Dry Humor

It’s remarkable that we really thought this one was going to work:

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Thus spake the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in January of 1919, a year that saw many cellars filled in anticipation of the coming apocalypse. We’ve already explored the 21st Amendment a bit, which repealed the 18th. As I was digging into the 18th Amendment and what led to it, I expected to find that many states had tried this out in the preceding decades. What I did not expect was to discover how many other countries tried to do the same thing at roughly the same time in history, including Canada, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Russia. All northern nations, where at certain times of year there seems to be little else to do but drink.

Stocking up

The forces and reasoning behind this Amendment are not that difficult to guess. But the sheer arrogance in the face of human history is staggering (not unlink a drunk person). One could make a reasonable argument that civilization would not have taken hold in the absence of drinking. There isn’t much in the way of records definitively chronicling why we decided to stop hunting and gathering, and chose instead to start planting roots and farming. But at some point we figured out grains and fruit did something wonderful if you let them ferment, and that had to play some sort of role in our decision to settle down.

The Sumerians made a mean beer by all accounts. The Romans were famous for their love of wine. And did Jesus turn wine to water? No, quite the opposite. The Belgians have been making Stella since the 1300’s. One of America’s founding fathers was Sam Adams. What the hell were these people thinking in the 1910’s?

Equally interesting is the text of the Amendment itself. It speaks to making, selling, and moving around of alcohol. But it didn’t become illegal to drink. That alone speaks to the doomed nature of the 18th Amendment. The only reason not to make it illegal to drink was that it wouldn’t have otherwise passed, which means people were still going to drink, which means they were eventually going to get it by illegal means. And then we were gonna have to repeal it, which of course we did in 1933. 

So basically, the United States went to a party, blacked out, woke up 14 years later with a massive hangover, took some ibuprofen, and then went about the rest of the day’s business as though nothing had happened.


The Better Half

There are a lot of ways to think about how long it took for us to arrive at the year 1920. As a universe, it took something like 13 billion years, give or take. As a solar system and a planet, something around 4.5 to 5 billion years. As a planet with life on it, something closer to 4 billion years. As primates, a few million years. As a species, a few hundred thousand. As a civilization, a few thousand. As a nation, 144. As a nation with a Constitution, 131. By any of these measures, it boggles the mind how long it took to state unequivocally that half our adult population could vote.

Couple that with how long it took to extend the vote to all races, to end slavery, and to act against genocide – and then couple that with the simple fact that these same wrongs are still being done in parts of the world today, and not as far from home as you might think – suffice it to say we are still in our infancy as an enlightened civilization.

Nonetheless, the 19th Amendment, passed by Congress in 1919 and ratified by three quarters of the states in 1920, righted one of these wrongs for one nation:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

My first thought when reading the actual text here was that maybe “gender” would have been a better word than “sex”. I’m wondering if there’s ever been a court challenge suggesting this Amendment is really only referring to the voting rights of virgins.

It should be noted that the length of time it took to amend our Constitution in this way was not for lack of trying. The original Constitution essentially left it to the states, who typically tied voting rights to the owning of valuable land, which not only eliminated slaves and most women, but also poorer men. Actually, New Jersey originally *did* give women the right to vote back in 1776. But they revoked it in 1807 when it was believed that men were dressing as women to cast second votes. Voter fraud is by no means a new conversation in American politics.

Although moving at a pace that would try a glacier’s patience, piece by piece some progress was made toward women’s suffrage over the decades, particularly after the Civil War. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were the early pioneers in pushing for a Constitutional Amendment – first arguing that existing Amendments applied, and then seeking a new one. Anthony actually voted at one point, but was subsequently arrested and convicted for it. Some western states, beginning as territories, entered the Union with more progressive laws; Wyoming was actually the first to guarantee women the right to vote in their constitution – followed by Utah, Colorado, and Idaho.

Initial attempts at a new Amendment began in the 1870’s, but momentum didn’t really build again until the 1910’s. It passed in the summer of 1919, and Tennessee put it over the top in August of 1920, by the narrowest of margins in their House of Representatives: 49-47.

The polls were not flooded with women voters right away, as there were other institutions that made it difficult to vote, including the poll tax that was later repealed by the 24th Amendment. And of course there was an almost immediate challenge by one of the states that didn’t originally ratify the 19th Amendment (Maryland), which was shot down by the Supreme Court in 1922. Since then, there hasn’t been much of a challenge, but there’s something eerily believable about worlds like the one described in “A Handmaid’s Tale”. As long as it took us to get to 1920, we shouldn’t assume a mere 99 years later that we’ll never get it wrong again. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of freedom.

Lady Liberty, unable to vote until 1920 (Photo by bruce mars from Pexels)

Ducks in a Row


That hashtag has a certain connotation today. But back in the early 1900’s, when Twitter was still in beta testing, it meant something slightly different. A big topic of discussion then was the issue of “lame duck” politicians. I already littered the blogosphere with that topic under the post about the 22nd Amendment, but the issue has quite a lengthy history (and you may recall I prefer a purely “duckish” solution to the problem).

