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