This piece is part of a series of essays on alcohol history. You can see more here.
The American pop cultural presentation and understanding of Prohibition has a tendency to be both quaint and drastically oversimplified. Looking back on events that transpired a century ago (it was 100 years since the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment this January), we view “the noble experiment” of Prohibition as both a failure and a farce; an obviously unattainable assault on personal liberties cooked up by sanctimonious, finger-wagging teetotalers who wanted to take away our fun.
On some level, it’s easier for us to think of Prohibition this way—as a meritless national gaffe that lasted 13 years, forced on the populace by delusional temperance evangelists. But to do so robs us of a much deeper perspective on why and how the country went dry, and how we’re still feeling Prohibition’s ripple effects today.
Suffice to say, it wasn’t just bible-thumping pastors who were pushing for national Prohibition, nor would they ever have been able to deliver it on their own. Rather, Prohibition came about as a result of one of history’s most bizarrely complicated, fraught political alliances, the likes of which we’ve really never seen again in the century that followed. For incredibly different reasons, aspects and tenets of alcoholic Prohibition were able to largely unite the following blocs in an overwhelming tidal wave of blind, single-issue support:
— Women’s groups and suffragists
— Political progressives
— Xenophobes and nationalists
The linchpin in the center, of course, was the Anti-Saloon League, the most powerful political pressure group in the history of the United States. By focusing itself on a single issue—the quest for a Prohibition amendment—the ASL and its legendary activist leader, Wayne Wheeler, were able to draw myriad members from socioeconomic classes that would otherwise be opposed on almost every other issue, making the ASL’s support almost mandatory in getting national legislators elected. In doing so, members of the Ku Klux Klan found themselves supporting the same legislation as prominent female suffragists. “Pro-labor” progressives, dedicated to the plight of the urban working man, were somehow allied with anti-immigrant, anti-labor xenophobes. It’s one of the most heady, confusing eras in American political history.
If this image had a finger, you know it would be wagging at you.
The one thing that makes it a bit easier to understand? Diving into why each of these groups supported Prohibition in the first place. So let’s do exactly that.
Women’s Groups and Suffragists
Women’s advocacy groups such as the original Women’s Christian Temperance Union (the WCTU) were among the first to organize against the threat they believed was posed by alcohol, decades before they were overshadowed in terms of political and practical clout by the all-encompassing Anti-Saloon League. Led by the influential Frances Willard, who preached a philosophy of “Do Everything,” the WCTU was broad and blunt in its outreach. It simultaneously campaigned for Prohibition, women’s suffrage, labor laws, anti-polygamy legislation, “Americanization,” temperance instruction in schools, and dozens of other goals, with somewhat limited results. Alcohol, however, was always a major focus.
And to be clear: Women in 1800s America had ample reason to be concerned about the effect of alcohol. As we’ve written about in the past, the consumption rate of alcohol in the first half of the 1800s in America was unthinkably prodigious by today’s standards. Peaking around 1830, when the national average for consumption reached 7 gallons of pure ethanol per year, America was a nation awash with drunks, and alcohol-related disease ran rampant. By means of comparison, the average rate of consumption per person in modern-day America is roughly 2.4 gallons of ethanol per year, or only 34 percent of what we were drinking in 1830. Even the booziest nation on Earth in terms of consumption, the Eastern European nation of Belarus, only consumes roughly 4.62 gallons of ethanol per year, per capita, in the modern day. That means the 1830 rate of American consumption was still 51.5 percent higher than anywhere else on Earth in 2019. Is it any wonder that the most popular and widely performed American play of the 1840s was titled The Drunkard? Thanks to the flood of cheap liquor produced by the corn boom, America found alcohol impossible to resist.
This was the Avatar of its day, in terms of box office receipts.
Nor should it be a surprise that women were among the temperance movement’s first leaders—they had numerous reasons to be. Beyond the fact that women suffered from the obvious danger of violence from a drunken husband, they had few means of recourse. Few were granted divorces by the male-privileged court system; nor were they welcome in the workforce in order to provide for their families, even if they had been widowed by a husband who drank himself into the grave. Likewise unwelcome as a part of saloon culture, the alcohol industry of the 1800s and early 1900s often overlooked women entirely, many of whom understandably came to the conclusion that the nation would be better off without it.
