MANY YEARS AFTER the most glorious day in her husband’s political career, Grizelda Hull Hobson received a letter from one of his old friends from the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1889. The friend, a retired admiral, recalled something that Richmond Hobson had said as a freshman at Annapolis, a sentence that “became almost a classic at the Academy.” Unwilling to abide the verbal hazing hurled at every plebe, Hobson confronted a midshipman who had been tormenting him. “Sir,” he declared, “I do not desire nor will I tolerate your scurrilous contumely.”
Coming from most sixteen-year-olds, Hobson’s baroque rhetoric would have been as preposterous as it was precocious. Coming from Hobson, it was both those things, but it was also an augury of the man he would become—bold, eloquent, offended by impropriety, and a bit mad. The first three, at least, were qualities that would enhance his huge importance to the Prohibition movement. So were the calluses he developed to repel the censure of others. Not long after the encounter with his contumacious tormentor, Hobson’s meticulous observance of regulations prompted him to report his classmates’ slightest violations to academy authorities. His fellow midshipmen responded by applying a less official but equally rigorous code of conduct—the young Alabaman was placed “in Coventry,” and with the single exception of one classmate, no one spoke to him for two years. Hobson barely flinched. As an admirer put it, he “got along without their society so well that he saw no reason for resuming it.”
Hobson would later celebrate his ostracism in his bestselling gosh-and-gee-whiz novel for boys, Buck Jones at Annapolis. Its hero just happened to be an upright and courageous son of the South who not only suffers his own term in Coventry (“the most terriblepunishment possible on this earth”) but, like Hobson, graduates first in his class. Of course it was a bestseller: by the time Buck was published, in 1907, Hobson had been a national figure for nearly a decade. He had won his renown as a Spanish-American War hero, for his bravery while commanding a failed mission aboard the USS Merrimac in Cuba; on emerging from a Spanish prison, he then advanced it with a spasm of self-promotion that anticipated the publicity rituals of a latter age.
Hobson began his postrelease lecture tour in front of a sold-out audience at the Metropolitan Opera. He wrote a four-part series about his war experience in Century magazine. He allowed a Boston sheet-music publisher to issue “Hobson of the Merrimac: Waltzes for Piano”; its cover featured a photograph of the handsome hero in three-quarter profile—serious of mien, erect of posture, the “smouldering fierceness of his eyes” (if only the printer had been able to replicate their steely blue!) focused slightly to his left, fixed on . . . well, perhaps on the very near future. As he traveled across the country to San Francisco, where he would embark for his next naval posting in the Far East, a newspaper report noted that he had kissed a young woman at one of his appearances. Within days the nation’s hero-hungry press had decided that Hobson’s osculatory skill matched his military prowess, and sold thousands of newspapers in celebration of it. Flocks of women lined up on depot platforms to kiss him—163 in Chicago, 419 in Kansas City, 350 more in Topeka. By the time he got to Denver, he had had enough. “When the kissing is fast and furious it sometimes gets just a little tiresome,” he told a reporter. “It sometimes happens that when some ancient lips are presented I would fain pass them by unkissed, but when I start in I have to take it as it comes. There is no selecting; everything goes.”
“Fain pass them by”? This was of a piece with “contumely” and various other Hobsonisms that even in the early 1900s veered toward the archaic. But the particularity of his language, the righteous fire of his delivery, and preparation that would have done credit to a surgeon—he timed his speeches precisely to the second—made him an irresistible orator. After returning from the Far East (where he endured another round of Coventry, this one administered by officers resentful of his celebrity), he went home to Alabama and Magnolia Grove, the magnificent family plantation ninety miles southwest of Birmingham, and began a life in politics.
Hobson entered the House of Representatives in 1906 and, like so many other drys, almost immediately lined up with the progressives. He opposed the tariff, sought to break up industrial trusts, introduced a resolution calling for the abolition of the Electoral College, and supported both the income tax and woman suffrage.* He was also the House’s leading advocate of a strong navy, and with uncanny foresight predicted in 1911 that Japan would one day attack the Pacific fleet. His defining issue, the one that made him one of the most popular platform speakers of the day, was the elimination of the trade in alcoholic beverages. But the one that would eventually determine the arc of his political career was, for a southern politician in the early twentieth century, a fairly enlightened position on race.
