Wisconsin and the Repeal of Prohibition

prohibition_ends_at_lastThis past December 5 marked the 80th anniversary of the repeal of Prohibition, America’s experiment in the creation of an alcohol-free society.

Prohibition officially ended in 1933 with the ratification of the 21st Amendment to the United States Constitution. The new Amendment repealed the earlier 18th Amendment, which had made the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States.

The repeal of Prohibition is an event that has been celebrated daily in Wisconsin for the past eight decades.

Somewhat remarkably, Wisconsin, long associated with the production of alcoholic spirits, did actually vote for Prohibition. On January 17, 1919, in the wake of intense anti-German sentiment throughout the United States and in the aftermath of World War I, in which the U.S. government had used its war powers to sharply curtail the production of alcoholic beverages, the Wisconsin legislature approved the 18th Amendment by a majority vote. However, in “defense” of the legislature, Wisconsin’s approval did not come until after the Prohibition Amendment had already been ratified by the requisite number of states to bring it into law.

At the time of the Wisconsin vote, 39 other states had already ratified the proposed Amendment, three more than necessary. North Carolina, Utah, Nebraska, Missouri, and Wyoming had all ratified the Amendment the previous day (January 16), bringing the number of ratifying states to 38. (The 39th state, Minnesota, ratified the Amendment earlier the same day that Wisconsin voted for it.) That the Amendment was already set to take effect was known in Wisconsin at the time of the vote.

But having approved of Prohibition in 1919, the enthusiasm of Wisconsin residents for the “Noble Experiment” quickly waned, even though 45% of the state had actually enacted local option prohibition laws prior to the passage of the 18th Amendment.

Even the state’s highest ranking officials began to express their reservations. Republican Governor John James Blaine (of Wingfield, Wisconsin) began to publically question the wisdom of Prohibition as early as 1923, and by the middle of the decade state (as opposed to federal) enforcement of the anti-alcohol laws had come to a halt.

In 1926, advocates of repeal managed to get a measure on that year’s state ballot asking voters if they thought the 18th Amendment should be repealed or drastically modified, and just under 72% of participants voted “yes.” The following year the legislature adopted a statute legalizing beer, which was vetoed by new governor Fred Zimmerman (R. Milwaukee), but only on the grounds that it was clearly unconstitutional.

In 1928, Wisconsin went so far as to repeal all of its state laws enforcing Prohibition, and by 1932, the party platforms of both Republicans and Democrats openly called for repeal of the 18th Amendment.

Wisconsin eventually took the lead of the repeal movement when, on December 6, 1932, former Governor Blaine, now a United States Senator, introduced the original draft of the 21st Amendment into Congress. (Blaine himself was a lame duck senator at the time, having been defeated in the Republican primary in 1932, while running for a second term.) Although Blaine is largely forgotten today, he was once widely known among drinking Americans as the “Father of the 21st Amendment.”

Unlike other Constitutional Amendments, the terms of the 21st Amendment required that it be ratified by state constitutional conventions, rather than by the state legislatures. After the amendment was approved by both houses of Congress by the requisite 2/3 majorities, the Wisconsin legislature quickly scheduled an election of delegates to a state convention.

Not surprisingly, every seat in the April convention was won by an advocate of repeal. On April 25, 1933, the delegates assembled and voted unanimously to support the 21st Amendment. By doing so, they made Wisconsin the second state to ratify the Amendment. Michigan had beaten Wisconsin to the punch, but only by a mere ten days.

Within a week, a bill legalizing alcoholic beverages had been introduced into the Wisconsin legislature in anticipation of the Amendment’s impending passage. As it turned out, there was more resistance to repeal than some had anticipated (especially in rural areas and in the South), and ratification did not occur for another 7 ½ months. However, the new Amendment officially took effect on December 5, 1933, when Utah became the 36th state to ratify.

According to contemporary accounts, large crowds took to the streets in Milwaukee that day to celebrate the return of alcoholic beverages and the revival of the Brew City’s beer and liquor industries.


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Why Is the Word “Redskin” so Offensive?