And then there were the suffragists. Although many suffragists no doubt supported the Prohibition cause for the same reasons as other women noted above, they also saw the drive for Prohibition as a powerful means to an end: A political cause that could help deliver women the vote at the same time. The beer and liquor lobbies certainly made the assumption that granting women the right to vote would result in a tidal wave of electoral support for Prohibition, so they did their damndest to hold suffrage back by any means necessary—including Adolphus Busch bribing prominent suffragists such as Phoebe Couzins to literally switch sides on the debate.
Understandably, with the (oversimplified) assumption in place that women would represent a “dry” voting bloc once given the right of suffrage, “wet” politicians (largely Democrats) tended to oppose suffrage as a result. As author Daniel Okrent notes in his book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (which I’ll be referencing often here), Senate Democrat and prominent dry leader James A. Reed “called suffragists ‘Amazonian furies’ who chanted ‘in rhythmic harmony with the barbaric war dance of the Sioux.’” It’s not exactly the kind of outlook on basic voting rights that has aged well.
Anti-suffrage protesters at the White House, gleefully tearing up a suffragist’s banner in 1917.
And those badly aged opinions extended to the female political leaders of the day as well. Just because the likes of Frances Willard were ultimately on the right side of history in terms of their activism for women’s suffrage, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t also be racially insensitive or outright xenophobic at the same time. Historian Lisa McGirr offers up Willard’s decidedly xenophobic take on those wet supporters who made up the working classes of America’s cities: “Alien illiterates rule our cities today. The saloon is their place; the toddy stick their scepter.” It goes to show that although we’d love for the Prohibition story to feature clear-cut protagonists and bad guys, the reality is always far more complicated.
“Do Everything” proponent Frances Willard.
In the end, the Nineteenth Amendment arrived in the wake of the Prohibition amendment rather than ushering it in, but the two were still inextricably linked.
As the eve of Prohibition approached, the nation was caught in a time of turmoil and rapidly changing demographics. The urban cities were swelling with influxes of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Asia, and then, as now, white Americans reacted with fear and hatred rather than open arms.
A catalyzing agent was the 1915 release of The Birth of a Nation—a massive monetary success, but one that came with the insidious and lasting effect of directly inspiring the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. After seeing the film, “Colonel” William Joseph Simmons of Alabama sensed an economic opportunity, and seized upon the chance to found a new Klan with himself at the head (and collecting membership fees). This second generation Klan exploded in membership as the decade came to end, broadening the sphere of its hate to include not just black Americans but also those of Catholic, Jewish or non-“aryan” descent, even as it made inroads in the most unexpected of places. In Ohio alone there were 300,000 KKK members by the mid-1920s, and Klan-backed gubernatorial candidates were elected in Oregon, Colorado and Kansas. At the height of their influence, a Klan-backed mayoral candidate named Charles Bowles was almost elected as the mayor of Detroit via write-in votes alone. That’s how much power the Klan wielded by the mid-1920s.
The Klan, at the height of its power, marches down Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington, DC, in 1925.
Despite inroads in the cities, though, the seat of the Klan’s power remained rural, which also happened to be the seat of power for dry legislators. It was easy for the average farmer to push for dry legislation for a number of reasons—they didn’t live in a city surrounded by saloons, and several forms of alcohol readily available to them were never actually made illegal by Prohibition. Take cider, for instance—because Section 29 of the Volstead Act (the national Prohibition enforcement law) exempted fermented “fruit juices,” the home manufacture of cider (and wine, for that matter) was never actually made illegal. If you lived on a farm and grew your own apples, you could essentially make all the booze you wanted, while simultaneously clamoring for alcohol to be stripped from the urban masses. And considering those urban masses were disproportionately dark-skinned or foreign, that’s exactly what rural members of the KKK did in the build-up to Prohibition. The exemption of cider was no coincidence: It was a calculated gift to Prohibition’s rural supporters, straight from Wayne Wheeler, who said the following according to Okrent: The exception was meant to “enable farmers and housewives of the country to conserve their fruits.”