Hobson’s racial attitudes intersected with his military allegiance. He introduced one bill that would have made it illegal in the District of Columbia to discriminate against any uniformed member of the armed forces, white or black, and another to open Annapolis and West Point to students from the Philippines and Puerto Rico, after both had become U.S. colonies. These positions were surprising to many of his southern colleagues, but not nearly as much as Hobson’s public criticism of the dishonorable discharges Theodore Roosevelt meted out to the members of an all-black regiment that had been implicated on spurious charges in the Brownsville Affair of 1906.** Rising on the floor of the House despite the warnings of friends, Hobson addressed the plight of the 167 black soldiers, forever barred from military or civil service. “I saw black men carry our flag on Santiago Hill,” he declared. “I have seen them at Manila. A black man took my father, wounded, from the field of Chancellorsville.” Invoking a paternalism that is discomfiting to modern sensibilities, he spoke of the former slaves who had stayed at Magnolia Grove to care for his mother and grandmother. He also said that because “the white man is supreme in this country,” it was the white man’s responsibility to “give absolute justice to the black man.” Then Hobson concluded with words that, for an Alabama Democrat in 1909, would have been no less remarkable had they advocated immediate and complete integration. “We are standing here on the field of eternal justice,” he said, “where all men are the same.”
He would pay for it. Five years later, in an effort to move up to a vacant Senate seat, Hobson faced off in the Democratic primary against his House colleague Oscar W. Underwood, who opposed Prohibition on the grounds that it was an infringement of states’ rights. Underwood won the backing of the state’s liquor dealers and didn’t bother to hide his wetness from the voters. This wasn’t because he believed Alabama had suddenly gone moist, but because he had a more effective weapon. As much as white Alabamans cared about the liquor question, they cared more about the race issue.
Hobson was hardly a race liberal. In his celebrated and endlessly repeated platform oration, “Alcohol, the Great Destroyer,” which he delivered on the floor of the House for the first time in 1911, he had even warned that liquor could turn black men into cannibals. But Underwood and his supporters used Hobson’s advocacy for the Brownsville soldiers, and his other slightly moderate views on blacks in the military, like a bludgeon. They attacked Hobson as “the only Southerner in Congress to stab his people on the great issue” and insisted that his positions would lead inexorably to “the national enfranchisement of the negro.” Underwood’s campaign literature reached its rhetorical pinnacle, or nadir, on the service academy issue. Admitting Filipinos—whom campaign literature characterized as “negroes, negritos, and negorillas”—to West Point or Annapolis would mean “exact social equality! In the same room! At the same table with our boys!”
On primary day, race trumped booze: Underwood overwhelmed Hobson, taking 62 percent of the vote. This was just four months after Hobson had greeted the marching members of the ASL and the WCTU on the Capitol steps on the day he formally introduced his constitutional amendment. After his defeat the Hobson Amendment, as it became known, lay untouched in the Judiciary Committee, a grenade that might explode on contact with any politician whose district was not overwhelmingly wet or dry—in other words, the sort of district for which the tactics of the ASL had been devised. And by all conventional measurements, the legislative potency of the amendment’s lame-duck sponsor was approaching zero.
IN THE HOUSE of Representatives on December 22, 1914, the day Hobson would lead the debate on his resolution for a constitutional amendment, Speaker Champ Clark of Missouri gaveled the House to order with an unusual admonition: “There are going to be ten mortal hours of speech making here today, and maybe more,” Clark announced. “And some of it, perhaps, will be rather lively, and the chair asks members to help keep order, and the people in the galleries, too.” This was understandable: the galleries were jammed with battalions of pilgrims, most of them women, who occupied every seat and crowded every aisle. What appeared to be a large banner suspended from the railing of the south gallery was in fact a petition, and if any of the men slowly filing into the House chamber had been able to get close to it, they would have seen that the twelve thousand signatures on the enormous document were not those of individuals, but of organizations.
