The Anti Saloon League (ASL) was founded in Ohio in 1893 as a state society, became a national organization two years later, and soon morphed into America’s most powerful lobby. It achieved its goal of national prohibition by strict discipline, a narrow focus on the single issue of alcohol, and the avoidance of frittering its energies on anything else. As an early leader put it:
“The Anti-Saloon League is not in politics as a party, nor are we trying to abolish vice, gambling, horse racing, murder, theft or arson … The gold standard, the unlimited coinage of silver, protection, free trade and currency reform, do not concern us in the least“.
Prohibition is the best example in American history of a minority leveraging its clout to ram through laws opposed by a clear majority. The Anti Saloon League never sought to gain majorities: it knew that “Wets”, those opposed to prohibition in the parlance of the day, greatly outnumbered the “Dries” who wanted to do away with alcohol. Instead, prohibition’s proponents reasoned that by controlling, say, 10% of the vote in any close race, they could decide the election.
To gather that 10%, the ASL turned to America’s literalist protestant churches, who in turn turned out their congregations to vote for ASL-approved candidates. A small but committed base of single-issue voters could be extremely powerful. It did not take long for politicians, whether Democrats or Republicans – including those who drank life fish – to realize that it was unwise to antagonize the ASL. Soon, politicians were elbowing each other out of the way to demonstrate their fealty to the ASL.
Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, one of the best arguments deployed by brewers and distillers was the importance of the taxes they paid. Taxes from alcohol manufacturers were a huge chunk of the US Government’s budget, amounting at times to 40% or more of the total. In 1910, 71% of the federal government’s internal revenue, and 30% of its overall revenue, came from alcohol taxes.
As the tide of prohibition sentiment kept rising, alcohol manufacturers found themselves in the incongruous position of being an industry that welcomed – and sometimes even invited – the government to tax it more. The more dependent Uncle Sam was on the taxes collected from brewers and distillers, the less likely it was to enact prohibition and kill off an industry whose taxes kept the federal government afloat. The bottom fell out of that argument when the Sixteenth Amendment was ratified.
16. Personal Income Taxes Paved the Way For Prohibition
Anti-prohibitionists often pooh-poohed the banning of alcohol as unrealistic – a type of pie in the sky wishful thinking. Prohibitionists might have their hearts in the right place, but not their heads: how would the government function without the heavy tax contribution from alcohol manufacturers?
That question was answered by the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, which allowed the US government to directly tax individuals based on income, instead of apportioning it among the states based on population. The new revenue stream from personal income taxes suddenly meant that the excise taxes on alcohol were no longer necessary to the fiscal survival of the US Government. It was a game-changer: the Prohibition amendment was approved by Congress four years later, in late 1917, and ratified by the states in early 1919.
15. The Prohibitionist Drift to Suppression of the Black Vote
Before the Civil War, Southerners had been reluctant to join the temperance movement, mainly because it was formed and backed by the same northern progressive types who had been staunch abolitionists. As to white prohibitionists, they initially saw the newly enfranchised freed black slaves as natural allies, and they actually did gain the support of some black leaders, such as Booker T. Washington.
That changed after black votes proved decisive in defeating an amendment to Tennessee’s constitution in 1887, that would have banned liquor in The Volunteer State. Persuasion did not work, so temperance advocates turned to suppression, playing up the menacing image of black men with a bottle of booze in one hand, and a ballot in the other.
14. Gaining Southern Support For Prohibition Through Racism
After Reconstruction, temperance advocates began making inroads in the South by appealing to anti-black racism. Southerners were obsessed with the specter of black men raping their women, so the Dries linked supposedly out-of-control randy blacks to alcohol. In The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, and The Leopard’s Spots, popular novels upon which D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was based, negroes with “eyes bloodshot with whiskey” invade the homes of whites, to rape and plunder.
As an official publication of the Methodist Church put it: “Under slavery, the Negroes were protected from alcohol … consequently they developed no high degree of ability to resist its evil effect“. A Dry congressman from Arkansas even argued that banning alcohol would result in fewer lynchings because fewer blacks would commit crimes if they had no access to liquor.
13. Alcohol Manufacturers Became Champions of Black Voting Rights
The suppression of the black vote proved highly effective for the cause of prohibition. In southern state after southern state, blacks were disenfranchised, and once the ballot was ripped out of their hands, enacting local or statewide prohibition was a cinch. An Alabama Baptist publication gleefully predicted an upcoming temperance victory thus: “The stronghold of the whiskey power in the state has been eliminated by the disenfranchisement of the Negro“.
