THE TOWN OF Oberlin, Ohio, named for an Alsatian cleric who ministered to the poor, was founded in 1833 by two Presbyterian clergymen who chose “to plant a colony somewhere in this region whose chief aim will be to glorify God & do good to men.” From its very beginning the colony and the eponymous school at its heart attracted men and women desperate to change the world. Oberlin College was the nation’s first coeducational institution of higher learning and among the first to admit black students. Frances Willard’s parents gave up their prosperous farm in upstate New York to study at Oberlin; pioneer feminist Lucy Stone was an early graduate. The Oberlin community possessed deep conviction (it was a central cog in the Underground Railroad), and its own style of passionate intensity: at one point, dietary restrictions at the college were so severe that in addition to alcohol, tea, coffee, and meat, the list of proscribed foods included pepper, gravy, and butter.
Before Howard Hyde Russell found his way to this moral Eden, he had been a prosperous lawyer in Iowa. But at twenty-eight, urged on by what a sympathetic biographer called “the prayerful influence of his wife,” Russell was gripped by a conversion that pulled him to Oberlin. Ordained at thirty-one, he occupied a series of ever-larger pulpits over the next five years and then returned to northeastern Ohio to create the founding cell of what would become an organization with dues-paying adherents numbering in the millions. The Anti-Saloon League may not have been the first broad-based American pressure group, but it certainly was the first to develop the tactics and the muscle necessary to rewrite the Constitution. It owed its success to two ideas, one core constituency, and an Oberlin undergraduate who sat in the front row of the balcony of the First Congregational Church on a June Sunday in 1893 and heard Russell outline his plan to deliver the nation from the death grip of alcohol.
The two ideas that drove the ASL were focus and intimidation. The decision to declare war on alcohol and only on alcohol—to choose one target at which all the organization’s weapons could be fired—was a direct rebuke to the unfocused efforts of both the WCTU and the Prohibition Party. Frances Willard’s “Do Everything” policy had been distracting (how could members concentrate on the Prohibition effort if they were also supporting the Armenians against the Turks, as they did in 1895?) and divisive (it was a rare antialcohol industrialist who would cooperate with an organization led by a socialist, even if a Christian one). The Prohibition Party was no better; among the many reasons for its dismal electoral record—it had never garnered more than 2.2 percent of the vote in a presidential election—was its earnest devotion to a list of diffuse (and sometimes nutty) causes ranging from government ownership of public utilities to judicial review of post office decisions. The ASL would abide no such diversions. “The Anti-Saloon League is not in politics as a party, nor are we trying to abolish vice, gambling, horse-racing, murder, theft or arson,” one of its early leaders said. “The gold standard, the unlimited coinage of silver, protection, free trade and currency reform, do not concern us in the least.” They cared only about alcohol, and about freeing the nation from its grip.
Strategically focused, the ASL could more effectively apply its intimidating tactics. “Intimidation” might seem too tough a word for the forthright application of democratic techniques, but as practiced by the ASL, democracy was a form of coercion. Russell was direct about this: “The Anti-Saloon League,” he said, “is formed for the purpose of administering political retribution.” The ASL did not seek to win majorities; it played on the margins, aware that if it could control, say, one-tenth of the voters in any close race, it could determine the outcome. Russell liked to cite rail baron Jay Gould’s credo—that he was a Republican when he was in Republican districts, a Democrat when he was in Democratic districts, but that he was always for the Erie Railroad. The ASL had no problem supporting a Republican today and a Democrat tomorrow, so long as the candidates were faithful on the only issue the league cared about. As an ASL official in Pennsylvania put it, there was “one big question mark before the name of every candidate for public office. Is he right on this question?”
To gather the support needed to fund the group’s efforts and to line up those 10 percent of the voters who could tip the balance on election day, Russell and his colleagues mobilized the nation’s literalist Protestant churches and their congregations. Any pressure group would be fortunate to be blessed with a constituency like this one. It was scattered across the American landscape, yet easily reached when there was a message to deliver or an action to initiate. By its self-definition, it wore the mantle of moral authority. In its religious ardency, it was prepared for apocalyptic battle. The Anti-Saloon League was, its own slogan affirmed, “the Church in Action Against the Saloon.”
The leadership, the staff, and the directorates of the ASL and its affiliate organizations were overwhelmingly Methodist and Baptist. Clergymen occupied a minimum of 75 percent of the board seats of any state branch. “The real secret of the League’s success,” wrote the generally unsympathetic Frank Kent of the Baltimore Sun, “is its unrivaled opportunity to reach the hundreds of thousands of churchgoers while they are in church and through their pastors.” An annual “Field Day” brought ASL representatives to more than thirty thousand congregations nationwide, there to present the league’s program and to fill the collection plate with the pledges that funded its activities. Pastors in country, town, and city stood at the ready should they be asked to deliver a particular message on a particular Sunday. “I can dictate twenty letters to twenty men in twenty parts of the city and thereby set 50,000 men in action,” said an ASL spokesman in Philadelphia. “I can name 100 churches that can marshal 20,000 men in Bible classes alone.”