This should not suggest that getting the measure to this point—an actual floor debate, with an actual vote to follow—had been anything but a murderously difficult task. The months it had taken to extract the Prohibition resolution from the fearful members of the Judiciary Committee were an indication of Hobson’s weakened position. His legislative hopes to a large degree rested in the hands of the majority leader, who shared with the Speaker responsibility for scheduling floor debates and votes. The leader happened to be the wet Oscar Underwood, the man who had sent Hobson tumbling toward retirement.
But Hobson was not without resources. He knew that less than three weeks earlier, Speaker Clark had been delivering a speech to the Detroit Board of Commerce when his hosts had felt it necessary to turn off the lights and cut him short. Clark was so drunk he had lapsed into incoherence, his words slurred, his gestures unsteady. The New York Times described the event with a respectful delicacy: “Mr. Clark began his address but faltered and was plainly seen to be indisposed.” Hobson was similarly respectful, but for different reasons. When news of Clark’s indiscretion reached him, Hobson immediately sent out a flight of telegrams to his dry allies. He asked them to “omit all references to Speaker Clark’s experience in Detroit” in their speechmaking and other publicity efforts. He said this was “in accord with Christian principles,” but he added that discretion “may have an important bearing upon the Speaker’s future relations with our cause. I regard this as very important.” Blackmail usually is.
The “ten mortal hours of speech making” that Clark decreed on December 22 accommodated the remarks of more than fifty members of the House. They were not temperate in their comments. W. W. Rucker of Missouri shouted in behalf of Hobson’s resolution that it was time to “quit this degeneration of mankind!” Minority leader James Mann of Illinois, speaking against, warned that Prohibition would bring about “an army of government spies, with every township in the country under surveillance.” Martin A. Morrison of Indiana, who was somewhere in between, said the day should be called “the Slaughter of the Innocents,” for how they voted would end the political careers, he estimated, of more than a hundred of his colleagues.
All day long members came and went, to get dinner or to leaf grimly through the stacks of cards, letters, and telegrams piling in drifts in their offices. On the House floor, pages raced back and forth. Some brought more telegrams; some delivered fistfuls of the pink postcards that had been distributed in the hundreds of thousands by Prohibition activists, each bearing the picture of an innocent (and presumably vulnerable) child. Always Hobson remained at his desk. He accepted flowers sent by some of the women in the galleries. He ate a sandwich.
As the measure’s floor manager, Hobson had addressed the House early in the day. Six feet tall, his sandy hair thinning on top, his eyes drawn into their characteristic squint, he leaned forward on the balls of his feet as he spoke to his colleagues. It was the posture he had perfected on the lecture stage while declaiming “Alcohol, the Great Destroyer.” On this December Tuesday, his colleagues knew it was likely the last time they would hear the Hero of the Merrimac call down the heavens with his famous speech.
“What is the object of this resolution?” he began, his deep baritone ringing with purpose. “It is to destroy the agency that debauches the youth of the land and thereby perpetuates its hold on the nation.” He argued that because his amendment forbade only the use, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol “for sale”—critical words—it was not coercive; it would not prevent men and women from making and drinking their own. Less ingenuously, he picked up a refrain that had become increasingly popular among congressional drys, saying he wasn’t even asking members to vote for or against liquor, only to allow the state legislatures the opportunity to pass judgment on the amendment. Therefore, he insisted, any congressman who voted against the resolution would be voting “to deny the States and the people their right of referendum.”
But most of the speech was a replay of “The Great Destroyer.” He proceeded through many of the tropes that had thrilled and horrified his audiences for years. He explained that alcohol is “a loathsome excretion of a living organism”; that it will make a civilized young man successively “become semicivilized, semisavage, savage, and, at last, below the brute”; that “nearly two-thirds of all the money in circulation in America in the course of a year” passed through the grasping hands of the liquor trust. He described how alcohol corrupted family life, deformed the economy, and befouled politics and government. He claimed that “there are nearly twice as many slaves, largely white men, today than there were black men slaves in America at any one time”—slaves, of course, to the alcohol demon.
Finally Hobson concluded, not with his customary invocation of the Lord of Hosts, but with a challenge to the men whose ranks he would soon be leaving. “In the name of your manhood,” he told his colleagues, “in the name of your patriotism, in the name of all that is held dear by good men, in the name of your fireside, in the name of our institutions, in the name of our country, and in the name of humanity and humanity’s God, I call on you to join hands with me and each one to do his full duty.”