This kind of hypocrisy ran rampant in the KKK’s relationship with Prohibition. In the decades leading up to its enactment, racist dry supporters demonized black Americans for their alleged susceptibility to the debilitating effects of alcohol, falling back on old cliches of “black lust” for virginal white women as reason for taking alcohol out of the hands of black men. Once Prohibition actually arrived, those same racists (now likely members of the revived KKK) realized they had been handed an extremely powerful weapon in the form of Prohibition “enforcement.” After all, no one could reasonably be against “enforcement of the law,” right? Nevermind the fact that the KKK only cared about enforcement when its targets were dark-skinned or otherwise foreign residents of the country. If any of this sounds similar to “the war on drugs,” 50 years later, it’s because Prohibition laid the foundation for race-based law enforcement and the growth of a prison state. It’s no coincidence that incarceration boomed during the Prohibition era, just as it would again during the 1970s.
One particularly striking case from Illinois—hardly a place you’d think of as a hotbed of KKK activity—makes the terror of this situation particularly clear. From 1923 to 1926, the Southern Illinois county of Williamson was essentially taken over completely by Klan rule. More than 1,000 Klan members received official Prohibition Bureau deputy status, and they took it upon themselves to wage a bloody war against the county’s bootleggers, who responded in kind. But the deputized KKK also used the opportunity to conduct no-warrant raids on any local black or immigrant family they suspected of possessing alcohol, trampling over every possible right in the process. Writes Okrent, in Last Call:
Through the intervention of dry congressman Edward E. Denison, the Klansmen had been deputized by Roy Haynes to clean up the county, which had been in the grip of bootleggers. The vigilantes were led by S. Glenn Young, who had earlier been drummed out of his position in the Prohibition Bureau as “a distinct and glaring disgrace … unfit to be in government service.” After midnight on February 1, 1924, Young’s marauders raided the homes of immigrant Italian mineworkers, terrorizing women and children, and if they found wine in the house, hauling their husbands and fathers off to jail. Rev. A. M. Stickney of the Marion Methodist Church provided ideological support, declaring that Catholics and Jews controlled America’s newspapers, and insisting that only the Klan could protect America from disaster. Marching behind Young, who carried a submachine gun, Klansmen briefly seized control of the local government. Riots punctuated the ensuing war between Klan vigilantes and bootlegger-supported local officials; by its end, 20 people were dead.
McGirr refers to the same events in Williamson County with even more dramatization:
There was a series of raids that were held, and eventually by the end they were essentially burning down Italian-owned roadhouses, they were entering Italian immigrant Catholic homes and smashing down doors, throwing bottles of wine, planting evidence. There are stories that are told of [KKK] folks who come into [immigrant] homes and not only smash their wine—they drink it themselves!
Given that this is the KKK we’re talking about, this kind of hate-motivated behavior should hardly be surprising. What IS shocking to read about is how nonchalantly other dry supporters and government officials were able to turn their heads and look the other way from the atrocities that were being carried out by their own political allies. Take Mabel Walker Willebrandt, the American “First Lady of the Law” and only the second woman to ever serve as the U.S. Assistant Attorney General. Put directly in charge of handling cases that involved violations of the Volstead Act, Willebrandt was the highest-ranking woman in the federal government at the time, and was known for her no-nonsense desire to enforce the Prohibition amendment. But even she seemed to fully embrace the cognitive dissonance of being allied with the Klan. Per Okrent:
There may be no clearer demonstration of the drys’ pragmatic acceptance of every variety of ally than a comment made by Mabel Willebrandt—a federal official, a feminist, a progressive—when she was asked about the faithfully dry Ku Klux Klan: “I have no objection to people dressing up in sheets, if they enjoy that sort of thing.”
Because that’s what the Klan is all about, folks. People who like to wear bedsheets.
Despite being a progressive and a feminist, Mabel Walker Willebrandt didn’t mind looking the other way when it came to the KKK. And she was hardly alone.
The drive to Prohibition falls squarely within the middle of the Progressive Era of the United States, a time when activists who identified as “progressives” were seeking to combat various forms of injustice posed by the effects of industrialization, immigration and political corruption, among other things. Along the way, the majority of progressives also found themselves in favor of a national Prohibition amendment.
