Skip to content

Excerpt: Putting together the Dry coalition.

Elsewhere in today’s Fortnightly, we publish a review of Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. Our reviewer is Andrew Sinclair, whose own much-praised study, Prohibition: The Era of Excess, was published in 1962. In the passage below, Sinclair describes the way in which disparate interests combined to back Prohibition. [Reference notes as in the text and listed at the bottom.]

THUS AT THE BEGINNING of the twentieth century, those reformers who wished to end certain evils of government and of the liquor trade and of discrimination against women could agree on many of their objectives. Corrupt politics and the saloon vote was the enemy of all reform; clean politics and a sober vote was the friend of all reform. Female suffrage was thought to mean more votes for the dry cause and the cause of good government. The ‘superior moral force of women’ would save America from the saloon and from the plutocrats, who were ruling American institutions [30]. The staid North American Review gave progressive reasons for endorsing female suffrage in 1906 as a ‘paramount necessity’; the rise of both socialism and the trusts had made the voting of women necessary, as a means ‘of purifying the ballot, of establishing and maintaining lofty standards as to qualifications required of candidates for public office, of effecting an evener distribution of earnings, of providing a heavier balance of disinterestedness and conservatism against greed and radicalism.’ [31] Dry clergymen also bid for progressive support of prohibition measures. ‘The bartender poses as the dictator of American destiny…. His royal sceptre is a beer faucet.’ [32] Since the liquor trade had corrupted American politics to such a great extent, it was the job of all good progressives to give the women the vote so that they could help the drys to abolish the cursed trade that corrupted all government. The question was simple.

Whisky spiders, great and greedy,
Weave their webs from sea to sea;
They grow fat and men grow needy;
Shall our robbers rulers be? [33]

The feminists had special reasons for helping the drys. The Prohibition party was the first major party to endorse female suffrage. In return, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union had endorsed the Prohibition party in 1884, after supporting female suffrage four years earlier.* It was due to the Union that those women with a political bent first learned to organize the members of their sex and apply pressure upon politicians. The Union had both invented and perfected many of the dry lobbying techniques while pushing through its temperance education bills. Moreover, the eleven states which adopted female suffrage before 1917 were all in the West; seven of these were prohibition states, and the other four had large areas under local option. The liquor trade was held to be the particular foe of womankind; as the Wisconsin Vice Committee declared, ‘the chief direct cause of the downfall of women and girls is the close connection between alcoholic drink and commercialized vice.’ [34] A woman’s vote was though to be a dry vote and, for that reason, the liquor trade was condemned for opposing the suffragettes; a feminist pamphlet, The Secret Enemy, reprinted a circular sent out by the Brewers’ and Wholesale Liquor Dealers’ Association of Oregon to every retail liquor dealer in the state, asking him to get out twenty-five votes against the state woman-suffrage amendment. The German-American Alliance, the chief foe of the drys, also opposed the feminists. And finally, woman suffrage was intended to bring about many of the same benefits as prohibition. It would rid the cities of vice and crime by supporting reform governments and would herald an era of peace and prosperity. Even if Mrs. Carrie Chapman Catt thought that women would have been enfranchised two generations earlier had there been no prohibition movement, the success of the suffragettes increasingly became dependent on the help and fortunes of the drys.

Many progressives were also supporters of prohibition. The rural progressives were the heirs of the Populists and their forerunners; to them, the whisky trust was even more devilish than the railroad, the steel, and the oil trusts. And the novelty of the progressive movement, its appeal to the urban middle classes as well as to the rural middle classes, gave the crusade against the saloon an immediate meaning to city dwellers, who had suffered too much from the corrupt saloon vote. Moreover, the strengthening of the federal government through the promise of national prohibition pleased those supporters of Theodore Roosevelt and the Progressive party who demanded a more highly centralized power in the United States. The dry arguments for increased efficiency of administration and business through prohibition were equally seductive to progressives. Although the Prohibition party justly claimed its members were the ‘original Progressives,’ its eclipse by the non-partisan Anti-Saloon League made the Progressive party increasingly bid for dry support after its good showing in the presidential election of 1912, when Theodore Roosevelt beat Taft and the Republican party into third place behind Woodrow Wilson. In 1914, thirteen state Progressive party conventions backed state prohibition, and seventeen Progressives out of the twenty in Congress voted for the Hobson resolution for national prohibition [35]. Both the general sentiment of progressivism and the Progressive party itself were sympathetic to the dry cause.

Yet the one factor which distinguished the progressives and the Progressive party from other American reform and third-party movements was the alliance between city and country within their ranks. The prohibition movement, however, was held to be the assault of the country upon the city. For this reason, the Progressive party convention of 1916 did not endorse national prohibition, although it had endorsed female suffrage four years before. The split among the progressives on the question of prohibition was already evident in rural and urban areas. For instance, in California, Hiram Johnson and the Progressive party rose to power in the state with the help of the Anti-Saloon League and the vote of dry Los Angeles; but although the progressives could combine to fight the power of the Southern Pacific Railroad, they split along urban-rural lines over the vote in 1911 on a county option measure. It was also significant that the thirteen state conventions of the Progressive party which endorsed state prohibition in 1914 were all in rural or semi-rural states; not one Progressive party convention in an industrial state came out for prohibition. In the last resort, the Progressive party would only support the closing of the saloons when it helped in the fight for clean government, but not when it threatened the uneasy alliance within the party between city and country. The North-eastern urban progressives would never support total prohibition of the liquor trade, even if they might support certain measures against the saloons.

Similarly, the South presented problems to the combination of progressivism, prohibition, and women’s rights. White Southerners were enthusiastic over prohibition for economic and racial and moral reasons. Progressivism, too, appealed to them as a method of ending the chronic Southern economic depression through increased efficiency. But Southern progressives also equated clean government with the abolition of the Negro franchise as well as the saloons. In addition, their veneration for Southern womanhood made them deny the female sex any political rights. The Negro’s place in the South was thought to be outside the polling booth and the woman’s inside the home. Thus, although prohibition and a form of progressivism was prevalent below the Potomac, it excluded all hopes of increasing the franchise.

– Andrew Sinclair


30 C. Russell, Obstructions in the Way of Justice (National American Woman Suffrage Assoc., New York, 1908).
31 North American Review, October 5, 1906.
32 L. Banks, The Saloon-Keeper’s Ledger (New York, 1895), p. 98.
33 L. Banks, Ammunition for Final Drive on Booze (New York, 1917), p. 251.
34 Report of the Wisconsin Vice Committee (Madison, Wisc., 1914), p.98.
35 See J. Timberlake, Jr., Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1919 (Harvard, 1957), pp 330-4…

From Prohibition: The Era of Excess, by Andrew Sinclair. London, 1962, pp 111-114. © Andrew Sinclair 1962.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.