The debate over the appropriateness of Native American team names rages on. Whatever the propriety of generic Native American team names like Indians, Chiefs, Braves, or Warriors, or tribal names like Utes, Chippewas, or Seminoles, there seems to be a widespread belief that the term “Redskins” is especially offensive and insulting to Native Americans. How this perception came about is somewhat puzzling, as it appears to be of relatively recent origin.

There is little evidence that the perception of “redskin” as an inherently offensive term for Native American existed before the late 1970’s or early 1980’s. Traditionally, the word “redskin” was viewed as a synonym for Indian or Native American and did not carry the sort of negative connotations that have long attached to ethnic slurs like “chink,” “wetback,” “kike,” or “nigger.” Sportswriters covering teams with Indians nicknames during the first three quarters of the twentieth century routinely substituted “Redskins” for “Indians” or “Braves” in search of variety, and they apparently did so without being aware that this alternative word choice was more offensive than the original.

Although the name “Redskins” was earlier used by the Muskogee, Oklahoma, minor league baseball team and the Miami University of Ohio football team, the Redskins name is today primarily associated with the Washington team in the National Football League.

The team we now know as the Washington Redskins began its existence in 1932 as the Boston Braves. The name was changed to “Redskins” the following year. The new name was chosen in conjunction with the team’s relocation from Braves Park (named after Boston’s National League baseball team) to Fenway Park.

The name change was also consistent with team owner George Preston Marshall’s plan to market the team as one playing in the tradition of “Indian football.” (In the early 20th century, Native Americans were widely believed to be especially talented when it came to football, as borne out by the success of Indian college teams like Carlisle and Haskell and the Oorang Indians, an all-Indian NFL team from 1922 and 1923 which, like Carlisle a decade earlier, featured the great Indian athlete Jim Thorpe on its roster.)

Marshall’s plan for Indian football included hiring an “Indian” coach and several Native American Players, as well as adopting an Indian head logo and adorning all the players with war paint during games. This goal, of course, could have been accomplished just as easily had the team retained the name “Braves.” Moreover, there is absolutely no reason to believe that Marshall chose the name “Redskins” because he thought it was pejorative.

(It is not at all clear why anyone would name a team using a non-ironic ethnic slur, since to do so would be to impute supposedly unfavorable characteristics to one’s own players.)

Most likely, the name Redskins was chosen because it fit with Marshall’s plan to revive Indian football and because of the name’s similarity to Red Sox, in whose park the team was now playing. (The name “Indians” was apparently reserved for the NFL’s on again-off again Cleveland team.)

While one could argue that Marshall’s planned use of Native American imagery was a misappropriation of Native American cultural property, such an argument would apply whether the team was called the Braves or Redskins.

The historical record, in fact, shows that before the 20th century Native Americans frequently used the adjective “red” in reference to themselves and that the term “redskin” may have originated as a literal translation of a Native American term used to differentiate Indians from other Americans.

Moreover, widely used English language dictionaries in use as recently as the 1950’s and 1960’s reflect no acknowledgement that the term “redskin” was understood as disparaging to Native Americans.

For example, the 1952 edition of the Universal Dictionary of the English Language, described “redskin” as a “Native American Indian, a Red Man” (p. 981), but makes no reference to the word being offensive. The American College Dictionary (1956 ed., p. 1016); The Grosset Webster Dictionary (1957 ed., p. 1016); and Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged 2nd Edition (1957 ed., p. 2088) all define “redskin” as a “North American Indian,” again, with no indication that the term was considered offensive. In The American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language (1969 ed., p. 1092), produced more than a decade later, the same definition is given, but with the qualification that the term is “informal” (which may be a recognition that “redskin” was passing out of everyday usage by the end of the 1960’s).

In fact, it was not until the 1983 editions of Webster’s Third International Dictionary and Collegiate Dictionary, 9th Edition that the Miriam Webster Company, the country’s leading publisher of “serious” dictionaries, added the cautionary phrase “usually taken to be offensive,” to its previous definition of “redskin,” which was simply “A North American Indian.”

