Looking Back at Yesterday's Hits Once the Popcorn Settles

Prohibition Was Unpopular and Prohibitionists Knew It.

“In no instance has the League ever nominated a candidate for public office… Nevertheless we are the most skillfully and completely organized political force in the country.” -Rev. Purley A. Baker, national superintendent for the Anti-Saloon League

Calling it a run on liquor was an understatement. Coast to coast, from New York to San Francisco and everywhere in between reports were pouring in of lines stretching around the block, of customers pouring into bars or waiting to hustle last minute deliveries into their cellars before selling or transporting their contents became illegal. One hundred years ago today the 18th amendment became law, ushering in nearly fourteen years of prohibition. And with scenes like these happening all over the country you could easily look at this new law and all its ramifications and think that even at the time it must’ve been extremely unpopular. And what’s more, you’d be right.

The eighteenth amendment, and the constitutional ban on alcohol that it represented, was the product of a small, vocal minority in the American political landscape. Largely white, largely rural and deeply evangelical this movement – the dry lobby as it’s often known – succeeded not by building popular support and fostering consensus but by legislative jockeying. They cowed politicians and worked the numbers until they got their way because they had to; their cause was unpopular and what’s more they knew it was unpopular even as they wrote it into law.

First, let’s set the scene which even a hundred years later plays out like introducing two heavyweight fighters. In this corner you’ve got rural white Protestants, who tend, through time immemorial it seems, to be socially conservative family values types. And in this corner you have your urban centers, your Bon Vivants side by side with your first and second generation Americans, many of whom brought their drinking traditions with them. By the time many of them emigrated the fight to keep the country sober had been going on for a long time, it’d just failed to gain any popular momentum. The prohibition party existed, nominally, but the most it had ever gained was 2.2% of the vote in any presidential election. For most of the 19th century it seemed inconceivable that Americans would ever put down the bottle for good.

It seems worth mentioning that in the late 1800s and early 1900s per capita drinking in the United States was skyrocketing. This has largely, and probably correctly, been attributed to a massive uptick in German immigrants. Buoyed by the United States Brewers’ Association which lobbied for the burgeoning beer industry in close partnership with German interest groups, beer consumption increased twenty-four-fold during the 19th century during a period when the total population merely tripled.

Into this increasingly diverse and sudsy political landscape stepped the Anti-Saloon League. Unlike its predecessors which adopted a wide range of political stances the ASL and its leader Wayne Wheeler had one goal and one goal only: the elimination of alcohol in the United States. They knew they had an uphill battle ahead of them that would only get steeper as time wore on. The segments of the population that drank were large and getting larger so Wheeler and his constituents started tricky and got trickier.

Wheeler’s tactics, by his own admission, were the same as the corrupt political bosses of yesteryear – he used undecided voters to swing elections. Say a close race in the Ohio legislature sat at 45/45 with ten percent of the voters undecided. Wheeler promised, with startling accuracy, that he could deliver those ten percent to a certain candidate so long as they pledged their support to the Prohibitionists. It didn’t really matter what the rest of their platform was, if they were an enemy of booze they were a friend of Wheeler’s. After this happened enough times the message was clear; support the Anti-Saloon League and win, oppose it and find yourself another job.

At this point in history there was a marked lack of across the board enthusiasm for the dry cause and a nationwide ban on alcohol, least of all one enshrined in the constitution, was an unpopular long shot. In a poll taken just two years after prohibition began 41% of Americans supported modifying the law to allow for low ABV wines and beers, while a full 21% supported repeal. Support for enforcement of the law as is was higher among women at 41%, although roughly half that number supported total repeal. It’s likely this happened because prohibition eventually allied itself with the women’s suffrage movement, although admittedly the brunt of alcoholism in the early 1900s fell squarely on women, especially before they had the vote. Still, a poll of factory workers in Detroit – real regular joe blue collar types – showed a staggering 92% support for either modifying or repealing the national ban on alcohol.

Wayne Wheeler understood how unpopular his cause was, perhaps better than anyone else in the country. It’s why instead of building grassroots support and popular consensus he used his agenda like a wedge to drive close elections to his side. And, as it turned out, bringing local politicians over to the dry cause wasn’t just good for momentum and PR. There was another hidden benefit too.

