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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 36

John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill,

and of Von Humboldt and others of less distinction, has been advanced as the insuperable objection to all legislation which strikes at the use of alcohol as a beverage.

Mill, in his work on Civil Liberty, pages 170 to 173, thus states that theory in his vigorous way:

There are in our own day gross usurpations upon the liberty of private life actually practiced and still greater ones threatened with some expectations of success; and opinions proposed which assert an unlimited right in the public, not only to prohibit by law page 37 everything which it thinks wrong, but in order to get at what it thinks wrong to prohibit any number of things which it admits to be innocent.

Under the name of preventing intemperance the people of one English colony, and of nearly one-half the United States, have been interdicted by law from making any use whatever of fermented drinks except for medicinal purposes; for prohibition of their sale is in fact, as it is intended to be, prohibition of their use. The infringement complained of is not on the liberty of the seller, but on that of the buyer and consumer; since the State might just as well forbid him to drink wine as purposely make it impossible for him to obtain it.

Governor Andrew cites this passage, and so do defenders of the traffic generally, as decisive authority upon the subject, and it is doubtless the highest that he can cite. The common sense of the American people would, however, hardly accept without question all the social, economic, religious, or irreligious theories of Mr. Mill, and I respectfully demur to any theory which results in the ruin of my fellow-men. By their fruits shall ye know them. That is the only rule by which a practical legislator has any right to test the theories of great or of little men.

But what does even Mill himself say? He asserts, in the first place, what is a positive error, so far as the grounds of this amendment are concerned. I do not assert the right in order to get at what I think wrong, "to prohibit any number of things which I admit to be right." By no means whatever. I admit the manufacture, importation, and use of alcohol in the form of distillation for certain necessary purposes, and for them only, to be legitimate, and convenient, if not necessary, entitled to protection and subject to regulation by law only for purposes of taxation like other property and to prevent its application to other dangerous and destructive uses which injure and often ruin mankind. The right to regulate the legitimate use and to prevent the abuse is just exactly the same right which government has to protect every man in the use of fire for his happiness, and to prohibit both himself and others from using it as the agent of wanton destruction to the lives and property of society at large. No more, no less. Alcohol is a poison, which may be put to good uses. When an individual puts this poison to a bad use the law has the right to interfere, and those who make it have the right to enact the law so that it may interfere; to prohibit not "any number of things which it admits to be innocent," but the use of an active means of self and social destruction. Thus it is clear that Mr. Mill, if he means us, has misconceived his form of action and must either bring a new suit or abandon his case.

But he goes on to illustrate and apply what he means by his general proposition above stated. He says, "The use of fermented liquors has been interdicted except for medicinal use," etc. But this amendment does not intermeddle with their use at all. It is not designed to. It is not designed to raise that difficult question upon which mankind is divided. True, it increases the police power of the States over them indirectly, but not in a way to restrict their use unless public sentiment of the State requires it. This is done by an increase of the power of internal State police. It is a surrender of national power. It is a concession to the States of a power of interstate and foreign commerce. It only strikes at what all, or nearly all, men concede to be a most terrible national evil which ought to be suppressed and which can not be effectually regulated except by a national prohibition, which must take the form of an amendment to the Constitution. I am page 38 sure that it will be conceded that the citation from Mr. Mill is irrelevant.