In contrast, the same dictionaries from the 1950’s and 1960’s clearly indicate that the word “nigger” is understood to be offensive and derogatory. The comments so indicating range from “colloquial, contemptuous” (Universal Dictionary, p. 774) and “offensive” (American College Dictionary p. 820) to “substandard, now chiefly contemptuously” (Webster’s New International, p. 1651) and “vulgar” (American Heritage Dictionary p. 887). The Grosset-Webster Dictionary omitted the word altogether, presumably because it was in such bad taste.

While it is, of course, easy to find examples of pre-1980’s writings that disparage Native Americans while referring to them as Redskins (like Earl Emmons’ 1915 Redskin Rimes), it is even easier to find similar examples from the same era that use the word Indian while making derogatory comments (most famously, Gen. Philip Sheridan’s much repeated observation that “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”). Before the 1970’s, if not the 1980’s, there was a clear consensus that the word “redskin” was simply a synonym for “North American Indian” and was not widely recognized as a particularly offensive label.

In contrast, more recent dictionaries clearly identify the term “redskin” as disparaging. The Online Oxford Dictionary describes it as “dated and offensive.” Similarly, Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary identifies it as “usually offensive,” while the online Thefreedictionary defines it as “used as a disparaging term for a Native American,” and further classifies the term as “offensive slang.”

So what caused the meaning of the word Redskin to change when it did? Why did it become clearly offensive in the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, when it has not been perceived in that way earlier in the century?

First of all, the meanings of descriptive adjectives, especially those with racial or ethnic connotations, do change over time. In my childhood, spent in the rural South during the final years of the Jim Crow era, we were taught that African-Americans preferred to be called “colored” or “Negroes,” and that to refer to such a person as “black” to his or her face would be insulting. I think this belief was generally held throughout the United States in the late 1950’s, and accurately expressed the views of most African-Americans as well (re: Negro College Fund and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

However, a decade later “black” had become the descriptor of choice for African-Americans, while “colored” and “Negro” had been cast into a linguistic dustbin. What was proper in 1959 had become awkward and unacceptable by 1969.

Moreover, beginning in the late 1960’s, the American Indian Movement and other Native American organizations began what turned out to be a largely successful campaign to convince other Americans that most of the stereotypical images of Native Americans in American popular culture were wildly inaccurate and insulting.

No art form contained more insulting images than the traditional American western. The 1970’s came at the end of an era in which the “Western” had been one of the dominant genres of American film, television, and popular literature. In westerns, the term “redskins” was regularly used in reference to nomadic plains Indians who were usually portrayed as “on the warpath.”

This repeated association of “redskins” with Indians of the American west in the post-Civil War era probably helped create an impression that a “redskin” was not just any Indian, but one that was particularly “savage.” As the notion that Native Americans were “savages” became increasingly untenable in the 1979’s and 1980’s, the word “redskin,” now increasing associated with the Indians portrayed in Westerns, may have lost its original generic qualities.

A second explanation comes from the fact the word “redskin” obviously uses a color to describe an ethnic group. While “black” and “white” became, somewhat ironically, the terms of choice identifying Negroes and Caucasians in the 1960’s, in the same era the practice of referring to Asians as “yellow” became verboten. Presumably, this stemmed from a belief that the use of the “yellow” label (as in “yellow peril”) was a manifestation of anti-Asian racism. Social pressure to drop “yellow” references did not affect the use of the terms “black” and “white,” but it may have had some impact on public attitudes toward defining Native Americans as “red.”

Finally, there is something slightly disparaging about the “skins” component of the word “redskins.” “Skins” can connote images of animal skins cut away from the body by fur hunters. While there is absolutely no basis to the frequently (and irresponsibly) repeated claim that the term “Redskins” once referred to the hides of Native Americans which could be exchanged for a bounty, there is something a little unpleasant about the similarity between “coonskin,” “deerskin” and “redskin.”

Also, in contemporary slang at least, “skins” has a number of negative connotations. The term refers to cigarette wrapping papers and, through an extension of image, it also refers to aimless teens that smoke, use drugs, and are sexually promiscuous. This secondary meaning may also give the word “redskin” unpleasant associations in our own time.

