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The Question of Temperance in Idaho’s Constitution

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Author’s Note:  Washington State’s privatization of liquor sales in 2011 has stimulated renewed interest in this option in neighboring Idaho, where liquor sales fall under the monopoly control of the Idaho State Liquor Division.  The claim that the ISLD has a constitutional mandate to promote temperance harbors a number of rhetorical utilities for the anti-privatization camp.  But is such a claim justified?  Below, I take another look at the history of Idaho’s state constitution to find out.  – Ron Roizen   

William H. Claggett, president of the Idaho constitutional convention

William H. Claggett, president of the Idaho constitutional convention

Does the Idaho State Liquor Division have a constitutional responsibility to “promote temperance”?

As it happens, the word “temperance” appears in one place only in Idaho’s constitution:

Article III, Section 24, which is titled “PROMOTION OF TEMPERANCE AND MORALITY,” reads as follows:  “The first concern of all good government is the virtue and sobriety of the people, and the purity of the home. The legislature should further all wise and well directed efforts for the promotion of temperance and morality.”

This temperance provision dates back to the original 1889 text of Idaho’s constitution, making it more than 120 years old.

Another section of Article III —  i.e., Section 26 — is titled “POWER AND AUTHORITY OVER INTOXICATING LIQUORS.”  This section paved the way for the creation of Idaho’s liquor control system.  It’s of more recent origin, having been introduced into the constitution in 1934, 79 years ago and 45 years after the creation of the temperance provision.

Hence, while it’s correct to say that Idaho’s constitution contains language mandating the promotion of temperance, it’s incorrect to attach the motivations behind the older temperance provision to Idaho’s post-1934 liquor control system.  By the time Section 26 was created, Section 24 was a longstanding constitutional fixture — and a legacy of a bygone era.  Idaho’s post-Repeal liquor authority was created in the aftermath of the nation’s failed prohibition experiment.  The temperance provision, on the other hand, was created almost a half-century earlier and about a quarter-century before the onset of state and federal alcohol prohibition.

So.  Although the claim that the Idaho State Liquor Division has a constitutional mandate to promote temperance has some (let’s call it) “literal merit” – because there is a provision in the constitution promoting temperance —  yet that claim also harbors something of a rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

Source: Minneapolis Journal, Oct. 1, 1898, Part II, Page 13.

The story of the old temperance provision’s creation is relevant here.  On July 10, 1889, still early in the constitutional convention’s schedule, Mrs. Henrietta Skelton of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union made an impassioned speech to the assembled delegates.  She implored them to include two radical provisions in the new state’s constitution – first, a woman’s suffrage provision, and, second, an alcohol prohibition provision.  Skelton wasn’t shy about tugging on the delegates’ heartstrings.  “There was a mother once who held you at her knee,” she said.  “There was a mother once who placed into your life all that which is noble and good.  If that mother is alive, she must be proud of her boy who helps to lay the foundation for a grand work today in Idaho. If she is dead, her angel spirit will certainly hover around you today and will be there when you frame that constitution.”  With the end of Skelton’s remarks, a second WCTU member invited the delegates to a post-session ice cream social at the WCTU’s “reading rooms.”

Despite Skelton’s heartfelt plea, however, both her proposals failed – her alcohol prohibition proposal was voted down by the convention and her suffrage proposal died for lack of further attention.  Yet Skelton and her WCTU colleagues did not leave the convention entirely empty-handed.  Charles A. Clark, a delegate from Ada County, proposed a substitute resolution, one sympathizing with the Skelton’s sentiments about alcohol but lacking the WCTU proposal’s radical regulatory implications.  Clark’s substitute measure ultimately became the language of Article III, Section 24.

Some banter and jocularity accompanied the delegates’ deliberations on Clark’s substitute measure.  Delegate Alexander E. Mayhew, of Shoshone County, asked where Clark’s measure should be lodged in the constitution; Clark’s reply – “In the Bill of Rights,” he said – drew laughter from the delegates.  Some of this comic potential doubtless flowed from the fact more than a few delegates were not entirely unfamiliar with strong drink.  According to Dennis C. Colson’s Idaho’s Constitution: The Tie That Binds (University of Idaho, 1991), the Idaho Daily Statesman reported “sixty-eight whiskey flasks and bottles were found in the nooks and corners of the Capital [sic] building” in the clean-up following the 1888 legislative session.  (Territorial legislators supplied a goodly fraction of the constitutional convention’s delegates.)

Associated Press Domestic News New Jersey United States U.S. ALCOHOL PROHIBITION PROTEST

Whether all, some, or a few delegates were serious, half-serious, or mostly unserious about Clark’s placating substitute measure, it won a “yes” vote in the convention on July 15th, 1889.  Toward the convention’s end, discussion turned once again to the question of where the “temperance and morals” measure should be placed.  “I think it ought to go to the last part of the constitution,” suggested Mayhew, “as a sort of a prayer.”  Of course, it ultimately landed in Article III, governing legislative matters.  In the 1890s, the temperance measure was something of a fish out of constitutional water.  It had symbolic significance but was effectively toothless with respect to practical or enforcement implications.

One wonders whether Henrietta Skelton and her WCTU colleagues would be amused or distressed to discover that the promotion of temperance measure placed into Idaho’s 1889 constitution as a kind of second-prize substitute for her failed prohibition provision is nowadays invoked as the constitutional responsibility of the state government agency tasked with dispensing liquor in Idaho.  I hope she’d smile — but I’m guessing she’d groan.



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