On the rostrum, Speaker Clark did not gavel the galleries into silence. He may have been thinking how he had compromised himself in Detroit. But he also might have been recalling what he had said to reporters on that unfortunate day. Hobson, he had told them, was “a knight errant,” Clark said. “Had he lived in the days of chivalry he would have been one of those who went in search of the Holy Grail. In our day, confronting our problems, he is a political lunatic.”
Clark had especially wanted to make sure that his listeners understood what he thought of Hobson’s prediction that nationwide Prohibition was just ten years away. After a pause, he pressed his point. “Have you got that?” Clark asked the reporters. “Hobson is a lunatic.”
THE MORNING OF the debate, the Chicago Tribune’s Washington correspondent had predicted that some members would claim illness to avoid having to show up at the Capitol Building and others would find it “imperative to leave Washington a day earlier than they had contemplated in order to keep their Christmas engagements.” But it turned out that 90 percent of the House was well enough to come to work, apparently prepared for what the man from the Tribune called “political judgment day for the 433 members of the House—at least for such of them as expect to be candidates again for public office.” The final vote on the Hobson Amendment was 197 for, 190 against—not the two-thirds majority the Constitution required, but an astonishing result nonetheless. Because the measure failed in the House, it did not come to a vote in the Senate during that congressional session. But if there were an antonym for Pyrrhic victory, headline writers would have plundered it hungrily. In losing this first real test of a Prohibition amendment, the dry forces had won. Dry votes came from both parties and from every part of the country. Nearly two-thirds of the affirmative voters lived in towns with fewer than ten thousand people, but that shouldn’t suggest the dominance of rural conservatives; among members of the Progressive Party in the House, seventeen of the eighteen who voted went dry.
The editors of the Nation, who admired Hobson’s passion (and his principled valor during the Brownsville controversy), said he “fought not for results but for causes,” and on this day his cause was triumphant. He had experienced an equally glorious defeat once before, when he was imprisoned by the Spanish navy. He called the feeling that gripped him then “the ecstasy of martyrdom.”
Hobson’s last major speech in his final weeks in the House was a vein-popper in behalf of woman suffrage. In his first notable oration after he returned to private life, he again invoked the suffrage cause, but this time in the service of a greater passion. “Seek the enfranchisement of women everywhere,” Hobson shouted from the podium at the 1915 ASL convention in Atlantic City, unreeling an inventory of urgent imperatives. “Make general use of the government frank in sending out dry speeches and other documents. Request all papers and periodicals to decline liquor advertisements. . . . Call the Salvation Army into action. . . . Develop local fights so as to produce the best effect on the national field.”
Then: “Take the offensive everywhere,” Hobson cried as he brought his philippic to its close and his audience to its feet. “Attack! Attack! Attack!”
THAT 1915 ASL CONVENTION was like none that had preceded it. The fire stoked by the symbolic triumph of the Hobson Amendment warmed old campaigners and drew new ones to its brightening glow. The former heavyweight champion (and former heavyweight drunk) John L. Sullivan, whose framed likeness was once almost as common in American saloons as Custer’s Last Fight, spoke in behalf of the cause. Delegates accepted a resolution of solidarity from a new organization called the Catholic Prohibition League of America, which unconvincingly claimed a membership of thirty thousand. Dr. J. H. Kellogg, the famous physician from Battle Creek who had placed cornflakes on the American breakfast table, came to speak; Booker T. Washington, who believed liquor a particular scourge among blacks, sent felicitations. An especially fervent chorus of cheers rang out when a speaker quoted British prime minister David Lloyd George, whose country had been at war for a year: “We are fighting the Germans, the Austrians, and drink,” Lloyd George had declared, “and the deadliest of these is drink.”