So, while it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the meaning of “redskin” moved from innocuous to offensive, there is little reason to doubt that the general meaning of the term has changed (although polling data suggests that Native Americans are divided as to whether the use of the name Redskins by the Washington team is offensive). Moreover, the question of whether a business should be required to change its long-standing name because the meaning of one of the component terms has changed is a complicated question.

(A growing sensitivity to the representation of African-Americans in popular culture may have led to the cancellation of the Amos ‘n Andy television show, but Uncle Ben’s Rice and Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix are still on the market and still using versions of their traditional symbols.)

However, notwithstanding the changing meaning of the word “redskin,” there are other reasons to criticize the use of Native American imagery by George Preston Marshall’s football team. The real issue is not the choice of an “offensive” team name; the real issue is one regarding the boundaries of the right to appropriate someone else’s cultural property.

Before Marshall, teams that used Native-American team names rarely made much of an effort to exploit the Indian connection, unless the team was made up of Native American players. For Marshall, choosing a Native American name was only a start.

Even though the experiment with the war paint, the Indian players, the Indian coach (who, unbeknownst to Marshall, turned out not to be a real Native American) lasted only a couple of years, Marshall eventually realized that it wasn’t necessary to have real Indians to capitalize on the Native American connection. He retained the Indian imagery and expanded it to include a marching band wearing Indian headdresses, cheerleaders decked out in Indian princess costumes, and a fight song that was originally written in pidgin English and set to what were supposedly Indian rhythms.

No sports team had ever before attempted to exploit the use of Indian imagery on such a scale, but, after Marshall’s Redskins became popular, such features were widely imitated. Once he moved the team to Washington in 1937, the neo-Confederate Marshall further complicated the imagery by declaring the Redskins to be Dixie’s team. (In Marshall’s mind, the two groups, Indians and Confederates, were linked. His home town, Romney, West Virginia, is the location of an ancient burial mound that was turned into a Confederate cemetery during the Civil War.)

The real question regarding the Washington Redskins is whether or not non-Indian sports teams should have the right to exploit the cultural symbols of Native Americans. If they do not, then the Washington Redskins should become should change their name and imagery.

Of course, cultural property is notoriously difficult to define, and it not clear what the consequences would be were we to recognize even an informal proprietary on the parts of groups to their own cultural property. But that is the real issue involved in the Redskins controversy, not the meaning of the word “Redskin.”


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Remembering a Classic Work of Constitutional History

November 2013 marks the centennial of Charles Beard’s An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, arguably the most important book written on the United States Constitution other than the Federalist Papers. Few works of historical scholarship have ever so dramatically transformed the scholarly (if not the public) debate over the meaning of a major American event.

At the time of the publication of An Economic Interpretation, the Indiana-born Beard was a 39-year-old Associate Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, the school from which he had received his Ph.D. in 1904. As his title suggested, his new book argued that the framers of the United States Constitution of 1787 had been motivated, not exclusively by nationalistic or democratic concerns, but by the desire to protect the property rights of wealthy Americans, especially those (including themselves) who had invested in federal bonds and had speculated in western lands.

Prior to Beard’s work, most accounts of the drafting of the 1789 Constitution were highly celebratory, and the framers were almost universally lauded for their ability to put the public interest ahead of their personal priorities. Democratic political theory, rather than self-interest, was the animating force behind the document.

Beard’s book turned this argument on its head. As a result of his research, he concluded that the Constitution had been drafted by men who at best identified the national interest with their own economic interests. As he put it in the concluding chapter, “The members of the Philadelphia Convention which drafted the Constitution were, with few exceptions, immediately, directly, and personally interested in, and derived economic advantages from, the establishment of the new system. The Constitution was essentially an economic document based on the concept that the fundamental private rights of property are anterior to government and morally beyond the reach of popular majorities.” (p. 324)

The implications of this conclusion were apparent. The Constitution was a conservative, property-oriented document that was designed, not to expand democratic power, but to contain it. It was the democratic “excesses” of the period 1776-1787 that required a new constitution, not the deficiencies of the Articles of Confederation.