Ostensibly, progressives sought a Prohibition amendment with positive intentions in mind, as a means of lessening the power of urban, saloon-based political power brokers and simultaneously freeing “the working man” from the vice-grip of alcohol on his waking hours. Theoretically, a country without the temptation of alcohol would mean workers spending their paychecks more wisely, allowing them to climb to higher socio-economic strata. It was with this tactic that progressive politicians pitched Prohibition to industrialists and captains of industry: Help us abolish alcohol, and your workers will dry out and become much more productive. Unsurprisingly, it’s harder to look back on these positions today with the same sort of goodwill—all too often, they rang with a dismissive attitude of “we know what’s best for you,” and a lack of respect for the common man’s freedom of choice. It should go without saying that it takes more than depriving a person of alcohol to make them a success, and that this line of thinking was ineffectively simple. An example from a piece by Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker makes this abundantly clear:
William Allen White, a paragon of Progressivism, stated the movement’s credo memorably, and revealingly: “We believed faithfully that if we could only change the environment of the under dog, give him a decent kennel, wholesome food, regular baths, properly directed exercise, cure his mange and abolish his fleas, and put him in the blue-ribbon class, all would be well.”
A not-exactly-subtle illustration of a non-productive worker.
However, it was a major progressive victory—the establishment of the income tax via the Sixteenth Amendment—that helped the country clear what was likely the biggest single roadblock to a national Prohibition amendment, which was the sheer amount of lost Federal revenue that would disappear once the government stopped collecting excise taxes on alcohol. Indeed, it’s easy to be unaware of just how important the excise tax on alcohol was to the federal budget at the time: Before the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913, as much as 30 percent of all federal revenue was coming from alcohol sales alone. That would have been an utterly impossible figure to suddenly snip out of the budget, which made the establishment of the income tax a truly necessary step, if Prohibition would ever be achieved. As such, the bizarre alliance of Prohibition supporters likewise largely sided with the progressives in favor of the income tax, whether they were suffragists or KKK—because establishing a new source of federal revenue was paramount to making a Prohibition amendment feasible.
It’s not without some irony, then, that many of the same captains of industry who initially supported the dry cause eventually became the leading forces behind the Repeal movement. Once again, the actions of extremely powerful men such as Pierre S. du Pont or John J. Raskob were predictably self-serving in nature: Finding that Prohibition did not increase their workers productivity as promised, they joined leadership positions of the already existing Association Against the Prohibition Amendment (AAPA), and threw enough patronage into the fray to make Repeal a genuine possibility. The reason, of course, was their fiscal bottom line: The likes of du Pont reasoned that if the excise tax on alcohol was reinstated, the federal government could consider lessening, or outright abolishment of, the income tax. And when you’re a billionaire … that’s an attractive proposition.
“Beer for prosperity”—an argument in favor of Repeal, with the rationale that excise taxes would increase government revenue.
“The object of the Association is not merely the return of the use of alcoholic beverages in the United States,” wrote du Pont to a friend, as quoted by Okrent in Last Call. “Another important factor is the tremendous loss of revenue to our Government through the Prohibition laws. The revenue of the Government would be increased sufficiently to warrant the abolition of the income tax and corporation tax. On the whole, there is much to strive for.”
Much has changed in the last 100 years, but the proclivities of Big Business remain exactly the same.
Xenophobes and Nationalists
There’s obviously quite a bit of crossover here with the previous section on “racists,” but there are too many individual points to make related to nationalism and xenophobia at the close of the Progressive Era to omit this section.
As stated previously, the urban city centers of the early 1900s were exploding in terms of population, taking in huge influxes of immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and (on the west coast) from Asia. Although xenophobia certainly ran rampant, it’s merely factual to point out the reality of just how many immigrants really were arriving at the time—to the extent that as of the 1910 census, more than 4 in 10 residents of New York City were foreign born. That’s a slightly higher rate of foreign-born residents in NYC than exists even today, and the number would likely have kept on climbing, but for the sweeping effects of the Immigration Act of 1924. More on that in a moment.