The spread of temperance sentiment in other countries—especially while World War I raged across Europe—was, for the ASL, evidence that its members were marching in step with a worldwide army of the righteous. Lloyd George never tried to institute actual Prohibition in Britain, but he did employ wartime pleas to patriotism in what the Atlantic Monthly called a “heroic onslaught” against booze, evidenced by a series of trade regulations and sumptuary laws that restricted alcohol consumption. These included a sevenfold increase in excise taxes and the imposition of the peculiar schedule of pub closing hours—not revoked until 2005—that added a phrase to the repertoire of every British bartender: “Time, gentlemen, please.” Other countries (all of them northern, none of them Catholic) were gripped by what a French economist described as “le delirium anti-alcoolique.” The new temperance laws included the issuance of individual “drinking licenses” in Sweden, the suspension of liquor sales in German industrial areas, and the suspension of all liquor sales in Iceland (a ruling revoked, at least insofar as Spanish wine was concerned, when the Spaniards retaliated by tripling import duties on Icelandic fish). Norway and Finland would both have a form of Prohibition in place before the decade was over, and provincial Prohibition laws would sweep across all of Canada save for Catholic Quebec.
The most surprising foreign expression of the prohibitory impulse came in a decree issued by Czar Nicholas II in October 1914: from that point forward, it declared, the sale of vodka was forever banned throughout the Russian Empire. He may as well have ordered fish to leave the ocean. Within a year of the decree, a Petrograd newspaper reported that “tens of thousands of illicit distilleries” had opened for business. In the United States, however, Nicholas’s action was exalted by a spectrum of drys that ranged from the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to radical elements of the labor movement. In 1919 the Central Labor Council in Tacoma would even attribute the success of the Russian Revolution to an unexpected by-product of the czar’s ruling: a clearheaded proletariat, no longer befogged by alcohol, was at last able to rise and throw off its chains. This was not entirely fanciful; Lenin himself said that “to permit the sale of vodka would mean one step back to capitalism.” It wasn’t until 1923, six years after the fall of the Czar, that spirits containing more than 20 percent alcohol were again made legal in the Soviet Union.
The Tacoma unionists were not alone on the left flank of the dry movement. The socialist leader John Spargo, biographer of Karl Marx and Eugene V. Debs, attacked the liquor trade as an exemplar of capitalism and liquor itself as a corrupter of human potential. The great black union organizer and pamphleteer A. Philip Randolph argued that Prohibition would bring lower crime rates, higher wages, less corrupt politics, and other benefits of particular value to the black community. No less radical a group than the Industrial Workers of the World believed liquor was the enemy of the working classes, a poison poured into their lives by capitalist exploiters intent on weakening them. In Oregon the IWW distributed leaflets cautioning workers that they “can’t fight booze and the boss at the same time.”
The Baptist and Methodist clergy; the Progressive Party and its allies; the women of the suffrage movement; the western populists; most southern Democrats; the Industrial Workers of the World; official sentiment in other Anglo-Saxon and nordic nations—was it any wonder that the Anti-Saloon League believed constitutional Prohibition was not only possible, but imminent? During the amendment debate Richmond Hobson had set the target: “I here announce to you the determination of the great moral, the great spiritual, the great temperance and prohibition forces of this whole Nation to make this question the paramount issue in 1916.” And then, he said, “We will have a President and a Congress that will give us what we want.”
JUST FIVE DAYS before the Hobson Amendment’s triumphant failure, Congress had enacted a much more modest measure called the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. The law empowered the Internal Revenue Service to tax, and thus to regulate, opiates, coca derivatives, and other drugs. On its face a tax measure, the Harrison Act in fact conferred on the federal government conventional police powers regarding a matter of personal behavior. The administration of Woodrow Wilson, true to its belief in a strong central government, supported its passage and could have seen it as the logical precedent for federal regulation of the liquor traffic.
Wilson was enough of a progressive to appreciate the argument, but he was enough of a realist to understand that his party’s growing strength owed much to Irish-American, Italian-American, and other ethnic Democrats in the big cities of the north. His closest aide, Joseph Patrick Tumulty, was a proud son of Jersey City’s Fifth Ward and a product of its redoubtable political machine. He was also former counsel to that city’s liquor dealers’ association and Wilson’s emissary to northeastern Democrats, whose clubhouse style was rather different from the president’s (Wilson’s handshake was once likened to “a ten-cent pickled mackerel in brown paper”). To this part of the Democratic coalition, Prohibition was as welcome as a rash.