As Beard wrote in the book’s concluding paragraph, “The Constitution was not created by ‘the whole people,’ as the jurists have said; neither was it created by ‘the states,’ as southern nullifiers long contended; but it was the work of a consolidated group whose interests knew no state boundaries and were truly national in their scope.”

Most controversial of all was his claim, allegedly justified by the records of the United States Department of the Treasury, that a significant majority of the framers had invested in United States bonds during the Confederation period and thus had a personal reason to want to establish a strong federal government intent on establishing the security of such bonds. While many wealthy Americans opposed the ratification of the new constitution, their wealth, according to Beard, was concentrated in real, rather than personal, property and they were not heavily invested in the speculation of western lands.

Beard’s belief that the Constitution was the product of a clash between competing economic interest groups was an extension of the ideas advanced shortly after the turn of the century by University of Wisconsin historians Frederick Jackson Turner and Carl Becker. Although Turner’s published work focused primarily on the role of the “west” in American history, he encouraged has students to critically reexamine the founding period. Becker, in his History of Political Parties in the Province of New York, 1760-1776 (1909), argued that the American Revolution had been as much about who would rule at home as it was about home rule. In that sense, Beard’s work was a logical extension of Becker’s theory into the post-Revolutionary War era.

In his later books, especially An Economic Interpretation of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915) and The Rise of American Civilization (1927), Beard expanded this interpretation to the whole of pre-World War I American history.

The view of Beard and Becker and other like-minded historians that the history of the United States was primarily a story of class conflict came to be known as the progressive interpretation of American history. While this view never gained widespread acceptance among lawyers and the American public (which continued to prefer a more heroic account), it dominated the work of academic historians in the United States from the mid-1910’s until the end of the Second World War.

Beard’s interpretation of the Constitution was always controversial. The book was roundly denounced upon its publication by a wide array of public figures, including former U. S. President and future Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft. Moreover, not every academic student of the Constitution was convinced. Edward S. Corwin of Princeton University, the foremost constitutional scholar of the early twentieth century found Beard’s work excessively dominated by the theme of economic conflict and not sufficiently appreciative of the power of ideas. Many other critics labelled him a Marxist.

An Economic Interpretation’s influence began to wane after the Second World War. Beard himself had damaged his personal reputation a great deal by opposing United States entry into the war, even after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Moreover, in the Cold War era, the focus of academic writing in the field of American history shifted away from themes of class conflict to themes of consensus, and the progressive interpretation began to lose force. Moreover, a later group of historians, reviewing the records examined by Beard as well as other sources not available to him, argued persuasively that Beard had exaggerated the extent to which the investment in government bonds and land speculation differentiated those who supported the Constitution of 1787 from those who opposed it.

To many of his modern critics, Beard’s work seemed too narrowly ideological and insufficiently sensitive to the nuances of the past.

However, Beard’s larger argument–that the Constitution was a conservative document designed to rein in the more radical governmental ideas of the Confederation Period–was not necessarily contingent on proving the existence of naked self-interest on the part of the framers. Nor did one have to be some sort of Marxist or socialist to accept that premise. Moreover, in the preface to the 1935 republication of An Economic History (at a time when the progressive interpretation was in its heyday), Beard himself insisted that his primary purpose had been to emphasize that economic considerations were an important part of the backdrop to the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, a fact that had been ignored by previous constitutional historians, but is one that few contemporary historians would deny.

Although An Economic Interpretation is still in print, it is rarely read today. Graduate students in history departments and law schools learn about Charles Beard, but they do not read his classic works. (If they ever did. In 1935, Beard mused that his book might well be the most criticized and least read book on any aspect of American history.) Nevertheless, students of the constitutional history of the United States would disagree that the critical examination of our constitutional traditions is much more likely to advance the cause of constitutional government than to hinder it.

In the 21st century, most Americans continue to revere the drafting and ratification of the United States Constitution as though it were an event of religious significance. The character and motives of the Founders are accepted as noble and almost beyond critique, even while though we acknowledge that our government today is largely influenced by the lobbyist agents of the vested interests of the present. However, if you wince, or mentally insert quotation marks, when you hear someone talk about the Founding Fathers,you are keeping alive the tradition of Charles Beard and An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution.

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