History of Drinking in America: Part Five

An Anti-Saloon League poster promoting the cause of prohibition.

An Anti-Saloon League poster promoting the cause of prohibition.

This is fifth and final post in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it! 

Read part one here.

Read part two here.

Read part three here.

Read part four here.

Attempts to pass a prohibition amendment in the United States Congress began in 1876.  In the 1880s, several states created laws restricting or outlawing liquor.  With the launch of the Progressive Movement at the turn of the century, alcohol and its influences became incorporated with their goal to purify society, enfranchise women, and reform the machine politics of years past.  Around the same time, a powerful political group known as the Anti-Saloon league was born.  Unlike the WCTU which was a broad reform group, the Anti-Saloon League had only one purpose: the prohibition of all intoxicating liquors in America.

The WCTU had successfully educated several generations on the dangers of alcohol, while also tying the rights of women and the right to vote to prohibition.  Progressives soon joined the cause of prohibition as well, under the ideology that going dry would solve both political corruption and urban poverty.  As Progressives, the WCTU, Prohibition Party, and Anti-Saloon League warned of the scourge of alcohol, their message struck a chord with nativists and xenophobes who feared the impact of changing urban demographics that had begun in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century.  Temperence and Prohibition advocates “were disproportionately rural white Protestants of northern European ethnic stock, and such reformers sometimes saw prohibition as a means of controlling or reforming Catholics, immigrants, African American and poor whites.”[1]  When the United States entered World War I in 1917, anti-German sentiment only furthered the cause of prohibitionists as many brewing companies were owned by German Americans.  By that time, twenty-three states had prohibition laws and many others had considered similar laws.  The American public was turning against alcohol.  In an interesting irony, radical WCTU member Carrie Nation (who had previously lost a husband due to drink) received hundreds of supporters while she toured Kansas staging ‘hatchetation,’ which vandalized bars and smashed liquor bottles.  Though she created thousands of dollars of damage to businesses, Nation was never tried of any major crimes.

Despite America’s growing distain of alcohol, some Progressives and Temperance advocates remained uneasy about a nation wide ban of alcohol.  For one, excise taxes on alcohol provided a major source of revenue for the United States – one that would disappear with prohibition.  In 1909 President William Howard Taft (who was against prohibition) proposed that Congress allow for a Constitutional Amendment to allow the federal government to collect income taxes. With support of major parties, the 16th Amendment was passed in 1913, thereby giving the country a new form of revenue to fund Progressive reform.  That the 16th Amendment would serve as a means for generating supplemental revenue for that lost with on alcohol prohibition was not lost on the Temperance Movement.  Still, many temperance advocates saw several problems with a national prohibition ban.  Prohibition would destroy businesses and jobs that were desperately needed.  In addition, prohibition had always been a decision for each individual state, and some felt a national amendment would be an intrusion on state rights.  Nonetheless, progress toward a national prohibition continued.

In 1914, Congress voted on a prohibition amendment, as it had done sporadically since 1876. Previous congressional acts had aimed to restrict alcohol, but prohibition advocates knew anything short of an amendment would be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  Before the House of Representatives vote, Congressman Richard P. Hobson addressed his colleagues.  He stated, “There can be but one verdict, and that is this great destroyer must be destroyed.”[2]  The final vote was 197 to 190, with a majority of Congress supporting the Amendment but nonetheless failing to receive the necessary two-thirds majority.  Three years later with World War I looming, Texas Senator Morris Sheppard reintroduced the bill in the Senate.  With grain and sugar shortages, Prohibition could also be packaged as a patriotic sacrifice for the war effort (in addition to stigmatizing German brewing).[3]  On December 18, 1917 the bill passed both chambers of Congress.  One year later, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the Amendment, and the 18th Amendment became law on January 16, 1919.  Its partner Congressional legislation, the Volstead Act, limited the production and sale of intoxicating liquors (except by doctor’s prescription) on October 28, 1919 despite President Woodrow Wilson’s veto.  On January 16, 1920, the Volstead Act and the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect, creating a nationwide prohibition that last thirteen years until its repeal by the 21st Amendment.

Alcohol’s shifting journey from economic staple and community builder to ‘demon’ drink and destroyer of American society is an interesting one.  While there were early moral objections to drunkenness and intoxicating liquor, it would take well over 100 years for temperance to gain enough political clout to begin discussing the total prohibition of intoxicating beverages in America.  The national support for America’s temperance movement is evident in the thirteen years of prohibition. Despite the fact prohibition was ultimately unsuccessful, many of the tenets of temperance remain today. Alcoholism is considered a disease and scourge on society’s resources.  In addition, children continue to be taught about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse in school, with over 72% of school districts implementing a D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program.[4]  Though prohibition ended nearly 80 years ago, the effects of the temperance movement continues to impact American society and government today.


[1] John R Vile, “Eighteenth Amendment,” Encyclopedia of Constitutional Amendments, Proposed Amendments, and Amending Issues, 1789-2002, 2nd. Ed.  (Santa Barbra, CA:  ABC CLIO Inc., 2003), 155.

[2] Richmond P. Hobson, “A Constitutional Amendment Is Needed to Ensure Permanent Nationwide Prohibition of Liquor,” in Amendments XVIII and XXI: Prohibition and Repeal, ed. Sylvia Engdahl (Farmington Mills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2009), 34.

[3] Amar, 416.

[4] “D.A.R.E 2009 Annual Report,” The Official D.A.R.E Website,  http://www.dare.com/home/about_dare.asp  (accessed July 30, 2013).

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One thought on “History of Drinking in America: Part Five

  1. Great job on the history of alcohol!

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