Once the ASL had established its capillary network of churches, it did not take long for it to replace the WCTU at the head of the Prohibitionist column. This was assured to some degree by Frances Willard’s death in 1898, but even more so by the deflected attention of WCTU leaders, who preferred to devote their energy and their accumulated political capital to the beatification of their beloved leader. In one day twenty thousand people made the pilgrimage to WCTU headquarters in Chicago to view her casket. Not long after, headquarters was relocated to her Evanston home, a tidy piece of Methodist gingerbread she called Rest Cottage. Several rooms were turned into a Frances Willard museum, the whole presided over by Anna Gordon, Willard’s secretary, companion, and heir. In the Capitol Building in Washington, hers was the first likeness of a woman to be represented in Statuary Hall, alongside Samuel Adams, George Washington, and Robert E. Lee. Her birthday became an official school holiday in South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Kansas.
The WCTU continued to grow after Willard’s death, but the cult of personality devoted to the woman who, almost two decades later, was still being called “our lamented leader” placed her successors in permanent shadow. The organization remained a powerful army, but command and control of the Prohibition movement passed into the hands of the ASL.
IN 1908 the Reverend Purley A. Baker, a fearsome Methodist preacher from Columbus who had succeeded Howard Russell as the ASL’s national superintendent, engaged in a little boasting: “In no instance has the League ever nominated a candidate for public office,” Baker said. “Nevertheless, we are the most skillfully and completely organized political force in the country.” And that was before Wayne Bidwell Wheeler put his hand on the wheel.
How does one begin to describe the impact of Wayne Wheeler? You could do worse than begin at the end, with the obituaries that followed his death, at fifty-seven, in 1927—obituaries, in the case of those quoted here, from newspapers that by and large disagreed with everything he stood for. The New York Herald Tribune: “Without Wayne B. Wheeler’s generalship it is more than likely we should never have had the Eighteenth Amendment.” The Milwaukee Journal: “Wayne Wheeler’s conquest is the most notable thing in our times.” The editorial eulogists of the Baltimore Sun had it absolutely right, while at the same time completely wrong: “. . . nothing is more certain than that when the next history of this age is examined by dispassionate men, Wheeler will be considered one of its most extraordinary figures.” No one remembers, but he was.
Need it be said that after her only son’s death, Wheeler’s aged mother told reporters, “Wayne always was a good boy”? Certainly not to anyone who knew him when he was an undergraduate at Oberlin. Penniless when he arrived there in 1890, Wheeler supported himself by waiting on tables, serving as his dormitory’s janitor, teaching school every summer vacation, and selling a range of goods that began with books and programs for sporting events and ran to furniture, classroom supplies, and rug-making machines. He was a small man, maybe five feet six or five-seven, and even at the peak of his power in the 1920s he looked more like a clerk in an insurance office than a man who, in the description of the militantly wet Cincinnati Enquirer, “made great men his puppets.” Wire-rimmed glasses, a tidy mustache, eyes that crinkled at the corners when he ventured one of the tight little smiles that were his usual reaction to the obloquy of his opponents—imagine Ned Flanders of The Simpsons, but older and shorter, and carrying on his slight frame a suit, a waistcoat, and, his followers believed, the fate of the Republic.
When Howard Russell recruited Wheeler to become one of the ASL’s first full-time employees, he was seeking “a loving, spirited self-sacrificing soul who yearns to help the other fellow.” In the janitor’s room in Oberlin’s Peters Hall, where they first discussed the job, the two men concluded their meeting by praying together for divine guidance. Years later Wheeler said he joined the ASL staff because he was inspired by the organization’s altruism and idealism. But despite all the tender virtues Wheeler may have possessed, none would prove as essential as a rather different quality, best summarized by a classmate’s description: Wayne Wheeler was a “locomotive in trousers.”
In fact, “power plant” was more like it. While clerking for a Cleveland lawyer and attending classes at Western Reserve Law School, Wheeler nonetheless worked full time for the league, riding his bicycle from town to town so he could speak to more churches, recruit more supporters. After he earned his law degree in 1898 and took over the Ohio ASL’s legal office, his productivity accelerated with the additional responsibility. He initiated so many legal cases in the league’s behalf, delivered so many speeches, launched so many telegram campaigns, organized so many demonstrations (“petitions in boots,” he called them) and remained in such demand by Ohio congregations that Howard Russell was led to moan that “there was not enough Mr. Wheeler to go around.” If he had the time and the inclination to court a fellow Oberlin graduate with the euphonious name of Ella Belle Candy, it was partly because Ella’s businessman father, who believed in the cause, promised to provide the financial security that a league salary could not. They married in 1901.