So, what kinds of ugly opinions did Americans harbor about the huddled masses arriving in cities such as New York, looking for a better life, yearning to breathe free, as it were? The views of popular journalist/novelist Kenneth L. Roberts were all too common among dry supporters in the way that they demonized Eastern European and Mediterranean residents as second-class, inferior specimens that were “biologically and culturally less intelligent.” Writes Okrent, in Last Call:
[Roberts] said the immigrants heading to the United States “are the defeated, incompetent and unsuccessful—the very lowest layer of European society.” Polish Jews, he said, were userers and liquor dealers; Slavs “have been brought up to break the laws of the people who govern them.” Immigrants from the eastern reaches of Austria-Hungary “wear clothing that seems to have ripened on them for years, and they sleep in wretched hovels with sheep and cows and pigs and poultry scattered among them.” His occasional efforts to dilute this flood of acid provided opportunity for yet further insult: “Even the most backward, illiterate, dirty, thick-headed peasants of Southeastern Europe have their good points.”
Writing for the Saturday Evening Post, Roberts concluded the following: “It is no more possible to make Americans out a great many of them than it is possible to make a race horse out of a pug dog.”
It’s a frightening picture of the idea of “American race” purity that existed in the early 1900s, and of course continues to exist today, simply focused on different ethnic groups. One thing that the specific ethnic groups targeted by the Prohibition-era xenophobes had in common, though—the Slavs, the Jews, the Mediterranean Catholics, etc—is that they all tended to come from cultures where alcohol wasn’t just common but an integral part of everyday life. After all, religious services for both Catholics and Jewish practitioners involved the regular consumption of sacramental wine. What better way to stick it to those frightening foreigners “invading the country” than to strip them of an important part of their heritage and lifestyle? As a result, the xenophobes overwhelmingly found themselves in the dry camp, while newly naturalized immigrant citizens found themselves among the wets.
A biblical argument for Repeal from 1925, quoting the book of Timothy: “Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake and thine often infirmities.”
Which brings us to one of the biggest fears among the drys—the idea that the ongoing flood of legal immigration would eventually change the demographics of the nation into one where the sanctity of Prohibition would be under threat. They responded with one of the most drastic and deeply xenophobic pieces of legislation ever passed in the United States: The Immigration Act of 1924. Its importance and deep effects on the demographics of the U.S.A. for the next four decades can hardly be overstated.
The heart of the Immigration Act of 1924 was a desire to limit legal immigration from any portion of the world considered undesirable in any way by the sitting Republican (faithfully dry and bigoted) Congress. In the slightly more palatable words of the U.S. Department of State, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity.” Or in other words: To keep the U.S. as white and Protestant as it could reliably be kept.
To that effect, the act put limits on the number of immigrants from each country who were eligible to enter the United States, with the maximum each year being “2 percent” of the existing population of residents from that country. In other words, if there were 1 million residents from Poland in the U.S., an additional 20,000 would be able to enter each year. Or at least, that’s how the system was intended to work. Instead, in order to artificially increase the number of immigrants from Western Europe in comparison with those from Eastern/Southern Europe, Congress decided to flat-out ignore the 1920, 1910 and 1900 censuses, and instead use data from the 1890 census to determine the existing population of residents who hailed from each country. In doing so, the xenophobic legislature ignored 34 years of mass migration into the U.S.—millions and millions of people who were now citizens—and set the quotas to reflect a time before Eastern/Southern European immigration had kicked into high gear. As Okrent tabulates:
This eliminated from the equation 4 million Italians, 2 million eastern European Jews, 1.5 million Polish Catholics, and millions of other Slavs, Greeks, Hungarians, Romanians and other “non-Nordics” whose forebears hadn’t had the foresight to reach American shores by 1890. More than three decades later, under the new law, 34,007 immigrants from Great Britain would be allowed through the golden door of liberty each year—joined by fewer than 4,000 Italians, barely 2,000 Russians, and not even 500 Hungarians.
Still, the Eastern and Southern Europeans had it better than Asian immigrants—the Asian Exclusion Act portion of the Immigration Act of 1924 excluded nearly every person of Asian descent from legal immigration for the next several decades.