In a study published in Social Science History in 2008 historian Michael Lewis examined the voter rolls for every single state which held a referendum on prohibition. Going county by county he found that one of the single largest factors in wet voter turnout was those voters’ access to saloons. In other words, the closer they lived to a watering hole, the more likely they were to vote nay on prohibition. This isn’t surprising at face value; saloons have a storied place in American politics as a convenient space to campaign and round up voters. Plus on a more simple level if you like bars, you tend to live near bars. What is surprising about Lewis’ study is how much of the wet vote disappears once you remove saloons from the picture. While dry voters tended to meet in churches which, let’s be honest, aren’t really going anywhere, the legality of the opposition’s base of operations is now up for debate. Take away the saloon and suddenly it’s exponentially harder for the other guy to meet and mobilize. This certainly wasn’t lost on Wheeler and the league, who knew their focus on small local elections would pay off once it came time to tally the bigger, statewide votes.

By 1916 twenty-three out of forty-eight states had already passed some form of anti-saloon legislation but Wheeler and his associates weren’t satisfied. They set their eyes on a constitutional amendment to ban alcohol in the United States. Their tactics were quick and merciless, which of course they had to be. They were working on a deadline.

Between 1900 and 1917 the US welcomed 17 million newcomers to its shores. They settled mostly in cities and as a result the number of population centers classified as urban more than doubled from 22,000 to 54,000. The number of Americans that were immigrants or had immigrant parents ballooned from 25.9 million to 36.4 million by 1920 which is bad news if you’re trying to force the nation into sobriety. Remember who prohibition was least popular with: Catholics, immigrants and folks who lived in cities. The 1920 census was the one which would finally tip the balance of power in America from rural to urban for good which meant the years leading up to the new decade were now-or-never for the Anti-Saloon League. As a member of their leadership put it “If we are to save the situation so far as the Congress to be elected in 1916 is concerned, the work must be done at once or it will be too late.”

Later the famous congressional bootlegger and “Man in the Green Hat” George Cassaday would estimate that four out of every five elected representatives on the hill drank. But that didn’t stop the House of Representatives from voting 282-128 in favor of the eighteenth amendment on December 17, 1917 or the Senate from following suit the very next day. After that prohibition passed to the states which had to ratify it by a 36 to 12 margin for the amendment to become law. This, it turned out, was the easy part. ASL strategizers had long ago realized that states with large urban centers were vastly outnumbered by their rural counterparts but even they were surprised by how smoothly their amendment sailed through the state legislatures. It was buoyed by decades of uneven vote distribution, which often meant that politicians from heavily urban areas represented many times the constituents of rural officials, but still had the same number of votes when the time came to say yea or nay. Essex County in New Jersey for example had 33 times the population of Cape May County, yet when the vote came on prohibition the senators from the two districts each only cast one vote. This led to democratic anomalies like the citizens of Missouri rejecting a statewide dry referendum 53% to 47% on the same day they elected a legislature that would ratify the 18th amendment 75% to 25%. Even Ohio, the home state of the ASL rejected statewide prohibition, even though their legislators voted the nation dry 105-42.

Nebraska was the state that finally put prohibition over the line on January 16th, 1919. One hundred years ago today the brainchild of a rural, evangelical and increasingly small movement became part of the US Constitution. Their peculiar brand of American values was the law of the land for almost fourteen years and thanks to journalists, historians and a band of resistive Bon Vivants the problems that caused have been very well documented. But it’s worth remembering that our nation got to that point not by coming together in agreement or through rigourous, fair-minded debate. Bullying, backroom deals and legislative gamesmanship were the progenitors of prohibition and if we can learn one thing from the eighteenth amendment it’s just how hard dirty tricks are to undo once there’s a signature on the law.



‘Wets’ and ‘Drys’ in the Digest’s Prohibition Poll

Access to Saloons, Wet Voter Turnout and Statewide Referenda, 1907-1919

Last Call – The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Daniel Okrent, Scribner, 2010


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