The era of prohibition is legendary in America. This was the time of Al Capone, Bugs Moran, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson, Lucky Luciano, and Meyer Lansky. It was also the time of the infamous and romanticized speakeasy, which today has become a common theme in many of the worlds top cocktail lounges.
While most people easily associate prohibition with these more popularized images, few people realize that it was the early feminist movement that fueled the decades-long battle that ultimately resulted in the thirteen-year long national ban of some of America’s most popular beverages.
Prohibition created extreme polarization throughout American society, which was a society of freedom-loving people, and a nation that was built upon individual rights and liberties. However, that very same society decided that they needed to tell other people how to live their lives. Almost every part of the United States Constitution is about expanding freedom, and yet the eighteenth amendment aimed to limit the freedom of others.
The path leading to prohibition erupted in an ideological civil war that spanned decades and pitted some of the nations most powerful organizations against each other. Before the conflict would end, the war would cause America to completely restructure its federal revenue system by implementing a national income tax, and further grant all women in the nation the right to vote.
One big drinking club
American society was one where people drank a lot. Many of the founding fathers were avid drinkers, Abraham Lincoln was a whiskey salesman before he was President, and Frederick Douglass wrote about his love for whiskey, and how it made him feel like a president.
Physicians told their patients that drinking whiskey and hard cider was healthier than consuming water from muddy rivers and stagnant lakes. Clergymen drank during rituals, workers during breaks and after work, and politicians during times of celebration and mourning. Men drank at weddings, funerals and public executions, or just simply to toast a new visitor in town. Americans routinely drank at every single meal, including breakfast.
By 1830, Americans over 15 years old drank an average of 88 bottles of whiskey per year. Americans spent more money on alcohol than all of the expenses of the entire U.S. federal government.
Drunkenness became a major problem in America and led to many social problems that in too many instances resulted in women becoming victims of domestic violence and entire families breaking apart due to the male being a drunkard.
Seeds of change
One evening in 1826, Lyman Beacher, a Connecticut born protestant preacher, rode out to an emergency at the house of one his most faithful parishioners. When he arrived, Beacher found yet another weeping wife crying over the downfall and mental destruction of her husband, because of alcohol.
Beacher resolved to use his public position to speak out against what he viewed as a scourge. During his sermons, he preached about the evils of alcohol, and thus began a movement that 83 years later would result in the eighteenth amendment to the constitution, ushering in the era prohibition.
Fourteen years after Beacher began his anti-booze sermons, six men from Baltimore started what was called the Washingtonian Pledge, which called for a total abstention from alcohol, and in many ways set the foundation for what the modern Alcoholics Anonymous is based on today. While the movement was noble in its intentions, the protestant clergy denounced the Washingtonian movement, since its members turned to each other for support in sobriety, and not the church.
The protestant movement in America had been actively calling for reform and the abolition of everything that it considered evil, which naturally, included slavery. Some of the first seeds of the temperance movement came from the church in the form of preachers who called upon their followers to practice moderation, as they viewed alcohol to be just as wicked as owning slaves.
What started as words of caution quickly turned into extreme calls to action. Many began calling for a capital T total abstinence of all alcohol, and the members of this extreme cause called themselves the teetotalers.
The movement rapidly gained momentum. Despite his previously documented love of alcohol, Frederick Douglas joined the teetotalers as he proclaimed that if the world was sober, that there would be no slavery.
A woman’s touch
Despite the early efforts by a number of influential men, the temperance movement was still just a whimper until women began joining the cause and taking positions of leadership.
In Connecticut, thousands of young people responded to the teetotalers by pledging to never again touch alcohol, and they started an organization called the Cold Water Army. Women were initially just auxiliaries of this group, however, while the men were off working or hanging out, women took on the tasks of running the organization.
While it was unpopular for women to assemble publically alongside men, women quickly became very influential within the temperance movement. One day, women’s rights leader Susan B. Anthony was not allowed to speak at a meeting of the group, and so she walked out and immediately started the first women’s temperance society. She appointed her friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton to become the first president of the new organization, which they called the Woman’s State Temperance Society.
Anthony and Stanton were both instrumental in driving the women’s suffrage movement that advocated for giving women the right to vote in political elections, and it was with them that the idea of banning alcohol and promoting women’s rights became inexorably linked.
The Woman’s State Temperance Society would soon fade into obscurity, but it paved the way for other female organizations within the temperance movement to gain political influence, and more importantly, to blame almost all of the problems of the nation on alcohol.
Women began to preach that they could have the perfect marriage, the perfect husband, and the perfect community if it wasn’t for alcohol. Millions of women across America began to believe that if alcohol was gone, then there would no longer be domestic violence and prostitution.
The only solution, therefore, was to get rid of the drink altogether.
