworks and basement stills, discreet illegal supply networks, and secret, illegal bars called speakeasies.

Commerce in alcohol plunged underground, and soon fell under the control of thugs and gangsters. Violence often settled commercial differences as suppliers and distributors were denied the services of lawyers, insurance companies, and the civil courts. On the local level, widespread disobedience of the prohibition laws by otherwise law-abiding citizens produced numerous arrests. Courts were badly clogged, in large part because nearly all defendants demanded jury trials, confident that a jury of their peers would view their plight with sympathy.

With the growth of well-organized and serious national anti-prohibition groups like Americans Against the Prohibition Amendment and the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform, popular support for repeal grew geometrically during the 13 years of prohibition. In the midst of the 1932 presidential election support erupted.

It was summer. Millions were broken from economic depression, beleaguered by crime, corruption and violence… and they were thirsty.

As expected, the Republicans nominated the incumbent President, Herbert Hoover, who supported prohibition. The VCL made a stalwart effort to gain a repeal plank in the platform, taking the debate as far as the convention floor.

The situation was totally different with the Democrats. Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt of New York, the front-runner, had carefully avoided taking a position on repeal. At the convention a successful floor fight produced a prorepeal plank–drafted and defended by the VCL-in the Democratic platform which FDR unambiguously endorsed in his acceptance speech. “This convention wants repeal,” he declared. “Your candidate wants repeal.”

During the election campaign, FDR made one unequivocal speech endorsing repeal. Otherwise, both candidates successfully avoided the issue, despite–or perhaps because of–their having taken opposite positions. When the only thing standing in the way of repeal was the election of FDR, thousands of “wets” and scores of “wet” organizations moved solidly behind the Democrat. The message was clear: Roosevelt meant repeal, and repeal meant Roosevelt.

Public opinion demanded both, and Roosevelt triumphed in the election. The number of “wets” in Congress grew significantly, and the “damps” shrank. In nine states, voters passed referenda repealing the state prohibition laws, shifting the burden of prohibition enforcement in those states to the federal government. This is when the VCL stepped forward and took on the remarkable leadership and responsibility for which they were so uniquely equipped. It required no particular insight into the nature of democracy to know that when the weight of public opinion demanded repeal of prohibition, prohibition would be repealed. The question was how. A thorough and solid legal plan was essential.

For years, repeal advocates had urged that the repeal question be resolved by conventions in the states, which is one of two methods prescribed in the Constitution for ratifying amendments. Historically, though, this method had never been used. On every other occasion, constitutional amendments had been ratified by state legislatures. But state legislatures were notoriously “dry,” being dominated by rural, fundamentalist interests, passionate in their defense of prohibition. The repeal resolution would have to bypass state legislatures and go to popularly elected conventions, if it were to succeed.

By whom were such conventions to be called? How were delegates to be chosen? When and where were they to convene? Who would preside? By what rules should the convention conduct itself’ What rights and privileges would delegates have? How were conflicts between state and federal law to be resolved? Complicated questions, and neither Congress nor any state had spoken on these issues. Enter the VCL.

Conferring with eminent constitutional scholars, exhaustively researching law and history, circulating drafts of statutes, memoranda and briefs, the VCL quickly produced a prototype state statute which dealt with the organizational problems involved in setting up constitutional conventions in the states. Called “truly representative,” the conventions were carefully designed to mirror exactly the preferences of voters by requiring candidates to declare themselves for or against repeal on the ballot. Thus the convention process became a two-step referendum: voters would issue orders to the delegates, and the delegates would carry them out. In no way were the conventions to be deliberative bodies; debate would not be allowed to frustrate the popular will.

Copies of the draft bills were sent to governors and legislative leaders in all states. Utilizing their impressive network of affiliate members throughout the 48 states, as well as their exquisite legal skills, the VCL lined up expert witnesses for legislative hearings, submitted thorough legal briefs, defended legal challenges, answered Constitutional questions, in short, prepared for the day that Congress would pass a repeal resolution and send it to the several states for ratification.