Just as Dries sought to suppress and disenfranchise blacks because they tended to vote Wet, Wets – especially the brewers and distillers – sought to defend black voting rights. Alcohol manufacturers persistently fought against poll taxes that disenfranchised blacks, and when that failed, they sent field agents into southern states to secure black votes. Their standard kit included a photo of Abraham Lincoln, some Wet propaganda, a power of attorney form, and cash to pay a black voter’s poll tax.
Alcohol manufacturer’s support of black voting rights infuriated southern whites. Their ire against the booze industry was further aroused by anti-Semitism: distilling had become a largely Jewish industry. Dry politicians made a habit of listing the names of leading distillers, such as Hirschbaum, Steinberg, and Schaumberg, to make the point that they were not attacking an “American” industry, but a “foreign” one that was exploiting and debauching America’s blacks.
The press got in on the act, such as McClure magazine referring in 1909 to the: “unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade of this country“. Collier’s did an expose about the cheap liquor popular in southern black dives, commonly known as “nigger gin” and manufactured by Jewish distiller Lee Levy. It came in a variety of brand names, such as Black Cock Vigor Gin, sold in bottles featuring illustrations of nearly nude white women.
11. Turning Out the Dry Vote With Race Hate in the North
In the North, the saloons were seen by reformers as an integral part of corrupt urban political machines that were increasingly dominated by immigrants, and that was becoming increasingly powerful. Doing away with the saloons was seen as one way to do away with those political machines. Temperance and prohibition advocates were not above appealing to racism, or to rallying support for the Dry cause by whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria.
For example, women’s suffrage and prohibition advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton decried the prospect of “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence … making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble“.
10. Alcohol Manufacturers’ Last-Ditch Effort to Avoid Prohibition
As the incoming tide of nationwide prohibition drew ever closer, alcohol manufacturers made desperate attempts to try and improve their public images. In so doing, brewers and distillers resorted to pointing the finger of blame for alcohol’s evils at each other. The distillers, for whom saloons were not an essential outlet for their liquors, blamed the brewers for the ills of saloons.
The brewers in turn blamed “demon rum” and other distilled spirits while trying to depict themselves as honorable providers of healthy beverages. They even tried to depict beer as being as wholesome as mother’s milk, as occurred when Michigan prepared to vote statewide prohibition. One advertisement during that period depicted a mother cradling a baby in her left arm, while holding a frothing beer stein in her right hand, with the caption: “Lager’s amber fluid mild – Gives health and strength to wife and child“.
When America joined World War I in 1917, Congress passed a series of War Acts that increased liquor taxes in order to finance the war effort. Making a virtue out of necessity, alcohol manufacturers began depicting the purchase of alcoholic beverages as a patriotic act that contributed to the war effort.
The Dries also used war and patriotic rhetoric to advance their argument for prohibition. A passionately Dry Yale economist conducted a study on the waste of food resources during the national emergency. It concluded that the amount of barley used in American breweries could instead yield 11 million loaves of bread each day – bread that could feed America’s soldiers and those of her allies. Dry advocate William Jennings Bryan wondered: “How can we justify the making of any part of our breadstuffs into intoxicating liquor, when men are crying out for bread?”
8. Harnessing Wartime Anti-German Passions to the Cause of Prohibition
America’s entry into WWI was accompanied by a wave of anti-German hysteria. Nine decades before French fries became freedom fries, sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage. German books were burned in public. Cincinnati’s Berlin Street was renamed Woodrow Street, in homage to the president. Playing Beethoven was banned in Boston. Iowa’s governor declared that speaking German in public or over the telephone was illegal. Red Cross leaders (falsely) claimed that German-Americans had penetrated their organization, and were putting ground glass in bandages intended for American soldiers.
Prohibition advocates did not hesitate to take advantage of the aroused passions. As one pro prohibition politician told journalists: “We have German enemies across the water. We have German enemies in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller“.
With American soldiers streaming into France, Dries ramped up the efforts to depict prohibitionists as patriotic, and their opponents as traitors. Their task was made easier by congressional hearings about the German-American Alliance (GAA), a civic organization established in 1901 to promote unity among Americans with a German heritage. It was supported by generous donations from German-American brewers.
