Ohio History Journal

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Amending the U.S. Constitution:

Ratification Controversies, 1917-1971




Do the American people have the final approval of proposed amendments to the

Constitution of the United States, or is that power solely in the hands of their state

legislators? This might seem an inconsequential legal point had not state legisla-

tures on various occasions in the twentieth century actually ratified amendments in

the face of clear voter opposition. By referendum, voters in several states rejected

national prohibition, woman suffrage, and the lowering of the voting age to eighteen

at practically the moment their state legislatures were approving such constitutional

amendments. In 1920 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Ohio Gen-

eral Assembly had the prerogative to ratify amendments despite a referendum di-

rective from the state's voters that it do otherwise. The subsequent outcry against

the court's ruling stirred a revolt against both the Eighteenth Amendment and the

process by which it had been ratified. The controversy over the national prohibi-

tion amendment revealed the great elasticity of the amending process: its capacity

to respond directly to the preferences of the electorate or to allow state legislatures

to ignore their constituents entirely. Therefore, although the issue of amending

procedure has scarcely been discussed since direct voter participation in the repeal

of prohibition was secured, it remains significant in a contemporary as well as an

historical sense.

Ohio was a major battleground in the fight to prohibit alcoholic beverages. As

the twentieth century began, the Buckeye State was a major producer of beer and

distilled liquors. At the same time Ohio was the home of the Anti-Saloon League,

since its formation in Oberlin in 1893 the leader of the battle for local, state, and ul-

timately national prohibition. The first decade of the century produced many hot

contests throughout Ohio over the issue of local option, and the next decade fea-

tured an equally fierce struggle over a state prohibition law.1 In 1915 and again in

1917 a million voters participated in a referendum on a prohibition amendment to

the state constitution. In the first instance the measure lost by 55,408 votes, but

when it reappeared on the ballot, it failed by only 1,137.2

On December 18, 1917, Congress submitted to the states, for ratification by their

legislatures, a constitutional amendment to prohibit throughout the United States

the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors for beverage pur-

poses. A few weeks earlier, on November 5, Ohio voters had finally adopted a

statewide prohibition law by a vote of 463,654 to 437,895, but at the same time they



1. James H. Timberlake. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920 (Cambridge, 1963). 103,

150 151. 159.

2. Ohio. Annual Report of the Secretary of Stale, 1919, pp. 255-256.

Mr. Kyvig is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Akron.