By then the ASL was well along in remaking Ohio politics. It had thirty-one full-time, paid staff members coordinating a legion of zealous pastors standing by on permanent alert. John D. Rockefeller, who was a lifelong teetotaler as well as America’s wealthiest Baptist, favored the organization with his financial support, matching 10 percent of whatever the league was able to raise from other sources. The objective articulated by Russell—to call to account politicians who committed “high crimes and misdemeanors against the home, the church and the state”—was no longer just an audacious threat; for scores of officeholders it had become chilling reality. By 1903, the year Wheeler became the ASL’s Ohio superintendent, the league had targeted seventy sitting legislators of both parties (nearly half the entire legislative membership) and had defeated every one of them.
The newly elected Ohio legislature installed that year was custom-built by the ASL—Wayne B. Wheeler, general contractor. Now it could enact a law that had long been the league’s primary goal: a local-option bill placing power over the saloon directly in the hands of voters. If Cincinnatians voted wet, Cincinnati would be wet, and if Daytonians voted dry, their town would be dry. Once different versions of the measure had passed both houses of the legislature, Governor Myron T. Herrick persuaded members of the conference committee to adopt some modifications he deemed necessary to make the law workable and equitable. “Conference committees are dangerous,” Wheeler believed, partly because they made it possible for governors to step in and preempt the ASL’s legislative agenda. Playing for stakes greater than those the league had ever risked before, Wheeler decided to take on Herrick.
He was not an easy target. A successful lawyer and banker in Cleveland, Herrick was the political creation of Senator Mark Hanna, the Republican Boss of Bosses who had also invented William O. McKinley.* Herrick had been elected governor with the largest plurality in Ohio history, had substantial campaign funds of his own, and had gladdened many a church-minded heart when he vetoed a bill that would have legalized racetrack betting. Additionally, Ohio Republicans had lost only one gubernatorial election in two decades.
Wheeler and the ASL crushed him. They sponsored more than three hundred anti-Herrick rallies throughout the state, mobilizing their supporters in the churches by invoking Herrick’s role in modifying the local-option bill and by suggesting that the governor—“the champion of the murder mills”—was a conscious pawn of the liquor interests. When the Brewers’ Association sent out a confidential letter urging its members to lend quiet but material support to Herrick (his Democratic opponent was a vocal temperance advocate), Wheeler said he “got [a copy of the letter] on Thursday before election, photographed it and sent out thousands of them to churches on Sunday.” In what was at the time the largest turnout ever for an Ohio gubernatorial election, every other Republican on the statewide ticket was elected, but Myron T. Herrick’s political career was over.
Money sometimes being thicker than alcohol, Wheeler’s opposition to so prominent a member of the business establishment temporarily led John D. Rockefeller to reduce his financial support for the ASL. But Wheeler was unfazed. “Never again,” he said, “will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.” Or, more accurately, never again would they ignore Wayne B. Wheeler, who was now launched on a national career that would eventually make him, in the words of an ASL associate, the figure who “controlled six Congresses, dictated to two Presidents . . . , directed legislation for the most important elective state and federal offices, held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from the outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.”
IN JANUARY 1909 Hugh Fox of the United States Brewers’ Association sent his membership a letter that bordered on the apoplectic. He asked the brewers to consider “what we have to reckon with—That the League has over 800 business offices, and at least 500 men and women on its regular salary list, in these offices alone? That besides this, that it employs large numbers of speakers on contract, from the governor of Indiana down to the local pastor of the Methodist Church? Do you realize,” he continued, “that the men who are managing these movements have capitalized the temperance sentiment which has been evolved in a century of preaching and agitation?”
Thomas Gilmore, Fox’s counterpart over at the liquor distillers’ office, told his employers at their 1908 convention in Louisville that the ASL was “the most remarkable movement that this country has ever known.” But in Gilmore’s lexicon “remarkable” could encompass his belief that the league was also “the most autocratic, the most dictatorial, as well as the most dangerous power ever known in the politics of this country.” The brewers’ man and the distillers’ man seemed to be on the same page, but in fact their organizations still refused to come together. Christian Feigenspan, a powerful New Jersey brewer, declared that “many of the brewers see their salvation” in separating themselves from the distillers. Pittsburgh distiller A. J. Sunstein saw his industry’s deliverance in “reducing the number of licenses”—that is, closing down a lot of brewery-owned saloons. Seemingly disinterested parties like Arthur Brisbane, the influential Hearst editor and columnist, campaigned aggressively for what he called “suppression of whiskey traffic and the encouragement of light wine and beer.”