Presidential politics, meanwhile, were by no means above the xenophobic fray between drys and wets. This was most perfectly crystallized in the 1928 Presidential Election between Republican Herbert Hoover and Democrat Al Smith, the four-time Governor of New York, one of the wettest states in the Union. Opponents of Smith’s candidacy weren’t shy about expressing their disdain both for his perceived wetness and the fact that Smith was a Catholic, leading to accusations that a Smith presidency would result in the U.S. becoming some sort of vassal state of the Vatican. In snappier terms, opponents claimed that a vote for Smith was a vote for “rum and romanism,” showing just how indelibly Catholicism and anti-Prohibition sentiment were linked in the minds of most drys.
Al Smith, supposed pawn of the Vatican.
Okrent goes into detail in Last Call on the depth of vitriol hurled at Smith on account of his Catholicism:
Al Smith’s candidacy gave bigots and xenophobes a perfect demon. In 1928 the crude impulses that had earlier ignited the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan now exploded among those “pure Americans” who saw themselves losing their nation to the Irish and the Italians and al the other foreigners crowding the big cities. Rev. Bob Jones made frequent use of a startling call to arms that year: “I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House.” If this didn’t make his feelings sufficiently clear, Jones’ alternative option certainly did: He declared that he would prefer “a ni*$%# President” to the Catholic Smith.
Finally, there was one last nationalist element to the enactment of Prohibition itself that is impossible to overlook: The anti-German, anti-Austrian sentiment born out of the U.S. joining the fray in World War I. Make no mistake, the timing of World War I, although disastrous in terms of loss of life, was an incredible boon to the dry cause. It allowed the drys to attach the rhetoric of temperance to both nationalism/“patriotism” and xenophobia at once, capitalizing on the country’s unease with its own increasingly “foreign” makeup.
None of this would likely have been possible except for the fact that the American beer industry of the day was largely dominated by German and Austrian-Americans. Bringing their techniques with them out of the old country, German brewers such as Adolphus Busch became the dominant force in the beer industry by the early 20th century. It was easy, then, for the drys to frame those German business owners and their businesses in a negative light—they simply insisted that any expenditure on the brewing industry was a waste that could otherwise be directed toward the war effort. To this end, under the guise of wartime rationing, President Woodrow Wilson signed a 1917 law forbidding breweries from manufacturing beer with any more than 2.75 percent alcohol by volume. The Selective Service Act even forbade the sale of alcohol to servicemen, framing the mere act of drinking beer as deeply unpatriotic.
It was a bad time to be a caricature of a fat German barkeep.
But the attacks against German Americans—and anything with a whiff of Germanity about it in general—didn’t stop there. Despite the fact that some 10 percent of the American population spoke German as of the 1910 census, 14 states banned German language instruction in schools between 1917 and 1920. As in the case of “freedom fries” in the 2000s, sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and daschunds became “wiener dogs.” In short, the same kind of propaganist, ethnic demonization occured that happens every time America finds itself in a conflict on the global stage, except this time, the unexpected victims included nearly the entire brewing industry. Republican John Strange, a former Lieutenant Governor of Wisconsin, summed up the sentiment in a 1918 speech:
“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. They are the worst Germans who ever afflicted themselves on a long-suffering people.”
You have to think he’d probably choose to take back that title of “worst Germans,” had he lived a few more decades.
“Do you guys think my cartoon is direct enough? Will people really be able to get what I’m trying to say?”
References to the Republican party have been studded throughout all the previous sections of this article, but now it’s time to consider the party’s role in Prohibition’s enactment (and especially maintenance) more directly.
We should first note that the temperance movement was by no means a one-party crusade. Members of the Republican, Democrat and Populist parties all individually supported temperance movements at one time or another—not to mention the literal Prohibition Party, which managed to elect a few congressmen in the 1910s as federal Prohibition loomed. But as the 1900s began, the changing demographics of urban America played their role in transforming the two primary political parties into the outlines of the parties we still know today. The cities, with their dense populations of foreign-born (and typically wet) citizens became bastions of the Democratic Party, while the largely rural, whiter and more Protestant states drifted toward the Republicans and the drys. At the same time, the urban saloon became the central hub of many cities’ Democratic machines—the place where local bosses would drum up support for candidates, register voters and even ply their loyalty with a few free beers. The closure of those saloons via Prohibition represented an opportunity for the Republican leadership to cripple those Democratic political machines.