In 1851, Maine became the first state to ban the sale and manufacture of alcohol, and thus began the first efforts by people to work around the law. Saloons began offering a free drink along with a paid lunch, physicians wrote medical prescriptions for alcoholic beverages, and clandestine liquor salesman began selling swigs of booze on the street from beneath their pants legs.
These street peddlers came to be known affectionately by their customers as bootleggers.
Over the next ten years, the sentiment for eliminating alcohol quickly gained momentum, however, the outbreak of the American Civil War and subsequent abolition of slavery overshadowed the temperance movement, and led to a rapid dwindling of the society’s membership.
To make matters worse for the temperance movement, In 1862, desperate for revenues to help pay for the war, the U.S. federal government helped legitimize the alcohol trade by charging retailers a $20 license fee and taxing manufacturers 20 cents for every gallon of distilled spirits, and $1 for every keg of beer.
Within just a few years, 33% of the federal budget would come from taxing alcohol. While at the time this almost destroyed the temperance movement, over the long-term it would prove to be what gave them their ultimate weapon in eliminating alcohol forever.
In 1873, Eliza Jane Thompson marched with the female members of her congregation, and gathered in front of commercial businesses and demanded that they stop the sale of alcohol. Thus began the Woman’s Crusade of Ohio which saw thousands of women gather peacefully to blockade saloons.
Many of these peaceful women were met with violence, and after a short time, the crusade fell apart due mainly to family pressures and obligations that the women were compelled to adhere to by male members of society.
Not long after however, another women’s movement known as the Hatchetations erupted in Kansas, this time with a destructive force that sought to physically destroy every single illegal saloon in the state. Again, this crusade ultimately fell apart, having made little to no impact regarding legislation, although the legend of Carrie Nation and her Hathetations spread across the nation, and inspired millions.
Not long after, Frances Willard took over the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Under her leadership, WCTU membership rapidly swelled to include millions of female teetotalers, and the organization forged an even stronger alliance with the highly organized and influential Women’s Suffrage movement.
Out of this alliance came the theory that a woman’s right to vote was a protective device so that women could vote against alcohol, and save their homes. Willard stated publically that “ballots are bayonets,” and that by giving women the right to cast a ballot, they would forever be rid of the scourge of alcohol.
The WCTU became so influential that they successfully lobbied to change the age of sexual consent from 10 years to 16 years, and further got one of their own members appointed as the Secretary of Education. With this powerful position under their control, the WCTU began spreading droves of misinformation designed to frighten children into never touching alcohol.
The German beer empire strikes back
Despite the Washingtonians, the women’s crusade, the WCTU, legions of clergymen, and educational materials loaded with false claims aimed to terrify, the number of Saloons in American continued to grow.
During the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from central and northern Europe came to America, and they brought with them their drinking habits. Enterprising men with names such as Anheuser, Busch, Stroh, Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz all emigrated from Germany and started their own breweries in America.
In 1850, the German brewers produced 36 million barrels of beer, and in 1870 that number had ballooned to 550 million. The brewers created the United States Brewers Association, which was dominated by German immigrants, and along with promoting their business interests, sought to protect German culture and social values in the new country.
All across America, the saloon was an important part of the local community as it served as a social club for men. A man could cash his paycheck, pick up his mail if he didn’t have an address, read the paper, learn English, play cards, find out who was hiring and perhaps even get a job with the city.
In late 19th century America, the saloon was perhaps the most important social gathering location in almost every town.
While the saloons themselves appeared to be privately owned and staffed by bartenders who lived within the community, the big German brewers owned almost all of them.
By agreeing to sell just one brand of beer, almost anyone could open a Saloon. The brewery paid for the license, the billiards table, the seats, artwork, and in some instances, the food.
Saloons gave free lunches to customers, who in turn would drink pints of beer to wash down the salty food.
Many politicians also ran bars in major cities, as it was a place where they could easily buy votes with a free drink and a cigar.
Perhaps most importantly, the big German brewers accounted for the largest single source of revenue to the federal government, which gave them unprecedented power.
Enter wheeling and dealing Wheeler
While it was primarily female activists that drove the temperance movement, it was men that ultimately succeeded in bringing out the change that teetotalers had been fighting for decades to achieve. Howard Hyde Russell, a lawyer turned minister, founded the Anti-Saloon League in 1893, and selected his friend and fellow attorney Wayne Wheeler to become the President of the league in 1902.
In his new position, Wheeler became the most impactful and influential member of the temperance movement ever. Before Wheeler, most of the leadership of the temperance movement had opted to refrain from interacting with what it viewed as sinful and evil.