The alcohol industry would have been fortunate had their opponents been similarly divided. In fact, the various factions of the growing antialcohol alliance could be encompassed by no imaginable organization: Billy Sunday, meet Jane Addams: you may never realize it, but you’ll be working together now. Industrial Workers of the World, shake hands with the Ku Klux Klan: you’re on the same team. But what had become known as the “Ohio Idea”—the ASL’s determination to isolate antialcohol sentiment from all other causes and ideologies—enabled the league to regard all the disparate drys as allies. In the two decades leading up to Prohibition’s enactment, five distinct, if occasionally overlapping, components made up this unspoken coalition: racists, progressives, suffragists, populists (whose ranks also included a small socialist auxiliary), and nativists. Adherents of each group may have been opposed to alcohol for its own sake, but each used the Prohibition impulse to advance ideologies and causes that had little to do with it.
This is probably most clearly the case among the racists—specifically, those arrayed across the southern states in the resentful formation that had arisen from the ruins of the Civil War and the reforms of Reconstruction. Before the Civil War the South had been slow to enlist in the temperance movement, in part because of its connection to abolitionism. Once white southerners reclaimed their dominance after the end of Reconstruction, alliance became much easier. Still, although the North and the South had similar attitudes toward liquor, wrote the Washington correspondent of the Atlanta Constitution in 1907, “the South has the negro problem.” Lest his readers misunderstand him, he elaborated by recalling the Reconstruction era and the “terrible condition of affairs that prevailed when swarms of negroes, many of them drunk with whisky . . . roamed the country at large.” It was a familiar characterization, and its reach extended beyond the boundaries of the old Confederacy. Frances Willard herself had adopted the imagery, asserting that “the grogshop is the Negro’s center of power. Better whiskey and more of it is the rallying cry of great dark faced mobs.”
Even those who affected concern for black southerners indulged in similarly toxic rhetoric, often salted with a patronizing helping of pseudoscience. “Under slavery the Negroes were protected from alcohol,” proclaimed an official publication of the Methodist Church, and “consequently they developed no high degree of ability to resist its evil effects.” An editorialist in Collier’s assured his readers that “white men are beginning to see that moral responsibility for the negro rests on them, and that it is a betrayal of responsibility to permit illicit sales of dangerous liquors and drugs.” In Congress a boldly disingenuous Representative John Newton Tillman of Arkansas tried to make the case that Prohibition would bring an end to southern lynchings, for fewer black men would commit horrible crimes if liquor were unavailable.
But in that same speech, delivered on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1917 (and encompassing in its ample length references to Martin Luther, Pope Urban II, four former senators from Maine, Lord Chesterfield, Robert Bruce, and “the Prince of Peace Himself”), the quotable Congressman Tillman also said liquor “increases the menace of [the black man’s] presence.” In Thomas Dixon Jr.’s widely read novels from the first decade of the twentieth century, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman— the source material for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation— black men with “eyes bloodshot with whisky” wander the streets and invade the homes of whites, their extravagant drunkenness intensifying the constant threat of plunder and rape. In Dixon’s cosmos, the black man was “half child, half animal . . . whose passions, once aroused, are as the fury of the tiger.” Carnality wasn’t a necessary element of the white southerner’s blind fear; to some, the risk to their perceived dignity was nearly as frightful. Civil War hero General Robert F. Hoke’s daughter Lily was convinced that the men of North Carolina would vote dry in an imminent 1908 Prohibition referendum “because the people do not wish drunken Negroes to push white ladies off the sidewalks.”
What these same people also did not wish was the continued presence, granted by the loathed Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, of the black man in the voting booth. Despite the antiliquor position taken by Booker T. Washington and some other southern black leaders, white prohibitionists in many states had stopped trying to convince black men to support their cause after black votes defeated a no-liquor amendment to the Tennessee constitution in 1887. Failing to persuade, the drys chose instead to demonize. They conjured not an argument but an image: the waking nightmare of a black man with a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a ballot in the other. It was this perceived threat that had set off what C. Vann Woodward would call “the third national prohibition wave,” which crashed ashore in 1906 in a Democratic primary campaign in Georgia (the first two waves, Woodward said, were set in motion by the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s and the rise of the WCTU in the 1880s). Gubernatorial candidate Hoke Smith—General Hoke’s nephew, as it happened—set out to persuade white Georgians that the black vote was controlled by the liquor interests, an argument that assured his election and enabled him to push through in his first year as governor a one-two combination of laws that took both ballot and bottle away from the state’s black citizens. First Smith signed a measure summarily disenfranchising Georgia’s black voters by means of a viciously effective grandfather clause; once that was done—once the ballot was ripped from the hands of black men who might have voted wet—the passage of harsh local-option laws was a snap.
