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  • Morality, Public Policy, and Partisan Politics in American History: An Introduction
  • David T. Courtwright (bio)

Moral arguments in politics assume many guises. In American history, the most politically consequential moral arguments have involved allegations of tyranny or attacks on vice. The Declaration of Independence, an indignant catalogue of despotic abuses, indicted a colonial government corrupted by royal scheming; the revolution it justified created constitutions designed to hold tyranny in check. But tyranny had other means, as Andrew Jackson later reminded his countrymen. He denounced the Second Bank of the United States as a privileged monopoly with no place in a democratic republic.

Slavery’s enemies often evoked the specter of tyranny. For Abraham Lincoln, the principle of slavery was that of the divine right of kings: “You work, you toil, you earn bread, and I will eat it.” The real moral difference between himself and Stephen Douglas, Lincoln said during their 1858 Alton debate, was that Douglas refused to look to the end of this iniquitous institution. Lincoln did look to its end, as had the founding fathers, whose vision of human freedom Douglas’s legislative compromises threatened.1

The Civil War and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution ended slavery and, nominally, unequal citizenship for African Americans. Reconstruction inaugurated a political and paramilitary struggle over these aims that was to shape the course of American politics for the century after the Civil War and whose outcome represented, however belatedly and formally, the victory of the egalitarian principles on which the republic was founded. [End Page 1]

It was also during Reconstruction that the politics of vice became salient. “Vice” had a double meaning for Victorians. It meant the immoral practices and habits of individuals, such as gambling and drinking, but also the enterprises that encouraged these practices, such as the saloon and the liquor industry. The hydra of commercialized vice threatened not only individuals and families but also democratic governments, whose officials it systematically corrupted. Legislators dawdled and police looked away while saloons, prostitution, and other vice enterprises catered to the workers pouring into America’s industrializing cities.

The antivice reformers, a diverse alliance of women, Evangelical Protestants, nativists, populists, progressives, and medical authorities, fought to prohibit or more strictly regulate alcoholic beverages, narcotic drugs, gambling, and sexual conduct that deviated from the norm of procreative heterosexual intercourse. Their campaigns bore fruit in state laws, such as those restricting liquor sales, and municipal ordinances, such as those banning opium dens. Nineteenth-century Americans assumed that the police power, the authority to preserve and promote public health, safety, morals, and welfare, lay with state and local governments.

That assumption began to change with the passage of the 1873 Comstock Act, a broadly worded federal law that banned from the mail “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” materials, including contraceptive devices and information about abortion. Over the next half century, Congress enacted antivice laws dealing with Chinese prostitutes (1875), interstate sales of lottery tickets (1895), interstate trafficking in women (1910), and the regulation or prohibition of narcotic drugs (1906, 1909, 1914, 1922, and 1924). Each of these laws extended federal police power in a novel fashion. The Supreme Court upheld their constitutionality, if sometimes by only a single vote. The status of one bill, however, was clear from the start. That was the 1919 Volstead Act, whose constitutionality was assured by the Eighteenth Amendment, ratified that same year.

Often mischaracterized as “prohibition,” the Volstead Act, which allowed the private and sacramental use of alcoholic beverages, the home brewing of wine and cider, and the prescription of spirits, was a classically mixed progressive policy response. Its aim was to medicalize most alcohol consumption, restrict vicious use, and forbid commercialization. Even so, it was sufficiently restrictive to spawn corruption and black markets and to cost the government revenue it could ill afford to forego as the Depression deepened. In 1933 Repeal demoted prohibition to a state and local issue. [End Page 2]

Repeal marked the end of the first great era of antivice activism. The crisis of the Depression drew attention from vice issues generally, as did the world war and cold war that followed. The power of the federal government, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 1-11
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-03
Open Access
No
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