But the two other bulwarks of the party were for the most part as dry as powder. With the unreconstructed southerners, whose racial views he shared, Wilson had a natural affinity; in the populist economic views of the westerners, he saw a mirror of his antitariff, pro–income tax position. Wilson enjoyed the occasional highball (usually Scotch), and he believed that moderation was an acceptable form of temperance. But though he was generally dubious about prohibitory laws, he had little to gain from fighting the ASL. He risked nothing by dodging confrontation with the league. The northern ethnic voters who were the ASL’s natural enemy weren’t likely to seek refuge in the high-tariff, overwhelmingly Protestant, anti-immigration Republican Party. Wayne Wheeler observed that the Prohibition movement may not have had Wilson’s support, but “we did not have his open opposition.”
This was obvious in two of Wilson’s most important appointments. The ascension to cabinet rank of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan brought Prohibition sentiment into the highest reaches of the executive branch. Daniels’s General Order 99 eliminated the traditional “wine mess” (it was in fact more likely to be stocked with bourbon or rye than wine) from all U.S. naval installations. This was an expression of his own dry views, but it was also a form of populist leveling: alcohol had long been denied to sailors, and Daniels’s order was a conscious effort to apply the same rules to their officers. The New York Herald dubbed Daniels “Sir Josephus, Admiral of the USS Grapejuice Pinafore,” but he was unmoved.
For his part, Bryan, who was loyally mindful of Wilson’s noncombatant stance in the liquor wars, generally soft-pedaled his antialcohol position once he joined the administration; in 1914 he even opposed the Hobson Amendment, considering it a futile distraction from more pressing issues. But when Bryan’s official duties ran up against his personal dedication to abstinence, a lifetime of teetotalism could not be suppressed. This became apparent barely six weeks into his tenure as secretary of state. The occasion was Bryan’s first formal diplomatic function, a luncheon in the Presidential Suite of the Willard Hotel honoring James Bryce, who was about to return to London after six years as British ambassador to the United States. The guests, largely other ambassadors and their wives, had just taken their seats at the brightly decorated tables when Bryan rose to speak. His welcome contained a message that would have been no less surprising at a diplomatic event had he delivered it in pig latin: there would be no wine served at the luncheon. The deep ruby liquid in the glasses was grape juice.
Not since he’d strapped the Cross of Gold to his back in 1896 had Bryan given such ripe material to his detractors. His guests were politely accepting; the Russian ambassador, who told his luncheon companion that he “had not tasted water for years,” managed to survive the meal because he had been forewarned by Bryan and “had taken his claret before he came.” But the press shredded Bryan, and some northeastern Republicans began to disparage the Wilson-Bryan foreign policy as “grape juice diplomacy.” Although Bryan did get some support, it was likely to invite derision—for instance, George Bernard Shaw offered his approval of the alcohol-free policy and earnestly suggested that the Bryans introduce vegetarianism to the diplomatic circuit as well.
The Prohibition forces, especially in Washington, had long been accustomed to the ridicule of the well-born, the well-connected, and the self-contented—the people Congressman Andrew J. Volstead of Minnesota called “sporty” and the WCTU characterized as “so-called respectable.” As far back as the 1870s, when “Lemonade Lucy” Hayes was First Lady and presided over a dry White House, the bemused secretary of state, William M. Evarts, said that at state dinners “the water flowed like champagne.” But by the time Bryan resigned as secretary of state in 1915 to express his disagreement with Wilson’s increasingly belligerent policy toward Germany, ridicule and mockery bore a puny sting. The dry movement was cresting, and Bryan—three times defeated for the presidency, more than twenty years removed from Congress, now exiled from the cabinet—threw himself into it.
The campaign he joined was by this point firmly under the control of the Anti-Saloon league. The ASL’s assiduous attention to Congress had made wet politicians wobble, uncertain politicians sprint for dry shelter, and dry politicians flex their biceps. Heading toward the 1916 elections, the league’s grassroots activities suggested that each of these tendencies would soon be amplified. The forty tons a month of printed matter that had poured from the league’s Westerville printing plant in 1912 had grown to ten tons a day. Threatened by dry boycotts, the New York Tribune, the Chicago Herald, and the Boston Record, among other papers, had ceased accepting liquor ads. In some states, polling lists were dissected and scrutinized by “Captains of Ten,” each captain charged with determining the wetness or dryness of all ten voters on his or her list. In Illinois ASL leaders claimed that the system enabled them to acquire data on every voter in the state. Nationwide, league expenditures approached the 2009 equivalent of $50 million annually. ASL founder Howard Hyde Russell, long removed from daily management of the organization, was, he said, “engaged almost continuously in holding luncheon-meetings for manufacturers, business and professional men,” and in 1916 alone raised money for the amendment campaign in more than a hundred cities. That was probably more productive, if less entertaining, than the “water wagon tour” he led the year before, a cross-country automotive caravan on the Lincoln Highway, complete with male vocal quartet.
The core unit of both the political effort and the fund-raising apparatus was the league’s massive speakers’ operation, which by the late stages of the amendment campaign had more than twenty thousand trained lecturers ready to deliver the ASL gospel and to reap the ASL tithe (by policy, the ASL would not provide organizations with a speaker to explain the former if he was not allowed to solicit the latter). Promotional materials enumerated the qualities of each speaker: Ira Landrith, an Ohio leaflet indicated, was “the peer of any man on the American platform,” whereas L. J. Taber “appeals especially to farmers, although capable of addressing Opera House Audiences.” As different as they might have been, both the peerless Landrith and the capable Taber, like all the league’s envoys, were urged to follow the ASL’s formal “Suggestions to Speakers,” which explained in minutest detail when to arrive, where to stand, where to position ushers with the collection trays, how long to talk, and when to make the financial pitch. “Do not beg,” speakers were admonished. Instead, make the audience “feel that it is a privilege to have a part in the great fight.”
Presumably these directives were not imposed on the league’s stars, its so-called honorarium men—the highly paid speakers who drew the largest audiences and could raise the largest sums. The honorarium speakers were generally the driest of the congressional drys, men like Senator Wesley L. Jones of Washington and Representative Alben Barkley of Kentucky (who would become Harry Truman’s vice president in 1949). The biggest draws, however, were two men no longer in public office, Bryan and Hobson. Untethered from the Wilson administration, Bryan used the ASL circuit both to serve the cause and to maintain his presence in the national arena. In a single week in 1915, delivering an average of ten speeches a day, he addressed more than a quarter million Ohioans. In Ann Arbor five thousand students turned out to see him; in Philadelphia he demonstrated a new piece of histrionic business before an audience of twenty thousand when he fell to his knees and begged the assembled to pledge total abstinence. “It is a little easy to laugh at Mr. Bryan for doing things like this in times like these,” the New Republic said. “It is even a little hard not to.” But more than twelve thousand Philadelphians took up his pledge.
Bryan’s lecture agent for the Chautauqua circuit, Charles F. Horner, advised his client to continue to devote “a great deal of attention to the prohibition proposition”; this was what audiences wanted. In one year the ASL alone paid Bryan $11,000 to take his righteous thunder to the dry masses—in 2009 terms, roughly $135,000. But this was easily topped by Hobson, who averaged $19,000 (more than $200,000 in 2009 dollars) during the eleven years he spent on the road for the ASL. His early fame and his years declaiming his “Great Destroyer” speech (and distributing it, too—he estimated he had handed out more than two million copies) had made him a proven draw; the prominence he had acquired through his eponymous amendment magnified his appeal. Hobson was negotiating fees with the ASL and the WCTU barely two weeks after the 1914 vote on his amendment, during his last weeks in Congress, and soon he was back on the sawdust trail with an updated version of “The Great Destroyer.” he gave eighty-three speeches for the ASL in a single summer and continued at such a pace that his wife complained to league management. “His strength and health mean nothing to you but they mean everything to me,” she wrote. She also thought it was dangerous for “a man of his national reputation” to give speeches “on street corners after dark.”
It was no doubt a relief to Mrs. Hobson when her husband was unable to come to terms with the WCTU. Anna Gordon—the political, spiritual, and legal heir to Frances Willard—saw proof of her once-powerful organization’s waning influence in the behavior of her own members, who now gave their cash and their pledges to the ASL. “[We] lack the funds to push work we call on them to do,” she told Hobson, and therefore the WTCU had to decline his offer of services. You could hear Gordon’s sigh in the ensuing sentence: “The Anti-Saloon League has money.”
DRY HISTORIANS AND PUBLICISTS generally tiptoe around Richmond Hobson. There are plenty of reasons: the sometimes absurd theatricality; the righteousness worn not just as a cloak but as a banner; the speeches saturated in the melodramatic nonsense typical of Mary Hunt’s Scientific Temperance Instruction, which he had been fed while at the Naval Academy (“If both parents are alcoholics, one child out of every seven will be born deformed and will be incurable”). One ASL officer told Peter Odegard, the first serious scholar to write about the league, that “on Hobson’s first visit [to a particular town] he was worth more than they paid him as a subscription getter; that on his second he was probably worth his salary, but that if he spoke a third time in the same place, he positively did damage to the temperance cause.”
His skills as a political strategist, however, were keen. This was demonstrated most vividly in the letter he sent in March 1915 to Ernest H. Cherrington, the man who ran the ASL’s vast publishing efforts. “We must not let liquor [interests] fight off submission beyond the reapportionment of 1920,” Hobson wrote. “We must put over submission of the amendment next year.” Hobson had recognized the tremors of a vast demographic shift that would transform the nation. In 1910, 46 percent of Americans lived in cities. Continuing immigration, the prolific birthrates of the largest immigrant groups, and the accelerating flight from the farms to the cities meant that by 1920 the urban population was almost certain to be a majority. After the constitutionally mandated decennial census, congressional districts would be redrawn, with results that could be catastrophic for the drys.
Cherrington was the worldliest and the most emotionally moderate member of the ASL’s leadership. He genuinely believed that the solution to the nation’s drinking problems lay not in coercion but in education. But he also believed that “when the great cities of America actually come to dominate the state and dictate the policies of the nation, the process of decay in our boasted American civilization will have begun.” Less than two weeks after hearing from Hobson, Cherrington sent a letter to James Cannon Jr., chairman of the ASL’s committee on constitutional revision. If the Eighteenth Amendment didn’t pass the House of Representatives by 1920, Cherrington explained, “it will then be possible to re-district the states so as to absolutely insure for the liquor forces more than one-third” of the House. In any subsequent reapportionment, the rural/urban balance and the native-born/foreign-born balance would only tilt further toward the wets. “One thing is sure,” Cherrington continued. “If we are to save the situation so far as the Congress to be elected in 1916 is concerned, the work must be done at once or it will be too late.”
By election day that year, the ASL’s leadership, its publicists, and its fifty thousand lecturers and fund-raisers and vote counters on the front lines had completed their work. Two years earlier, terrified members of the House Judiciary Committee had been unwilling even to take a vote on the Hobson Amendment. Now the ASL had responded to what Wheeler considered the primary lesson he’d learned during his early battles with Mark Hanna: the need to “make it safe for a candidate to be dry.” While the rest of the nation remained in suspense as the votes in the 1916 presidential balloting were counted in California—the state’s thirteen electoral votes would reelect Wilson—the managers of the Anti-Saloon League slept comfortably.
“We knew late election night that we had won,” Wheeler would recall a decade later. The league, he wrote, had “laid down such a barrage as candidates for Congress had never seen before and such as they will, in all likelihood, not see again for years to come.” Every wet measure on every statewide ballot was defeated. Four more states had voted themselves dry, including Michigan, the first northern industrial state to make the leap. Some form of dry law was now on the books in twenty-three states. And Wheeler wrote, “We knew that the Prohibition amendment would be submitted to the States by the Congress just elected.”
* Not that he was particularly enlightened about women in general: Hobson thought that any woman who experienced carnal desire was a “sex pervert,” and attributed promiscuity to the effects of alcohol. He wasn’t crazy about sexual urges in men, either, but accepted their evolutionary necessity.
** On August 13, 1906, two white men were shot, one fatally, in Brownsville, Texas. Soldiers in the all-black 25th U.S. infantry regiment, billeted in nearby Fort Brown, were held responsible, despite the lack of reliable incriminating evidence and the existence of much that was exculpatory. The soldiers, unable to tell investigators who might have been responsible for the shootings, were ordered dishonorably discharged by President Roosevelt, without trial, for their putative failure to cooperate. In 1972 Richard M. Nixon ordered honorable discharges entered into the military records of all of the accused men.