In the ensuing months, additional Prohibition laws, often congenitally linked to Jim Crow voting laws, were enacted not only in North Carolina (Lily Hoke had been right), but in Oklahoma and Mississippi as well. Discriminatory voting laws in Alabama enabled a local Baptist publication to predict a coming dry victory in that state with great glee: “The stronghold of the whiskey power in the state has been eliminated by the disfranchisement of the Negro, and others like him.”
The sentiment was grotesque but the analysis was sublime. The brewers’ extensive efforts to secure the support of blacks had marked them as the enemy of southern whites and as nakedly cynical, too. No one believed that their persistent opposition to poll taxes, for instance, arose from any nobler instinct than their deep affection for profits. In Texas, Adolphus Busch’s staff of field agents included four black men “competent to handle the colored voters,” in the words of one indiscreet manager. Their competence was amplified by a kit each one carried, consisting of the powers of attorney and the cash necessary to pay an individual’s poll tax, a few pieces of wet propaganda, and a poster of Abraham Lincoln.
The distillers, supported by the wholesalers who distributed their products, didn’t need to meddle in the feudal southern political system to incite the region’s rage. For all the high-minded rhetoric they offered in opposition to the saloon, they were doomed to ignominy because of who they were and how they went about marketing their products. It certainly didn’t help that the distilling business had become a largely Jewish industry—perhaps not as uniformly as the beer industry was German, but close enough to inspire the mistrust and loose the venom of nativist bigots. When John Tillman explained to his congressional colleagues how he wished to save the Negro from lynching by denying him his liquor, he made it clear who was guilty of debauching the black man. Reading from a list of liquor industry figures, Tillman asserted that their names—Steinberg, Schaumberg, and Hirschbaum, for example—demonstrated that “I am not attacking an American institution. I am attacking mainly a foreign enterprise.” This perception was not limited to the South. Even McClure’s magazine, that paragon of muckraking probity, referred in 1909 to the “acute and unscrupulous Jewish type of mind which has taken charge of the wholesale liquor trade of this country.”
In one spectacularly combustible instance, a St. Louis distiller fed the stereotype with a marketing effort that dry forces turned into a national scandal. Lee Levy had been in the liquor business in Texas for nearly twenty years when he arrived in St. Louis in 1902, at the age of forty-six, and set up a distillery on the north side of town near the Mississippi River. Within four years he had succeeded well enough to earn himself a listing in The Book of St. Louisans, a directory of the city’s “leading living men.” Two years after that he was described in Collier’s by Will Irwin as “A gentleman of St. Louis taking his fat, after-dinner ease, sitting on plush, decked with diamonds, lulled by a black cigar, and planning how he shall advance his business.” This was not meant as a compliment.
Levy’s appearance (if you can call it that—there’s no reason to think Irwin had ever met him) in one of America’s largest and most influential magazines was prompted by an incident in Shreveport, Louisiana, in which a black man named Charles Coleman was charged with the rape and murder of a white fourteen-year-old named Margaret Lear. Coleman’s trial took four hours, the jury presented a guilty verdict after three minutes of deliberation, and he was hanged in the Shreveport jail one week later. (Coleman was spared a less punctilious lynching only by the array of state militia circling the courthouse.) The terrible story made it into the pages of Collier’s because Coleman had been drunk, and because Irwin had been traveling the South looking into how liquor was sold to the region’s blacks. He had no idea exactly what Coleman had been drinking, but he took a leap and suggested it might have resembled the item that had been found in the pocket of a black man charged with rape in Birmingham: a half-empty bottle of gin bearing a brand name, an illustration, and the words “Bottled by Lee Levy & Co., St. louis.” The brand name did not appear in Collier’s because, Irwin wrote, “If I should give its name here . . . this publication could not go through the mails.” The illustration did not appear because, as a U.S. attorney would later assert in court papers, “said picture is wholly unfit to be further described in this instrument, and a further description thereof would be an insult to this honorable court.” The brand name of Levy’s product was Black Cock Vigor Gin. The figure portrayed in the illustration was a white woman, mostly nude.
According to the custom of the day, Irwin had been no more direct when referring to Margaret Lear’s rape, which he called “the nameless crime.” He had less scruple about identifying the concoction he believed Coleman had been drinking as “nigger gin,” a catchall term for the cheap stuff marketed to impoverished southern blacks at fifty cents a pint (wholesale price for Levy’s: twenty-seven cents).* Irwin mentioned other distillers in the “nigger gin” business, among them men with such suspicious names as Weil, Dreyfuss, and Blutenthal. The dry Nashville Tennessean, which leapt onto the story as if it were a chariot sent from heaven, listed the local joints owned by whites who sold Levy’s gin to blacks. It asked its readers to “set aside all other reasons for the crusade against the saloon and consider this one—the Negro problem.” The front-page editorial, bordered in black, continued, “The Negro, fairly docile and industrious, becomes, when filled with liquor, turbulent and dangerous and a menace to life, property, and the repose of the community.” A white clergyman warned Nashvillians, “This gin, with its label, has made more black rape fiends, and has procured the outrage of more white women in the south than all other agencies combined. It is sold with the promise that it will bring white virtue into the black brute’s power.” The Memphis Commercial Appeal, a wet paper, demurred; it was “an insult to the South and all the good women of this section,” editors wrote, to blame the crime on the distiller and absolve “the poor black beast” who committed it.
Beyond the national readership Collier’s enjoyed, newspaper readers in cities from Atlanta to Los Angeles learned about Lee Levy and his gin, even if its name was suppressed. Although Levy remained in the liquor industry, he and his business partner were convicted of sending “improper matter through the mails” and expelled from the distillers’ Model License League. The federal judge who sentenced them said he went light on the penalty—$900 in fines—because a postal inspector claiming to be an Arkansas liquor dealer had entrapped them: “I am opening a place in Argenta Ark,” the inspector had written on his order for twenty-four quarts, “and I can use Your Black Cock Gin to advantage.”
AT FIRST GLANCE, a form of race hatred could have been seen as the motivation of the second component of the dry coalition, the bien-pensant northeasterners who would come to be known as progressives. When the twenty-three-year-old Theodore Roosevelt arrived in Albany early in 1882 to begin his first term in the New York legislature, he was horrified by the twenty-five Democratic members of Irish extraction who sat across the aisle. “They are a stupid, sodden, vicious lot, most of them being equally deficient in brains and virtue,” he wrote in his diary. The typical Irish member of the Assembly, he added, “is a low, venal, corrupt and unintelligent brute.” Among them were some who could not “string three intelligible sentences together.” Roosevelt characterized one particularly loathsome assemblyman, “Big John” McManus, as “unutterably coarse and low.” Chief among Big John’s sins: he owned a saloon. Roosevelt disliked McManus to such a degree that he once chased off the much larger man by threatening to “kick you in the balls.”
But even more than their personal distaste for the Irish Democrats, Roosevelt and his allies detested the political culture they represented. Just as the urban saloon served as mail drop, hiring hall, and social center for the immigrant masses, so too was it birthplace, incubator, and academy for the potent political machines that captured control of the big cities of the East and Midwest in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In New York in 1884, twelve of the twenty-four members of the board of aldermen owned saloons, and four others owed their posts to saloon backing. In Detroit, where the saloonkeepers’ political arm—the Keep Your Mouth Shut Organization—controlled only one-third of the city’s legislative seats, their fraternal order attempted to compensate for this minority status by endorsing a “Saloon Slate” of municipal officials who swore not to enforce closing hours. For more than three decades Chicago’s First Ward remained in the absolute control of Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin, proprietors of a saloon called the Workingmen’s Exchange, and in Boston, where a settlement house worker said “the affiliation between the saloon and politics was so close that for all practical purposes the two might have been under one and the same control,” a ward politician named Patrick J. Kennedy launched a political dynasty from his tavern in Haymarket Square.
The connection between liquor and politics was not a new one. When twenty-four-year-old George Washington first ran for a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses, he attributed his defeat to his failure to provide enough alcohol for the voters. When he tried again two years later, Washington floated into office partly on the 144 gallons of rum, punch, hard cider, and beer his election agent had handed out—roughly half a gallon for every vote he received. In the city slums of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the various comforts and services offered by the neighborhood saloon put its proprietor in an ideal position to dispense, along with beer and liquor, the coin of political patronage: credit, favors, jobs. In the poorest neighborhoods, where a harder currency—the cash to buy another drink—was scarce, selling one’s vote for the price of a bar tab was a common transaction. Consequently, when the brewers looked at the saloon, they saw more than a source of profit. They saw as well the guarantor of the political power they needed if they were to hold off the growing armies of temperance.
Roosevelt and the other Protestant aristocrats who championed urban reform saw the very same thing and did not find it pleasing. The corrupt culture of the political machines (the saloon-controlled New York board of aldermen was known as the “Boodle Board”) was violently offensive to reformist sensibilities; the immigrant composition of the machines’ support was an affront to the native Protestant’s sense of his own prerogatives. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was carrying the torch for female suffrage when she described the horrifying prospect of “Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung, who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.” Substitute Tom, Dick, and Harry for Lydia, Lucretia, and Fanny, and if their last names remained unmistakably pure, the prevailing progressive sentiment would have been identical to Stanton’s.
At the same time, many progressives who despised the immigrants’ way of life sought to improve it. Through charity, activism, and government action, the progressives believed they could make the lives of immigrants better, more stable, more conventional—in a word, more American. Not for a minute did they see the assimilation of the great wave of immigrants as an easy task; David Starr Jordan, the first president of Stanford University, who was a dedicated dry and a political ally of Roosevelt, wrote that “most of them . . . are very different from the Anglo-Saxon—very much less capable of self-government, and on the whole morally and socially less desirable.” But if the saloon could be abolished through the sort of aggressive government intervention the progressives favored, there was a chance, said H. D. W. English, president of the Pittsburgh Civic Commission, that the “polyglot class” could be lifted up from “his dirt and beer.”*
To the immigrant workingman, of course, elimination of the saloon would be an act of repression. As Arthur S. Link wrote about the men and women of the progressive movement, “The fact that they were potentially or actively repressive does not mean that they were not progressive.” They were dry not because they hated alcohol, but because they hated what alcohol did to those who did not encounter it in crystal goblets arrayed on white tablecloths. “When the laboring man works eight hours and spends none of his time at the saloon, he will save up more money and better his economic status,” wrote the influential editor William Allen White in what sounded like progressive sentiment at its noblest. “When the workingman spends his evenings at home or at the library, and has good books and a gramophone and an automobile, society will be better off.” But three decades later in his autobiography, White employed some unfortunate imagery that, however rueful it might have been, reflected a chillingly suggestive attitude toward the immigrant’s plight. The reformers of the first decade of the twentieth century, he wrote, “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 . . . all would be well.”
Other prominent figures of the progressive movement, such as the settlement house pioneers Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, supported Prohibition not out of an antipathy to the mores of the urban immigrants but because of a genuine empathy. Their commitment to the dry cause arose from the same instinct that had led the best of the abolitionists—those who not only objected to slavery but believed the black man to be the white man’s equal—into the temperance movement. Neither were they unsympathetic to the impulses that led men to saloons. Though Addams never wavered in her support for Prohibition, she believed that “if alcohol was associated intensively with these gross evils, it was also associated with homely and wholesome things,” notably the conviviality that drink could bring to the dull grayness of the urban slums. Unlike Addams, her fellow Chicago reformer Episcopal priest Samuel R. Fellows did not understand what it was about the saloon that gave its clientele their homely pleasures. In 1895 he opened a place on Washington Street that had a bar, barmaids, spittoons—all the trappings of the saloon but two: the second o (he called it the Home Salon) and the booze. It did not last.
The progressives also exalted the methodology of science, under the meticulous supervision of a self-selected elite. The archtypical progressive agency for scientific inquiry was launched by the president of Columbia, the president of Harvard, the Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania, and forty-seven other men whose good fortune could in most cases be attributed either to blue chips or silver spoons. The Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem bore a name as imposing as its membership and a mission worthy of both: countering the hegemony of misinformation and propaganda fostered by Mary Hunt’s Scientific Temperance campaign—not in behalf of the wet cause, but with loyalty only to the facts.
The Committee of Fifty left two enduring legacies. First, it produced several academically sound studies of the physiological effects and the social consequences of alcohol. These were of course uncorrupted by Huntian mythology, but they were also free of liquor industry eyewash and aristocratic contempt for the dry point of view; in fact, after considering the findings of the committee’s investigators, Charles W. Eliot, the Harvard president, forswore the moderate drinking in which he had long indulged and became a teetotaler.
The Fifty’s other bequest was the blue-ribbon committee approach, which in its careful incrementalism confirmed literary critic Van Wyck Brooks’s assertion that the progressives were “born middle-aged.” Like the Fifty, these committees invariably were composed of a self-selected elite who investigated facts, discussed solutions, emerged into the public square with a lengthy report, and then attempted to institutionalize the solutions through legislative action.
Among these proliferating committees, two assumed the challenge of unpacking one of the most prominent, and most profoundly flawed, alcohol-related reforms of the era. New York State’s comprehensive effort to regulate its saloons had been pushed through the legislature by John Raines, a formidable politician (one colleague called him “eagle-faced”) from the Finger Lakes region. Among the provisions of the Raines Law, as it became known, was a Sunday closing rule aimed at the saloons—a particularly potent measure because Sunday, when workers controlled their own time, had always been the saloonkeeper’s best day. Conveniently, the law exempted many of its advocates from its strictures: because the preferred weekend dining and drinking places of the well-to-do were hotel restaurants, Raines crafted the measure to exclude any establishment that served meals and had at least ten bedrooms. As in the south, it was prohibition for the other guy, not for me.