This isn’t to say that there weren’t plenty dry Democrats during the run-up to Prohibition, because there certainly were. At the height of Wayne Wheeler’s power and influence over the Anti-Saloon League, many Democrats voted faithfully for dry measures in exchange for the ASL’s proven ability to secure election victories. As an organization, the ASL cared far more about loyalty to dry voting than what party a candidate represented.
Nevertheless, even with the ASL’s power at its peak in the 1910s, the savvy Wheeler was aware of trouble on the horizon. Due to the massively swelling population of the cities, he knew that the balance of power was seemingly about to shift away from the ASL’s favor. Because the Constitution states that the reapportionment of congressional representatives must take place after every decennial census, the year 1920 slowly took on a looming significance in the ASL’s mindset. Wheeler, for one, was convinced that his organization needed to gain enough clout to deliver the Prohibition amendment now, or the chance would never come again. He said the following to his troops: “We have got to win it now. Because when 1920 comes and reapportionment is here, 40 new wet congressmen will come from the great wet centers with their rapidly increased population.”
Except—and here comes the single most unbelievable fact in this entire essay—it turned out Wheeler needn’t have worried, because reapportionment never came. Not only did the ASL’s clout manage to pass the Eighteenth Amendment through Congress in 1917, but the long-lasting Republican majority established in 1919 (it would last until 1931) went to unprecedented lengths to defend the amendment for them, and remain in power in the process. And that included defying the Constitutional mandate for reapportionment for almost a decade.
Let me restate that for emphasis: The Republican Congress of the 1920s chose to to ignore the law that governs how representatives are chosen, and they got away with doing so for nine years with nary a challenge. All the while, the letter of the law guaranteed far more representation for the residents of the crowded cities than they were actually receiving. Per Okrent:
Never in American history, not even during the tumult of the Civil War, had Congress disregarded the constitutional mandate, enunciated in Article 1, Section 2, to reapportion itself following the completion of the decennial census. In each of the three most recent opportunities—1890, 1900 and 1910—the process consumed less than nine months. But a threatened majority, like a threatened animal, will do what it can to preserve itself. Between 1921 and 1928, forty-two separate reapportionment bills were introduced in the House. Not one became law.
Ignoring reapportionment helped Congressional Republicans maintain their grip on power, as in this makeup of the 67th Congress (1921-1923) when reapportionment should have occurred. Instead, it didn’t happen until 1929.
It was a truly egregious flouting of the law, designed solely to keep an inordinate amount of power and representation in the hands of reliably dry rural (and Republican) voters. Allowed to continue for almost a decade, by the time a reapportionment bill was finally passed in 1929, the ratios of representation had become comically out of whack. At the height of this absurdity, a single congressional district in Detroit represented more than 1.3 million citizens. At the same time, 10 congressional districts and congressmen represented only 180,000 people in an area of Missouri. It was one of the keys to maintaining the Prohibition amendment for as long as it lasted—even as public sentiment turned against Prohibition, the system fought hard to keep the status quo in place.
Unsurprisingly, that kind of systematic corruption extended to individual “dry” politicians as well. Among them was the especially colorful, bone dry Republican congressman John W. Langley, who was referred to as “pork barrel John” for his impressive ability to deliver federal funding to his constituents. Nevermind the fact that he was also making himself rich in the process by working directly with bootleggers based in his congressional district. Check out these numbers, per Okrent:
On a congressman’s annual salary of $7,500, Langley managed to deposit $115,000 in his bank account over a three-year period in exchange for arranging the release of a million gallons of “medicinal” liquor to New York-based bootleggers. He was reelected despite his conviction; then, after losing his appeal and entering prison, his wife was twice elected in his place.
“Pork barrel John,” in the flesh.