Subpoenaed documents demonstrated that the United States Brewers Association had funded the GAA, gained control of foreign language newspapers, and published editorials that not only attacked Prohibition but also argued in 1915 against war preparedness. The fact that America had been neutral in 1915 was neither here nor there: prohibition advocates ensured that the brewers’ stance was depicted in the most sinister light, as having been intended to deliberately weaken America at the behest of the Kaiser.
Since 1876, a congressional resolution for a Prohibition amendment was introduced in every Congress, but none ever made it out of committee. The growing political clout of the Anti Saloon League changed that pattern. In 1906, the ASL launched a campaign to ban the sale of booze at the state level.
Within a decade, 23 out of 48 states had enacted laws against saloons, and some had even banned the manufacture of alcohol in the first place. Sensing a political tailwind behind their back, and the opening of a window of opportunity before them, the ASL shifted gears and set its eyes on nationwide Prohibition. On December 18th, 1917, Congress approved the submission to the states of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, banning the manufacture, sale, or transportation of liquor.
5. Prohibition Benefited From The Rural-Urban Divide
On January 8th, 1918, Mississippi’s legislature voted in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment, making The Magnolia State the first to ratify Prohibition. Ratification by a total of 36 out of America’s then 48 states were needed for national Prohibition to go into effect, but geography and demography made the prohibitionists’ task relatively easy.
Generally speaking, America’s cities were overwhelmingly against Prohibition, while the countryside was for it. However, most of the country’s big cities – and most of the population for that matter – were concentrated in relatively few states. That made it possible for Prohibition’s advocates to completely write off America’s twelve most urbanized states – Pennsylvania, New Jerseys, and even Connecticut – and still achieve ratification with victories in the less populous and more rural states. It was an early twentieth-century version of Red America losing a popular vote to Blue America, and still winning an election.
4. Unequal Representation Ensured the Passage of Prohibition
Prohibition was also helped by the era’s shockingly unequal apportionment of legislatures. Today, we take “one person, one vote” as a given. That had not always been the case, and it certainly was not so in the early twentieth century when Prohibition was ratified. Back then, rural citizens were routinely overrepresented in state legislatures, while urban citizens were underrepresented.
In New York, for example, an urban legislator might represent seven times as many people as the rural legislator seated next to him. It meant that the vote of a single Upstate citizen – most likely protestant, prohibitionist, and Republican – was equivalent to the vote of seven Irish-American anti-prohibition Democrats from Manhattan. The figures were even more skewed in New Jersey, where each county got a state senator, regardless of population: Dry rural Cape May County, population 19,000, had the same representation as Wet urban Essex County, population 652,000.
Prohibitionists and their leading organization, the Anti Saloon League, had long understood and accepted that they were a minority. They sought to avoid referendums because they knew that if voters were given the option of a straight up or down vote on Prohibition, Prohibition would lose. Instead, prohibitionists concentrated on capturing legislators, by leveraging their committed and disciplined Dry followers into disciplined block voting that could swing elections.
Perhaps nothing better illustrates that than Mississippi, the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. When submitted directly to voters, a prohibition amendment to the state constitution was rejected by a majority of Wet voters, 53% to 47%. Just two months later, however, Mississippi’s legislatures approved the Eighteenth Amendment, 75% to 25%.
As Prohibition’s advocates had predicted, the lower population and more rural states were the quickest to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. The exceptions were Connecticut and Rhode Island, both of which had a majority Catholic population, and both of which refused to ratify.
Their votes were neither missed nor needed, as the prohibitionists ran up the score in the legislatures of other small and rural states. On January 16th, 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, when its lower house voted in favor 98-0. It was official, and Prohibition was automatically scheduled to go into effect a year later.
1. Prohibition Did Not Prohibit the Drinking of Alcohol
The Eighteenth Amendment did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol, only its manufacture, sale, and transportation. It was quite legal for people to drink up in their own homes, and in the year’s grace period between the ratification of Prohibition and it is going into effect, Americans rushed to stockpile as much booze as they could, in anticipation of the dry days to come.
For the wealthy, Prohibition was not much of an inconvenience. They had the means to purchase more liquor and wine than they could consume in a lifetime, and they had the cellar space in their various residences in which to store their alcohol. For average Americans of average means, it was a different story. Satisfying their demand for booze, the Eighteenth Amendment be damned, made the thirteen years of Prohibition one of the most fascinating eras of American history – but that is a story for another day.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading