Chapter 4

“Open Fire on the Enemy”

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HE DIDN’T DRINK IT to excess, but Alexander Hamilton cared enough for liquor that he considered it an all-but-essential component of a democracy. “There appears to be no article . . . which is an object of more equal consumption throughout the United States,” he wrote in 1792. For a man trying to raise the money necessary to run a government, that made it the very model of a taxable item. If some people drank more than others, Hamilton argued, it was a matter of personal choice and had nothing to do with what part of the country they lived in—or, by extension, what social class they arose from, the number of people in their families, the phases of the moon, or anything, really, other than a taste for liquor. Hamilton even found social value in taxing alcohol: it might discourage people from drinking the stuff.

This was not the last time a government official considered using a liquor tax as a weapon. Richmond Hobson, the Alabama congressman who introduced what would become the Eighteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives in 1913, hinted at (or maybe threatened) a much less complicated alternative when he told the House that “Congress could make every State in the country dry” by simple majority. All it had to do was enact a law imposing such enormous taxes on alcohol that the trade would collapse under the weight of unbearably high prices. There were some in the Anti-Saloon League who approvingly called this “prohibition by indirection,” and they might have been tempted to turn to Hamilton’s example to justify the approach. But as Hamilton’s real interest was revenue and the encouragement of abstinence only a peripheral virtue, the precedent he and Congress set with the Excise Act of 1791 did not put the ASL’s “indirectionists” on the side of history.

Hamilton’s Excise Act instead triggered two different reactions, one temporary and one that would be embedded in the fabric of the Republic: the rye farmers of western Pennsylvania launched the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, and generations of federal officials became transfixed by the prospect of tax revenue corked inside every bottle of alcohol. The rebellion was to some degree the inevitable reaction to an alcohol tax, for whiskey was not simply a commercial product to Pennsylvanians. It also served as a medium of exchange and as a delivery system, just as it later would for the corn farmers of Kentucky and Tennessee. A man had a choice: he could transport a wagonload of grain across the Alleghenies, or he could reduce the wagonload to a few convenient, compact, rot-resistant, and highly profitable jugs of whiskey. To the rye farmers of the Monongahela Valley, liquor was a portable cash crop.

George Washington was initially reluctant to send the militia to suppress the Pennsylvania rebels. He worried that critics would say, “We now see for what purpose an army was raised.” In fact the opposite was true—without a tax on alcohol, it would have been all but impossible for the United States to maintain an army. After lapsing in 1802, the alcohol excise was reimposed under James Madison to pay for the War of 1812, suspended in 1817, and then brought back by Abraham Lincoln in 1862 to finance the Civil War.

This time the tax did not fade away when the war ended, for it had become addictive. (It had also spawned an underground, tax-free trade in an illegal substance that would forever be known as moonshine, and a collection apparatus staffed by men from the Bureau of Internal Revenue who would forever be known as revenuers.) For most of the next thirty years the impost on alcohol annually provided at least 20 percent of all federal revenue, and in some years more than 40 percent. By the time the excise was doubled to cover the cost of the Spanish-American War, the brewers had finally realized that the tax they had once so strongly opposed might be their salvation, and they patriotically (and shamelessly) declared that they had financed 40 percent of the war’s cost. A decade later they even rewrote their own history, claiming that the United States Brewers’ Association had been founded in 1862 to “assist the government” in devising an alcohol tax that would “ensur[e] safe and easy collection and the prevention of fraud.” But the only fraud was the brewers’ own: they had in fact formed the USBA specifically to oppose the excise tax.

By 1910 the federal government was drawing more than $200 million a year from the bottle and the keg—71 percent of all internal revenue, and more than 30 percent of federal revenue overall. Only external revenue—the tariff—provided a larger share of the federal budget, and by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the tariff’s continuation was the most intensely debated issue in American public life. It would be hard enough to fund the cost of government without the tariff and impossible without a liquor tax. Given that you wouldn’t collect much revenue from a liquor tax in a nation where there was no liquor, this might have seemed an insurmountable problem for the Prohibition movement. Unless, that is, you could weld the drive for Prohibition to the campaign for another reform, the creation of a tax on incomes.

No one was better equipped to yoke these two causes together than William Jennings Bryan, the dominant leader of the Democratic Party from 1896 until the election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912. Bryan was a devoutly religious man, a passionately engaged crusader for whatever issue he championed. By his own description he was “clad in the armor of a righteous cause.” His prominent jaw might have been the prow of a ship steaming toward glory; his large bald dome shone like a beacon when, glistening with sweat, he reached his oratorical heights. His lifelong avoidance of alcohol may have been the only expression of moderation in his very large life. A reporter who traveled with him during the 1900 presidential campaign claimed Bryan ate six meals a day and that he once saw him consume in one breakfast a whole cantaloupe, two quail, a helping of Virginia ham, six eggs, two plates of pancakes in butter, and “many cups of coffee, fried potatoes, and side dishes of various kinds before he left the table ‘quite refreshed’ and ready to begin a day’s campaigning.”

Were it not for his deplorable views on race, Bryan was what a later generation might have called a Faith-Based Liberal. But he did not want for capitalized epithets in his own time. When he first entered Nebraska politics, supporters called him the Boy Orator of the Platte. To the devoted admirers who backed him in his three failed presidential campaigns he was the Peerless Leader, and after that (and most famously) the Great Commoner. Biographers who understood the importance of religion in Bryan’s life called their books Defender of the Faith and A Godly Hero. Opponents who understood this just as well coined less complimentary nicknames. To H. L. Mencken, Bryan was the Fundamentalist Pope, and to Clarence Darrow, his opponent in the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, he was the Idol of All Morondom.

Bryan was easy to lampoon, especially in the 1920s, after most of his other political battles had ended and he had poured his public energy into the promotion of biblical inerrancy (his favored admonition to the Darwinians: “It is better to trust in the Rock of Ages than to know the age of rocks”). But between 1913 and 1919, in the greatest burst of constitutional activity since the Bill of Rights, amendments establishing the income tax, direct election of senators, Prohibition, and woman suffrage were engraved into the nation’s organic law. Bryan was in the forefront of the campaign for each.

After Bryan called on Edward VII in 1906, the king said that his visitor was “agreeable and intelligent but a little gaseous, you know.” Yet it was precisely this spacious eloquence that had propelled Bryan to the forefront of public consciousness. The rhetorical flourish that established his historical reputation was his famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic convention, an oration so stirring it won the thirty-six-year-old ex-congressman his party’s presidential nomination. But Bryan had first come to national attention three years earlier. In his second (and last) term in the House as a little-known member from Nebraska, he had dedicated his oratorical power to the successful effort to insert a provision for a tax on incomes into a pending tariff bill. He could not have found a more effective way of capturing the energy of the boiling populist movement of the 1890s had he seized the bankers and industrialists of the Northeast by the throat and proceeded to strangle them. Across the South and the West, the outrage at “the money power” focused on the tariff. The despised impost on imported goods and materials kept the price of necessities artificially high while simultaneously elevating the profits of eastern industrialists and financiers. An income tax would exact several pounds of flesh from the plutocrats—in Bryan’s plan, only the very wealthy would be subjected to it—and simultaneously sabotage one of the strongest arguments for maintaining the tariff.

But in 1895 the Supreme Court declared the income tax unconstitutional. Economist E. R. A. Seligman called it “the Dred Scott decision of government revenue.” Like any unpopular Supreme Court decision on an issue of intense debate, this one led the losing side to turn controversy into crusade. For the next decade and a half the income tax became the longed-for sword that Bryan’s supporters and other advocates of income redistribution hoped would slay the money power. So consuming was the passion among its supporters from the South and West that for some it took on the color of monomania. Biographer Harold B. Hinton wrote that Representative Cordell Hull of Tennessee, who was known as the “father of the income tax” two decades before he became Franklin Roosevelt’s long-serving secretary of state, felt about the tax “as Sir Galahad had felt about the holy grail.” When the income tax was finally legalized, it was the industrialized East that yielded before it: 44 percent of the revenue collected came from New York State alone. It was not a coincidence that eight of the first nine legislatures to have ratified the amendment (starting with Alabama, where the vote was unanimous in both houses) were in southern or border states.

For at least two elements of the Prohibition army the struggle for an income tax was an appealing cause, irrespective of the alcohol question. For the progressives, it was an obvious way to enhance the power and effectiveness of government. For many of the racially motivated prohibitionists of the South, whose populist anger was monochromatic but nonetheless real, it was a way to avenge Reconstruction by striking back at the economic and political imperialists of the North.

And to those in the dry movement who understood political and governmental reality, imposition of an income tax was also an absolutely necessary step if they were going to break the federal addiction to the alcohol excise tax. This had been obvious to the leadership of the WCTU as early as 1883, when the editors of the organization’s official organ, The Union Signal, coyly asked their readers, “How, then, will [we] support the government” if the sale of liquor is prohibited? The editors had a ready answer for their own question: an income tax, they wrote, was “the most just and equable arrangement ever made for the equalization of governmental burdens.” In 1895 the Prohibition Party recognized that “the [excise] tax receipt. . . is a pledge on the part of the State to defend and foster the thing taxed.” Wanting to neither defend nor foster, the party soon nailed an income tax plank to its platform. Leaders of the Anti-Saloon League were well aware of what one called the “alleged ‘loss of revenue’ argument.” By the time Congress voted to approve a constitutional amendment authorizing income tax, the antiliquor caucus and the protax caucus were remarkably congruent. Among the most ardent congressional supporters of the tax were the House and Senate sponsors of the Eighteenth Amendment, Richmond Hobson of Alabama and Morris Sheppard of Texas; Senator Wesley L. Jones of Washington, who would later take credit for the most punitive enforcement code enacted during the entire reign of constitutional Prohibition; and, from Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, a lugubrious small-town lawyer named Andrew J. Volstead.

The fortunate intersection of the dry forces and the tax forces also enabled leaders of the tax campaign, foremost among them Cordell Hull, to develop a reciprocal fondness for the ASL’s goals. Hull was the son of a farmer who also operated a whiskey still. In 1908 he stayed away from Tennessee during the explosive debate over state Prohibition that had been detonated by the Levy’s gin affair. Although he never spoke publicly on the liquor issue, Hull consistently voted dry in Congress, and as late as 1932, when the remaining national support for Prohibition could have been measured in millimeters, he was among the leaders of a plainly hopeless effort to keep a Repeal plank out of the Democratic Party platform. The ASL backed him throughout his career.

THE ANTI-SALOON LEAGUE couldn’t have asked for a better year than the one it enjoyed in 1913. The fact that a liquor control law failed miserably in the New York State senate in January was of so little consequence that two months later the league’s official publication, The American Issue, could nonetheless proudly honor the bill’s thwarted sponsor, thirty-one-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for his loyalty to their cause. Roosevelt was about to join the Wilson administration as assistant secretary of the navy; presumably Secretary Josephus Daniels, who would soon decree the U.S. Navy, all its bases, and all its ships alcohol-free, was pleased to have at his side this promising young man whom the ASL hailed as “an advocate of Christian patriotism.” A moderate dryness was not the young Roosevelt’s only qualification for the mantle of Christian rectitude; he also supported a ban on Sunday baseball.

Of far greater moment to the ASL were two events that revolutionized its strategy, which for years had focused on state-by-state passage of Prohibition laws. The congressional override of William Howard Taft’s veto of the Webb-Kenyon Act demonstrated that the league’s reach had become national. Webb-Kenyon was a measure outlawing the importation of alcoholic beverages into a dry state. The stunning 246–95 override vote in the House of Representatives showed not just the power of the anti-liquor forces, but also how broadly representative they had become.

Webb-Kenyon was followed by enactment of the income tax that the Sixteenth Amendment had authorized. As Congress prepared to take up the matter, the Anti-Saloon League could at last consider moving past its piecemeal approach. On April 22 the ASL executive committee revealed a new and vastly more ambitious policy. “The chief cry against national prohibition,” the statement said, “has been that the government must have the revenue.” Now, though, “The adoption of the Income Tax Amendment to the Federal Constitution furnishes an answer to the revenue problem.” The time had come for all foes of alcohol to focus on the ASL’s new goal. “National prohibition,” the committee said, “can be secured through the adoption of a Constitutional Amendment.”

To the varied forces of the dry movement this was a bolt of lightning both shocking and illuminating. Ahead of them the ASL and its allies saw a future uncluttered by tax issues or other traps; behind them they felt a supporting wind that had been gaining strength for years. At the printing plant the league had opened in 1909 on land donated by the town of Westerville, twelve miles from Columbus, eight presses ran constantly, disgorging more than forty tons of prohibitionist propaganda each month. (Ever mindful of electoral arithmetic, Wayne Wheeler made sure the plant was a union shop.) A new cadre of leaders, most of them trained in the Ohio branch of the league—thirty-four of forty-eight state superintendents began their ASL careers there—had spread across the country, armed for battle with the weapons they had been trained to use in their home state.

The policy statement announcing the ASL’s commitment to the amendment strategy was entitled “The Next and Final Step.” But it was a step that could not succeed without extracting Wheeler from his state superintendency in Ohio and sending him to Washington. Although this didn’t happen formally until 1916, Wheeler’s influence in the highest councils of the ASL began with the decision to push for a Prohibition amendment. Shuttling between Columbus and the ASL’s Washington office, where the league’s lobbyists were poised like raptors on the third floor of the Bliss Building, directly across the street from the Capitol, Wheeler displayed the strategic savvy and the unstoppable drive that would soon see him replace the ASL’s legislative superintendent, Edwin Dinwiddie. John W. Davis, who was Wilson’s solicitor general (and in 1924 would be the Democrats’ presidential candidate), called Dinwiddie a “goggle-eyed, weasel-faced lobbyist.” More appropriate (and undeniably accurate) epithets would eventually accrue to Wayne Wheeler—for vivid instance, when the editors of the New York World proclaimed him “the legislative bully before whom the Senate of the United States sits up and begs.”

By the time Wheeler stepped out onto the national stage he had already mastered his legislative parlor tricks. When Lincoln Steffens had visited Columbus several years earlier, Wheeler had explained his tactics to the great muckraker. “I do it the way the bosses do it, with minorities,” Wheeler said. By delivering his voters to one candidate or another in a close race, he could control an election: “We’ll vote against all the men in office who won’t support our bills. We’ll vote for candidates who will promise to.” Wheeler, who had greeted Steffens amiably—as “a fellow reformer,” Steffens recalled—now “hissed his shrewd, mad answer” to those politicians who would betray ASL voters. “They’ll break their promise. Sure. Next time, we’ll break them. . . . We are teaching these crooks that breaking promises to us is surer punishment than going back on their bosses, and some day they will learn that all over the United States—and we’ll have national prohibition.”

With the ASL’s decision to embark on the “next and final step,” Wheeler’s skill at manipulating majorities through the power of a minority became yet more crucial. The referendum and initiative movement, which drys had supported before they had fully grasped how to control legislatures, turned out to be potentially ruinous to the ASL. When two candidates opposing each other in a popular election could be differentiated by isolating one issue out of many, Wheeler’s minority could carry the day; a candidate with, say, the support of 45 percent of the electorate could win with the added votes of the ASL bloc. But when voters were offered a simple yes-or-no, dry-or-wet choice on a ballot measure, a minority was only a minority. In a statewide popular vote on a dry law, wrote historian Jack S. Blocker Jr., the ASL “wielded no power greater than its actual numbers”; in legislative elections, the power of Wheeler’s minority could be measured in multiples. A constitutional amendment required legislative majorities in thirty-six states, as well as the two-thirds majorities required in both houses of Congress. Achieving these numbers required the talents of Wayne Wheeler.

At the league’s annual convention in Columbus in November 1913, the public campaign for the amendment was launched with a decision to petition Congress formally the following month. Addressing the delegates, Wheeler sounded more like the clergymen who ran the ASL than the political operative who would turn their faith into law. “As Moses said to the children of Israel that they should go forward,” he told the zealous assembly, “just so the time has come for the moral forces of this great nation to march on against the last bulwarks of the enemy.

“I do not know how you may feel about this,” he concluded, “but I would rather die than run from such a conflict.”

LIFTED BY LAW, by numbers, and by the buoyant tide of history, the amassed forces of the Anti-Saloon League descended on Washington on December 10, 1913. In the preceding ten months the state legislatures, in ratifying the income tax amendment, had liberated the Prohibition movement from the burden of the revenue problem. Congress, with the Webb-Kenyon override, had demonstrated its willingness to accept—or perhaps its fear of disobeying—the ASL’s commands. The league had even been granted an entirely fortuitous gift to its publicity efforts when a useful, if risible, document fell into its hands: a letter on the stationery of the Kentucky Distillers’ & Distributing Company addressed to the Keeley Institute in Dwight, Illinois. Keeley’s was the leading drying-out sanatorium of its age, where alcoholics were given four injections of gold chloride daily to suppress “the irresistible craving of nerve cells for alcohol.” The distilling company’s letter proclaimed, “Our customers are your prospective patients,” and offered Keeley’s the chance to buy 40,000 names for $400. The only revelation that might have been worse for the wets was the statement made by a liquor dealer at an industry meeting the year before: “We must create the appetite for liquor in the growing boys. . . . Nickels expended in treats to boys now will return in dollars to your tills after the appetite has been formed.”

Wet newspapers would later contest the genuineness of the distillers’ letter, and the authenticity of the liquor dealer’s grotesque argument would not be confirmed until many years later. But no one could challenge the impact of the spectacle that unfolded in Washington when the ASL presented its petition. Washington in the late autumn of 1913 was filled with mendicants seeking the charity of Congress. Two weeks after a national meeting of suffragists was convened in the capital (the Washington Post had headlined its front-page story “Fair Cohorts Meet”), and just two days after the International Antivivisection and Animal Protection Congress was gaveled to order (featured speaker: William Jennings Bryan), Washington was occupied by the dry armies. From one mustering point fifty young girls dressed in white led a long column of women from the WCTU; from another marched the men of the ASL, representing all forty-eight states. After the two parades merged on the steps of the Capitol they presented a petition demanding a constitutional amendment to the men who would introduce it in their respective chambers: in the House the flamboyant Richmond Hobson of Alabama, and in the upper chamber Morris Sheppard of Texas, a Shakespearean scholar who was one of the Senate’s leading progressives. Thousands of bystanders had left the city’s sidewalks to follow the two parades to the Capitol. Apart from presidential inaugurations, Capitol guards told reporters, it was the largest crowd ever to gather on the building’s steps. It may have been the only one to break out into a full-throated “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Afterward, the ASL leadership gathered across the street in the Bliss Building in “a council of war” to establish the order of battle. As Wheeler would remember it years later, their mission was simple: “Open fire on the enemy.”

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THE MERGED CHORUS of male and female Christian soldiers singing on the steps of the Capitol that December day was an expression of the drys’ most valuable alliance. The adoption of the income tax amendment and subsequent passage of the Revenue Act of 1913 may have confirmed the virtue of tacit collaboration with other interest groups, but the ASL’s partnership with women who backed a suffrage amendment proved the value of a far more active embrace. The social revolution that was the suffrage movement would bring the Prohibition movement to the brink of success.

A congressional resolution calling for a Prohibition amendment to the Constitution had been introduced in every Congress since 1876, but none had ever emerged from committee. No version of the universal suffrage amendment had gotten as far as floor debate since 1890. Back then, the two measures had occasionally been linked in the holy advocacy of politicians who perceived both as expressions of moral virtue—for instance, thirty-year-old William Jennings Bryan, running in his first campaign for public office. But in the twenty-four years leading up to the congressional session of 1914, when both measures were reported out of committee on the same day, they had become welded to each other, not because of any moral congruence, but because of an expedient relativism that might have made a purist like Bryan wince.

Among the more forthright exponents of this relativistic connection was one of America’s least likely advocates of Prohibition, the novelist Jack London, who once said that the fact he had lived to be twenty-one was a miracle. An early life of crime had something to do with London’s self-appraisal, but so did the dangerous charms of liquor. “Alcohol was an acquired taste,” he wrote in 1913, looking back. “It had been painfully acquired.” H. L. Mencken saw virtue in this. “London, sober, would have written nothing worth reading,” Mencken told Upton Sinclair eight years after London’s death. “Alcohol made him.”

That was Mencken being Mencken; in truth, it’s hard to imagine that one man, even one as protean as London, could both drink to excess and write to excess (twenty-one novels, three story collections, three memoirs, one play, and uncounted essays and occasional pieces—all in the space of barely fifteen years). You also have to consider the dramatis personae in the Sinclair-Mencken exchange: the former was so dry he was Saharan, while the latter, who liked to call himself “ombibulous,” was the single most effusive publicist for booze the Republic has ever seen. (Mencken once bragged that “I drink every known alcoholic drink and enjoy them all.”) But there’s no question that London, who had a friendly Oakland bartender ship premixed cocktails in bulk to his Sonoma County ranch, drank enough to qualify him to write a book about booze.

John Barleycorn: Alcoholic Memoirs opens with a description of London’s horseback trip into town from his ranch to cast his vote on a California woman suffrage proposition in 1911. “Because of the warmth of the day I had had several drinks before casting my ballot, and divers drinks after casting it,” London wrote. “Then I had ridden up through the vine-clad hills and rolling pastures of the ranch, and arrived at the farm-house in time for another drink and supper.” London had opposed women’s right to vote years earlier, and though he had lately acknowledged that its coming was inevitable, he had shown no enthusiasm for it. But now, he told his wife, he had found an excellent reason to cast his ballot for suffrage. London believed that “the moment women get the vote in any community, the first thing they proceed to do is close the saloons”—and, therefore, “when no one else drinks and when no drink is obtainable,” he would finally be able to stop drinking. London wanted the suffragists to vote him into sobriety.

London’s insight into the dry campaign’s dependence on the suffrage movement was incontrovertible. Not only had the suffrage movement found its most effective generals among women who had first developed their political skills in the temperance ranks; additionally, thousands of women in the WCTU had come to realize that no antialcohol weapon could be as potent as the franchise. What had changed by the time London cast his wishfully opportunistic suffrage vote was the nature of the connection between the drys and the suffragists: comfortable affinity had been transformed into absolute interdependence.

This was not a relationship easily arrived at. Like the leaders of the Anti-Saloon League, most prominent suffragists perceived that their movement’s power resided in undiluted devotion to one cause. “My personal belief as to prohibition, pro or con, is nobody’s business but my own,” Susan B. Anthony wrote to the Oregon suffragist Abigail Scott Duniway in 1896. She was “glad to see women awakened from their apathy” by the liquor wars, but she had chosen by this point in her career to stick to the position she had adopted on all political issues except the one to which she had dedicated herself. Until she was granted the vote, Anthony said, she would not offer her opinion on any other public question.

But it wasn’t hard to guess Anthony’s position—after all, she had entered political life as a temperance worker, and her link to the Prohibition cause was periodically reinforced by fruitful collaboration with the WCTU. Anthony boldly introduced Frances Willard to a congressional committee in 1888 as “the commander-in-chief of an army of 250,000 women,” and “Do Everything” Willard, whose thirst for suffrage was almost as strong as her loathing for alcohol, provided Anthony a forum at the WCTU’s national conventions. But Anthony was seventy-six when she sent her steely letter to Abigail Duniway, and a constitutional amendment granting women the vote remained some distance beyond the horizon. She had chosen to expend her remaining energies on suffrage alone.

Yet even a commitment like Anthony’s could yield to urgent opportunism. By 1899, as the ASL prepared for its annual convention in Des Moines, her resolve had weakened. “I wish to ask a great favor,” she wrote to the ASL’s secretary, James L. Erwin. Would the league consider adopting a resolution “declaring for the enfranchisement of women”? Noting that drys were still a minority in the body politic, she made the point that Jack London would later offer as common wisdom. “It must be evident to every logical mind that what is needed is an additional balance of power . . . sure to throw itself into the scale against the saloon,” Anthony told Erwin. This led to her obvious conclusion: “The only hope of the Anti-Saloon League’s success lies in putting the ballot into the hands of women.”

The brewers certainly knew the connection. The great suffragist’s thoughts, even her language, echoed a resolution the United States Brewers’ Association had adopted several years earlier. The resolution declared, “When woman has the ballot, she will vote solid for prohibition.” Consequently, the USBA made it official policy to oppose woman suffrage “everywhere and always,” a matter of conviction so deeply rooted it could only have been motivated by financial self-interest. It was no different for the distillers. In 1912, at a convention of the National Retail Liquor Dealers’ Association, the industry’s position was made clear when the organization’s president issued this call to arms: “Gentlemen, we need fear the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union and the ballot in the hands of women; therefore, gentlemen, fight woman suffrage!”

The brewers’ antisuffrage position was fortified by their millions of dollars. Their reach into the streets and alleyways of many cities was further lengthened by a previously unexampled instance of labor-management amity, as self-interest placed tens of thousands of brewery employees (not to mention barrel makers and wagon drivers and ice haulers and scores of other working legions) at the ready for the next antisuffrage rally or referendum. But, even more, the cravenness of the brewers’ campaign was betrayed by their wish to hide it from public view. In 1906 a state suffrage amendment in Oregon was defeated when the brewers secretly enlisted Oregon’s saloonkeepers and hoteliers in an elaborate get-out-the-vote operation. Secrecy also prevailed when the USBA paid the nationally known suffragist Phoebe Couzins to repudiate her previous position and mount an ostensibly independent campaign as an antisuffrage speaker and writer. (Couzins explained her shocking switch with bland opacity: “Observations made during my struggle to get the privilege of the ballot for my sex convinced me I was wrong.”) Adolphus Busch, who had personally promised Couzins a lifetime annuity on top of her monthly stipend from the USBA, told a colleague, “if ever should it become known that she is in the pay of the brewers . . . all of her work would be in vain.”

Of all the brewers’ secret efforts against suffrage, a campaign that began in Texas and then went national may have been the most brazen. Distributing scores of free articles to hundreds of rural newspapers through a false front called the Farmers’ Educational and Cooperative Union, the brewers’ publicists-in-disguise promised country editors that the articles would provide a “discussion of both sides of important questions confronting the farmers of this nation.” What they actually supplied, without rebuttal, was the bogus testimony of bogus farmers, who offered such sentiments as “God pity our country when the handshake of the politician is more gratifying to woman’s heart than the patter of children’s feet.” Another favored form was the rhetorical puzzler that required no answer: “Is it not sufficient political achievement for woman that future rulers nurse at her breast, laugh in her arms and kneel at her feet?”

Apparently not. With a common enemy as bellicose, as deceitful, and as powerful as the brewers, the hardening of the prohibition-suffrage alliance was inevitable. Did it matter that the success of the Prohibition movement was not foremost in Susan B. Anthony’s constellation of desire? No more than the fact that voting rights for women was not the passionate ideal of ASL superintendent Purley A. Baker, who sidestepped the league’s single-issue policy in 1911 to declare himself in favor of suffrage, which he called “the antidote” to the efforts of the beer and liquor interests. (It was this sort of elasticity that won for Baker the nickname the wets hung on him: Purely A. Faker.) When the brewers’ Texas campaign was uncovered, it was the ASL’s formidable propaganda machine that brought it wide public attention. Eventually, in 1916, the Anti-Saloon League would formally endorse woman suffrage—the only time in its history it violated its single-issue pledge.

The brewers’ tactics had been self-defeating almost to the point of idiocy. The more they fought female suffrage, the more they guaranteed the antipathy of millions of American women, a large segment of whom might otherwise have been opposed to, or at least neutral on, Prohibition. And when the tide finally began to race in the direction of suffrage, women who had endured decades of unabated and frequently dishonest assault from the brewers, the distillers, and their allies in the hotel, restaurant, and tobacco industries carried Prohibition along with them.

“The fanatical and misinformed women,” as Adolphus Busch called them, would rout the brewers and their allies with stunning efficiency. In one three-year stretch in the 1910s, seven western states adopted Prohibition—all of them states where women had achieved the vote. Michigan’s entrance into the Prohibition column was helped along by the revelation that the Macomb County Liquor Dealers’ Association had been financing the state’s antisuffrage forces. Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman member of Congress, felt compelled to endorse the Prohibition cause in her state because of “political exigency.” In 1918, when Texas women were granted the right to vote in the state’s Democratic primary, they supported the dry candidate over the wet ex-governor James E. “Pa” Ferguson by a ten-to-one margin.

As clueless about what had happened as the brewers who had supported him, the defeated Ferguson called the women’s votes “illegal.” But those votes were indeed legal, they were growing, and by the end of the decade both suffrage and Prohibition would enter the Constitution virtually as brothers. Or, it might have been said, sisters.

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