The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition

Khalid Elhassan - October 10, 2021

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
An 1879 Harper’s Weekly editorial cartoon, criticizing the systemic disenfranchisement of black voters in the South. Wikimedia

7. Prohibition’s Advocates Turned to Anti-Black Racism to Gather Support in the South

Before the Civil War, Southerners had not been big supporters of 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 the advocates of temperance turned to suppression, and began to appeal to white Southerners by playing up the image of black men with a bottle of booze in one hand, and a ballot in the other. After Reconstruction, temperance advocates began to make inroads in the South with stark appeals to anti-black racism. Southerners were obsessed with the specter of their white women getting ravished by black men, so the Dries linked supposedly out-of-control randy blacks to alcohol.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The depiction of black legislators in ‘Birth of a Nation’. American History TV

6. Prohibitionists Were Major Advocates for the Disenfranchisement of Black Votes

The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, and The Leopard’s Spots, were examples of fiction that played up prohibitionist tropes. Popular novels upon which D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was based, they depicted negroes with “eyes bloodshot with whiskey” invade the homes of whites, to violate 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. 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, the enactment of 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“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
A black family leaving the South. Encyclopedia Britannica

5. While Prohibitionists Sought to Disenfranchise Black Voters, Alcohol Manufacturers Became Champions of Black Voting Rights

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. 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 manufacturers’ support of black voting rights infuriated Southern whites.

Their ire against the booze industry was further aroused by anti-Semitism: the distillation of alcohol had become a largely Jewish industry. Dry politicians began to routinely list the names of major distillers, such as Hirschbaum, Steinberg, and Schaumberg, to make the point that their fight was not against “American” industry, but a “foreign” one that was exploiting and debauching America’s blacks. The press got in on the act, as exemplified by a 1909 McClure magazine article that referred to the: “unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade of this country“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Encyclopedia Britannica

4. Prohibitionists Whipped Up Racist, Anti-Semitic, and Anti-Immigrant Sentiments to Further Their Cause

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. 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.

The advocates of temperance and prohibition were not above appealing to racism, or to rallying support for the Dry cause by whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. For example, pioneering 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“.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
The spread of prohibition at the state and local level. Pinterest

3. Geography and Demography Allowed a Prohibitionist Minority to Impose Its Will on an Anti-Prohibition Majority

Mississippi’s legislature voted for the Eighteenth Amendment on January 8th, 1918, and The Magnolia State became 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. As a rule of thumb, the 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 – the Pennsylvanias, New Jerseys, and even the Connecticuts – 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. Prohibition was also helped by the era’s shockingly unequal apportionment of legislatures. Today, we take “one person, one vote” for granted. It was not always so, and it certainly was not so in the early twentieth century when Prohibition was ratified.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Prohibition ratification map. Distillery Trail

2. Unequal Representation in State Legislatures Helped a Prohibitionist Minority to Impose Its Will on an Anti-Prohibition Majority

In the early twentieth century, rural citizens were routinely over-represented 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%.

The US Government Poisoned Alcohol to Enforce Prohibition
Police emptying beer barrels during Prohibition. Imgur

1. A Victorious Minority

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.

The Eighteenth Amendment brought about drastic changes in the role of the federal government and its interactions with Americans, and fundamentally changed the way we live. It also set off a cascade of unintended and unforeseen consequences and changes impacting a bewildering variety of subjects. The rise of organized crime, the concept of home dinner parties, modern American tourism habits, radical changes in speedboat design, and the deep engagement of women in politics – all the preceding, and more, can be traced back to Prohibition. It might have ended in failure, but it changed America forever.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Aaron, Paul, and Musto, David – Temperance and Prohibition in America: An Historical Overview (1981)

Behr, Edward – Prohibition: Thirteen Yeas That Changed America (1996)

Burns, Eric – The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (2003)

Cheever, Susan – Drinking in America: Our Secret History (2015)

Daily Beast – How the US Government Enforced Prohibition by Poisoning Americans

Encyclopedia Britannica – Anti Saloon League

Encyclopedia Britannica – Temperance Movement

History Collection – 18 Details in the Daily Life of a Bootlegger During Prohibition

Murdoch, Catherine Gilbert – Domesticating Drink: Women, Men, and Alcohol in America, 1870 – 1940 (1998)

Orkent, Daniel – Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (2010)

New York Times, January 19th, 2019 – How the Klan Fueled Prohibition

PBS – Prohibition: Anti Saloon League

Sismondo, Christine – America Walks Into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops (2011)

Slate – The Chemists’ War

Time Magazine, January 10th, 1927 – Prohibition: Poison

Time Magazine, January 14th, 2015 – The History of Poisoned Alcohol Includes an Unlikely Culprit: The US Government

Vox – The US Government Once Poisoned Alcohol to Get People to Stop Drinking

Walsh, Victor A., Journal of American Ethnic History vol. 10 no. 1-2 (Fall 1990 – Winter 1991) – Drowning the Shamrock: Drink, Teetotalism and the Irish Catholics of Gilded Age Pittsburgh

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