To revisit, a “lame duck” is a politician whose remaining days in office are precisely numbered, either because he or she has hit a term limit, or he or she lost the most recent election. I should add a footnote to that: the term has historically referred more to people who actually lost. But when Congress recently neutered an attempt to nominate a Supreme Court justice nearly a year before the end of that President’s term, I submit the definition of “lame duck” was effectively broadened – regardless of your position on that particular happenstance.

Prior to the ratification of the 20th Amendment in 1933, newly elected Presidents and Congresspeople couldn’t get started until the March following the election. Meanwhile, the old Congress and President would have a good three or four months to wreak havoc, or to do nothing – neither of which is a good return on our tax dollar. As an extreme example of the problems this can cause, when Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1960, he could do nothing for three months while seven states seceded from the Union as a prelude to the Civil War.

The timing problems were actually even worse than that for Congress; they were required to start their sessions in December, so the newly elected House of Representatives as an example could not begin their first session until thirteen months after they were elected. So they got one full-year session and one three-month session, with many Representatives being lame ducks during the latter. A Constitutional Amendment was the only way to solve this problem, but it took many tens of years and many tens of tries before one finally made it through. The final push took ten years on its own, led by Nebraska Senator George W. Norris through multiple sessions of Congress before its passage in 1932 and ratification in 1933.

The 20th Amendment begins thusly:

The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3d day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Section 1 is the use of “3d” instead of “3rd”. Which then made me wonder, when did we start using “3rd” instead of “3d”? From what I could gather in a quick Google search, use of the “3d” convention waned after the 19th century. Or is that 19h century? One can only imagine the passion and determination of aging “3d” supporters during its inevitable decline, imploring us all to respect tradition and gaining one final victory through its inclusion in a Constitutional Amendment. “3d”, meet immortality. But I digress. I’ll do my best to make sure it doesn’t happen a 2d time.

Section 2 of the 20th Amendment states:

The Congress shall assemble at least once in every year, and such meeting shall begin at noon on the 3d day of January, unless they shall by law appoint a different day.

Combined, in addition to addressing lame duckery, Sections 1 and 2 ensure that a new Congress is available to deal with any ambiguities that arise in the Presidential election. More on that below…

Sections 3 and 4 take a sharp turn into Presidential succession:

If, at the time fixed for the beginning of the term of the President, the President elect shall have died, the Vice President elect shall become President. If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President elect nor a Vice President shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.

The Congress may by law provide for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the House of Representatives may choose a President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them, and for the case of the death of any of the persons from whom the Senate may choose a Vice President whenever the right of choice shall have devolved upon them.

Remember the 25th Amendment? That one has generally become the go-to resource on Presidential succession matters of late. But the 20th Amendment could become much more relevant depending on what happens in 2020. The current political climate, along with the emergence of multiple potential independent candidates, could lead to a situation where no one gets the requisite 270 electoral votes to win, in which case it would fall upon Congress to resolve the matter. This underscores how truly stuck we are in a two-party system, by the way. Even if an independent candidate were to gain equal ground with the Democratic and Republican candidates, no one would get enough electoral votes, and the matter of who should take office would be decided by Congressional partisan politics – which offers no discernible path to victory for an independent candidate. Which, in turn, sure seems to make independent candidates look like they’re doing something naughty in public rather than actually accomplishing anything. But that’ll likely be the subject of a 2020 post.

Sections 5 and 6 of the 20th Amendment are basically cleanup:

Sections 1 and 2 shall take effect on the 15th day of October following the ratification of this article.

This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several States within seven years from the date of its submission.

So what’s my biggest takeaway from all this? Well, for one thing, it makes me look at Mount Rushmore in an entirely different light. All four faces there are from Presidents who had unique challenges and/or contributions relevant to the idea of presidential succession. George Washington – perhaps out of nothing more than sheer exhaustion – set the two-term convention that didn’t become law until the ratification of the 22nd Amendment. Thomas Jefferson was consistently outspoken about the need for some form of term limits (including at the conclusion of his own second term). Abraham Lincoln was hamstrung by the faulty system that led to the 20th Amendment, and his assassination fed the confusion that wasn’t fully resolved until the ratification of the 25th Amendment. And Theodore Roosevelt actually ran for a third term, only to lose to Woodrow Wilson, four years after his first two terms – one must wonder if the 22nd Amendment would have been accelerated had that happened.

In my opinion, it’s no coincidence that presidential succession has been an important topic at the same time our most revered leaders have served. But it’s also about the times in which those leaders have served, and we may be in such times again in 2020.

Do you think they’ll ever get it right, Abe? I don’t know, Teddy, I just don’t know.