But Raines failed to anticipate the resourcefulness of his law’s targets. Instead of being weakened, the measure strengthened the saloon business immeasurably. In Brooklyn alone, where there had been thirteen hotels before the Raines Law, there were soon more than two thousand—virtually all of them saloons whose back rooms or upstairs spaces had been subdivided by the addition of flimsy walls, made accommodating by the provision of threadbare cots, and turned profitable by the new business they immediately and inevitably attracted: prostitution. The requirement that these “hotels” offer food was solved with the invention of the “Raines sandwich,” described by Jacob Riis as “consisting of two pieces of bread with a brick between . . . set out on the counter, in derision of the state law which forbids the serving of drinks without ‘meals.’ ”
This did not sit well with the reformers. Soon the eradication of the saloon/hotels became the primary goal of a new body, the Committee of Fourteen.* This time, though, the Episcopal rectors, settlement house officials, Columbia professors, and other progressive notables on the committee (including the future secretary of war and secretary of state, Henry L. Stimson) welcomed three new allies to the committee. The newcomers hated the saloon just as much as the reformers, but in some ways they came from a different planet: all three were members of the Anti-Saloon League, including Howard Hyde Russell, its founder.
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Progressive support for Prohibition was further cemented by prohibitionist support for the progressives’ favorite causes. In 1906 the ASL endorsed the initiative and referendum movement, which would grant citizens the right to enact (or revoke) state laws by popular vote. When the progressive stalwart Hiram Johnson was elected governor of California in 1910, his running mate was A. J. Wallace, a Methodist minister who was president of the state branch of the ASL. Worker’s compensation statutes made for especially tidy progressive/prohibitionist co-ventures, for once these most progressive of labor laws were enacted, large employers took a sudden interest in workplace safety and their employees’ drinking habits. Hugh Fox of the United States Brewers’ Association sent a bulletin to his members: “The passage in many states of Worker’s Compensation laws, which placed the burden of proof on the employer instead of the employee,” was a catastrophe for the beer industry. U.S. Steel, Pittsburgh Steel, and other industrial giants “have all declared against the saloon,” Fox wrote, and some, like the Diamond Watch Company, announced they would fire any worker known to drink “intoxicating liquors.”
These corporations were profoundly unprogressive institutions, of course, and they had other reasons to want to take drink away from their employees. (As Dr. Thomas Darlington, a former New York City health commissioner who had gone to work for the steel industry’s trade association, explained in 1914, “the use of liquor has a direct bearing upon wages; if a man is addicted to alcohol he wants more money for the family.”) But the politics of Prohibition had become so knotted with unlikely alliances, conflicting motives, and disingenuous arguments that a three-cushion shot (progressives to ASL to industrialists) around an issue like worker’s compensation didn’t seem odd at all. Summarizing the Anti-Saloon League’s single-issue focus, Wayne Wheeler said, “This one thing we do.” But if the “one thing”—Prohibition—could only be achieved by making common cause with other groups whose goals could be made to line up with its own, the ASL could be very accommodating. Soon its march to victory was propelled forward by the three remaining groups in the dry coalition of convenience—the populists, the suffragists, and the nativists, who would push Prohibition into the Constitution with peculiar implements: a tax, a social revolution, and a war.
* Another of Hanna’s protégés, even if from the distance of a century, was Karl Rove, the political mind behind George W. Bush. “Some kids want to grow up to be president. Karl wanted to grow up to be Mark Hanna,” a friend told Esquire magazine in January 2003. “We’d talk about it all the time. We’d say, ‘Jesus, Karl, what kind of kid wants to grow up to be Mark Hanna?’” In many ways, though, Rove’s feel for hardball politics suggested that the historical figure he most resembled was Wayne B. Wheeler.
* A magazine description of nigger gin: “There was a brief wave of heat as from a match, then a flash of sweetish, pungent, bitter vapor which seemed to leave all the membranes of the throat covered with a lingering, nauseating mustiness.”
* Historian James H. Timberlake noted that the progressives’ cousins in the social Darwinist camp saw the same degradation in the saloons but regarded it as a virtue: they believed that “alcohol, by killing off generation after generation of the unfit, was acting as a progressive factor in natural selection and improving the race.”
* This numerical trope did not die easily. Several years later, a dry-only Committee of Nineteen got to work, its labors in turn promoted by the Committee of Sixty, which had picked up the torch lit by that numerical whopper, the Committee of One Thousand—the group that would gather on the steps of the Capitol in 1913 and demand a constitutional amendment to remove alcoholic beverages from American life.