When Congress reconvened in January of 1933, it wasted no time responding to the “wet” mandate. By February 20, 1933, the repeal amendment was formally passed, calling for ratification by state conventions. In the flash of a mere nine and a half months, legislation setting up state conventions had been enacted, the conventions called, delegates elected and the conventions held. In 36 states, the requisite three quarters, the repeal of prohibition was ratified. The final roll-call vote, in Utah, was eagerly monitored by millions over a national radio broadcast; it is said that a national cheer could be heard at the moment of passage.

Nearly all the states that ratified the repeal resolution relied on the prototype statute promulgated by the VCL, either enacting it verbatim, or borrowing heavily from it.

Several hours after Utah ratified the 21st Amendment, while millions of Americans were celebrating, the VCL treasurer quietly balanced the books by making a final contribution from his own pocket in the amount of $6.66, and closed them permanently.

Who were they?

At its peak, the VCL claimed a total membership of approximately 3,500 affiliate lawyers from all states. The organization was managed, however, by a tight coterie of nine highly regarded and well-connected New York attorneys. For the entire term of its existence, the VCL was chaired by Joseph H. Choate, Jr., a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School, son of Theodore Roosevelt’s ambassador to England, and an eminent Park Avenue lawyer. The organization’s treasurer was Harrison Tweed, another Harvard/Harvard Law man, one of the country’s most successful lawyers, and a prime mover in many important civic causes.

Choate and Tweed and seven other colleagues called themselves the Executive Committee, and prudently managed the affairs of the organization. While some may have called them elite, none would call them elitist. They aggressively solicited affiliates in every state and sought participation by as many lawyers as possible, starting with advertisements placed in lawyers’ magazines. Every inquiry brought a thoughtful and deliberate response, as well as an appeal for financial support.

The executive committee hired an Executive Secretary, Mrs. Helena P. Rhoudy, who ran the national office, and visited many state capitals, enlisting local lawyers and political figures in the cause. Her dispatches back to New York ring of diplomacy at its best.

What motivated the members of the VCL? Their formal corporate charter, adopted in 1927, declared their grievances:

The 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act violate the basic principles of our law and government and encroach upon the powers properly reserved to the States and the people.

The attempt to enforce them has been productive of such evils and abuses as are necessarily incident to a violation of those principles, including

- disrespect for law
- obstruction of the due administration of justice
- corruption of public of officials
- abuse of legal process
- resort by the government to improper and illegal acts in the procurement of evidence; and
- infringement of such constitutional guarantees as immunity from double jeopardy and illegal search and seizure.

It would be wrong to credit only the VCL for the repeal of prohibition. Their work would not have mattered had there not been fast surging public opinion to repeal prohibition. Some have likened that surging opinion to a train, barreling toward a deep ravine. Had the VCL, some of whose members made their fortunes and reputations as railroad lawyers, not provided the legal engineering to design and erect a sturdy bridge over the ravine, the repeal effort may well have crashed in challenges, confusion and legal controversy.

When repeal was assured, the Chairman of the Board of the largest popular anti-prohibitionist organization, wrote a congratulatory letter to VCL Chairman Choate, observing, ” What a remarkable victory it is, it saves the very foundations of our government, and no man can tell where we would have gone, or to what we would have fallen had not this repeal been brought about. ”

The best historical account of repeal is Kyvig, David E., Repealing National Prohibition, the University of Chicago Press (Chicago and London), 1979. For more on the VCL and detailed treatment of the legal issues with which they contended, see Vose, Clement E., Constitutional Change: Amendment Politics and Supreme Court Litigation Since 1900, Lexington Books, D.C., Heath and Company, Lexington, Massachusetts, Toronto, London, 1972. Professor Vose acquired and catalogued a collection of VCL papers now in the possession of the Olin Library, Wesleyan University, for access to which the new VCL is grateful.