Wheeler, however, did not follow these same principles, as he hobnobbed in saloons with politicians, attended important parties and made political deals with ardent supporters of the German brewers. In order to politically strongarm stubborn lawmakers into supporting the temperance movement, Wheeler employed nationalism, racism, propaganda and religious fervor as tactics designed to force resisters to submit or face an end to their political careers.
The only man that was able to stand up to Wheeler was Adolphus Busch. Son-in-law of Eberhard Anheuser, and brewing executive and founder of the most powerful beer brewing company in America, Busch challenged Wheeler head-on by creating an anti-prohibition army comprised of immigrants and the working class.
Busch employed similar tactics as Wheeler. Where Wheeler preached nativism, Busch called the temperance movement a racist and anti-German movement that sought to destroy the culture and liberties of German Americans. Where Wheeler used lies about the negative health effects of alcohol, Busch hired prominent physicians to claim that beer was actually good for you. Where Wheeler used the threat of religious fervor to intimidate lawmakers, Busch fired back with the threat of a major backlash from voters who were the American born children of immigrants.
Adolphus Busch, however, was facing a very formidable foe, and by 1913, The WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League had succeeded to usher in statewide bans on Alcohol in at least eight different states.
Brewers were feeling the financial pressure, but the federal government depended so heavily on revenue from the brewers and liquor industries that they still believed that a national ban on alcohol would never happen.
Wheeler was smart though, and equally as cunning. In that same year, he joined forces with the WCTU. The combined efforts of the Anti-Saloon League and the female-run temperance group was able to apply enough pressure to state legislatures in order to bring about the ratification of the sixteenth amendment, which allowed Congress to enact a national income tax.
Hawkish lawmakers in Washington quickly followed with the Revenue Act of 1913, which the Senate narrowly passed with 44 votes in favor to 37 against. Only one Democrat voted against it, and only one Republican voted for it. President Woodrow Wilson signed the Revenue Act of 1913 into law on October 3, 1913, effectively ending the powerful grip that the Brewers Association had held over Washington.
Practically overnight, the prospect of banning alcohol on a national level went from being no more than a pipe dream, to a very real threat.
Then, if things couldn’t get any worse for the brewers and other producers of alcohol, Adolphus Busch died exactly one week later while vacationing in his native Germany.
The rest is history
While granting women the right to vote had been a major part of the strategy for the temperance movement, the teetotalers would ultimately claim total victory just ten months prior to the ratification of the nineteenth amendment, which granted women the right to vote.
Regardless, had it not been for the influence of the temperance movement, it’s likely that women would have waited at least another decade or more before America decided that they should be allowed to participate directly in politics.
The first time women would cast their ballots was just over one year after the passage of the Volstead Act, which effectively banned the sale and production of all alcohol throughout the entire United States.
The first income tax in America was just 1%, but it was enough to shatter the political influence that the brewers and the broader liquor industry had enjoyed for many decades. Even at the ratification of the sixteenth Amendment, President Wilson attempted to halt prohibition with his veto, but Congress overruled him with the Volstead Act.
Prohibition was a largely failed experiment as the government was unable to properly enforce the ban and furthermore, the willingness to do so by many lawmakers and policemen was simply not there. The political void left by the brewers was quickly filled by organized crime and corrupt officials, and alcohol continued to flow throughout much of America and in all of its major cities.
Rather than eliminate alcohol, prohibition moved it into the underworld and resulted in a significant reduction in the quality and safety of the product. Things got worse in 1929 when the world entered the worst global financial crisis in modern history.
Then, on December 5, 1933, ratification of the twenty-first amendment repealed the eighteenth amendment which banned alcohol, thus marking the official end to the era of prohibition and the temperance movement that for nearly a century had engaged in battles across a wide array of political spectrums, religions, and special interest groups.
While today alcohol is once again legal in the United States, the legacy of the temperance movement can be seen in women’s rights, the feminist and civil rights movements during the second half of the 20th century, and of course, in America’s federal income tax.
Had it not been for the temperance movement, it is possible that women in America would not be enjoying the same rights and privileges that they do today. It is a strange irony that a movement that was designed to limit the freedom of others, and that was ultimately hijacked by an ambitious male attorney, in fact, paved the way for future generations of female activists to take to the streets and make themselves heard.
Today, however, women in America are again taking to the streets, this time to preserve liberties that they previously did not have. On the other side of the argument are those who are more concerned about what they view as a religious injustice, and immoral behavior, and they believe that it is more important than the personal liberties of others. Both sides of the debate are firing politically charged bullets at each other, just as Wayne Wheeler and Adolphus Busch did over one hundred years ago.
In the current highly polarized and politically toxic environment of today, feminists in America may want to raise a glass to the temperance movement, and heed the lessons that can be learned from the plight of their predecessors.
All Americans would be well served to remember the consequences of taking away peoples liberties and remember that the last time America did it, it didn’t go so well.