Yes, you read that right: Despite being convicted of illegally selling alcohol and bribing Prohibition officers, and being imprisoned for that crime, Langley’s constituents then elected his wife for two terms in his place. Langley was then pardoned by President Calvin Coolidge in 1928, and immediately tried to run for Congress again, despite the fact that the terms of his pardon forbade him from running for office. In 1929, he self-published an autobiography in an attempt to rebuild his political clout, titled They Tried to Crucify Me. Truly, the man had no shame, and he was by no means alone.
Langley, though, was emblematic of how the wider scope of federal vs. state government took shape for much of the bootlegging era of Prohibition. Ironically, the bootleggers themselves were strongly in support of Prohibition’s continuation and supposed “enforcement”—this was, after all, their industry and livelihood. Without a legitimate alcohol industry to compete against, the illicit one made tens of thousands of bootleggers into rich men. As such, they funneled bribes and patronage to local wet leaders and police to look the other way on enforcement, even as they ALSO made campaign contributions to dry legislators to keep the Prohibition laws in place. It was a beautifully efficient system to maintain the status quo, even as the status quo enriched them. Or as Okrent puts it:
Bootleggers required dry laws the keep legitimate businessmen out of the booze industry, and they needed wet administrators to keep the cops and other enforcement officials off their backs. The perfect combination: A dry Congress and state legislatures to pass the laws, and wet mayors and governors to not enforce them—in other words, something very close to the lineup in America’s most populous cities and states as the election of 1928 approached.
Can you believe there are people out there who actually find American history “boring,” when there are so many stories like these to unearth?
Speakeasy patrons, no doubt toasting their “dry” state and federal government.
For all of the weapons-grade weirdness generated by this strange, uneasy alliance of incredibly different interest groups, the lasting takeaway in my mind is still incredulity that so many of these Prohibition crusaders were able to look past the identities (and ideologies) of their allies on the other side of the aisle. There’s truly been no other movement quite like it—no hot-button issue that has brought together pious preachers, hateful bigots, progressive champions, career politicians, criminals, women’s rights activists and captains of industry into the same fold. When else have all of these demographics pushed for the same Constitutional amendment, whatever it may be?
As for their success … well, you really can’t ascribe simple “success” or “failure” to something as big and complex as Prohibition. It’s invariably described as a failure, yes, but it should be noted that overall drinking rates did decrease sharply when Prohibition was enacted, and then slowly rose again through its final days. Still, for a decade afterward, alcohol consumption remained below Pre-Prohibition levels—call it the holdover effect from the Prohibition years. The bottom line is that less alcohol overall was consumed, thanks to Prohibition.
Was enforcement of the law ever effective? That’s certainly a no—if you can call one area of “the noble experiment” an objective failure, it was the Bureau of Prohibition’s attempt to enforce the law on a federal level, given that they were never equipped with more than the tiniest fraction of the resources that would have been necessary to carry out effective enforcement. If anything, alcohol became easier to access during Prohibition than at any time beforehand, thanks to the massive legal loopholes in the law itself, along with the general disinterest of the states in spending any money on local enforcement. From 1919 to 1933, train cars of grapes poured in from California to be made into homemade or “sacramental” wine. Kits with all the ingredients one needed to make homebrewed beer proliferated. Cider, as mentioned above, was never actually outlawed. Moonshine flourished. Industrial alcohol was diverted into drinking bottles. Pharmacies boomed, selling pints of “medicinal” whiskey over the counter. Floods of transcontinental liquor poured into the U.S. from bootleggers (who became millionaires) in Canada, Scotland and The Bahamas. The sheer number of places to get a drink multiplied to such a point that legitimate, law-abiding restaurants were put out of business by speakeasies that also sold food. And the modern, co-ed bar scene was established in the process.
A crowd of hundreds waits to receive liquor licenses from the NYC board of health, following Repeal.
In the end, the Prohibition years were perhaps less influential on whether Americans consumed alcohol than they were on entirely separate aspects of society. From the war on drugs to the rise of single-issue political pressure groups such as the NRA, they’re all the fruits of the strange alliance that delivered us Prohibition.
And with all that said, I could certainly use a drink right about now.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident alcohol geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.