WILLIAM ASHLEY SUNDAY of the Philadelphia Phillies, who became world famous for loving Christ and hating alcohol, put away his glove, his bat, and his spikes in 1890. He had just completed a season in which he had stolen eighty-four bases and earned $3,500, roughly nine times the wages of the average American industrial worker. But at last he had decided to turn away from the sporting life and toward Jesus, an inclination that had already set him apart from many of his teammates. Like Sunday, most ballplayers of the day were largely itinerant and marginally educated; unlike Sunday, who indulged in an occasional glass of beer or wine, many drank like champions. Countless careers were ended by booze, and numerous lives lost (notable among these was the great Philadelphia outfielder Ed Delahanty, who attempted a drunken walk one night across a railroad bridge over Niagara Falls). An alcoholic aroma wafted over the stands as well. The original American Association, half of whose founding owners were brewers, was so drink sodden it became known as the “Beer and Whiskey League.” The top row of the grandstand in Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis was an open bar, and in San Francisco’s Recreation Park, where the Seals of the Pacific Coast League played, eight rows of seats stretching from first base, behind home plate, and over to third base comprised the “Booze Cage.” This was where a seventy-five-cent ticket got the fan a choice of two beers or a shot of whiskey, with a ham sandwich and a ballgame thrown in.
Billy Sunday had always been religious. But in 1888, while he sat on a Chicago curbstone with some other players, hymns from a nearby mission caught his ear and his heart. Turning to his teammates, he said he really didn’t want another drink and then went across the street and found shelter in the stainless calm of the mission. Two years later, when he gave up baseball for the life of an evangelist, his verbal facility, italicized by his hyperphysical platform style, put him on his way to becoming the most successful American preacher of his era, perhaps the most successful one ever. The essay on Sunday in the authoritative American National Biography does not equivocate: “Incredible as it may seem, reliable statistics indicate that Sunday preached to more than 100 million people” in his forty years in the pulpit. By his own account, early in his career he had used “sentences so long they’d make a Greek professor’s jaw squeak.” Only after he “loaded my Gospel gun with rough-on-rats, ipecac, dynamite, and barbed wire” did he achieve his extraordinary success. “What do I care if some puff-eyed little dibbly-dibbly preacher goes tibbly-tibbling around because I use plain Anglo-Saxon words?” Sunday asked. “I want people to know what I mean and that’s why I try to get down where they live.”
Sunday’s speeches were devoted first to his fundamentalist view of Jesus (a contemporary observer said he “flings out the name of Christ as if he were sending a spitball right into your teeth”). His fanatic opposition to the beer and liquor interests came a close second. To Sunday liquor was “God’s worst enemy” and “hell’s best friend,” and he considered those who profited from the alcohol trade earthly Satans. “I will fight them till hell freezes over,” he told a rally at the University of Michigan, where he persuaded a thousand students to join the campaign for a statewide Prohibition law. “Then I’ll buy a pair of skates and fight ’em on the ice.”
“The liquor interests hate Billy Sunday as they hate no other man,” an Anti-Saloon League publication said in 1913. This wasn’t strictly because of the size of his following (which was enormous), or its intense devotion (in 1914 a magazine poll attempting to determine who was “the greatest man in the United States” placed Sunday eighth, tied with Andrew Carnegie). In as many as 250 speeches a year, addressing the enormous audiences he could command in the late 1910s, Sunday gave shape to the new attitude—increasingly ferocious, even vengeful—that characterized the Prohibition forces as they stood at the edge of victory. No more tibbly-tibbling, said Billy Sunday: “I have no interest in a God who does not smite.”
Cue Kaiser Wilhelm, World War I, and Wayne B. Wheeler.
AFTER THE EIGHTEENTH AMENDMENT was ratified, resentful wets frequently expressed the belief that the Great War that exploded in Europe in 1914 and that America entered in 1917 was especially great for the Anti-Saloon League and its allies. In one of the favored mythologies they would clutch to their bosoms throughout the fourteen years of Prohibition, the wets attributed the amendment’s adoption to the absence of two million soldiers from American shores and voting booths. This argument mistakenly presumed that all of these men were beer loving and devoted to personal liberty. In truth, the missing men and boys—many of them below voting age, in aggregate likely as divided on the issue as the rest of the country—weren’t a factor. Further, the series of War Revenue Acts that Congress passed at Woodrow Wilson’s request, which increased liquor taxes to help finance the war effort, in effect made the purchase of alcoholic beverages in the early days of World War I a patriotic act.
Still, the prohibitionists did find a number of ways to tie their cause to the nation’s defense. Not six months after the first doughboys landed in Europe in June 1917, the ASL officially denounced America’s French allies for their failure to supply pure drinking water to American soldiers, putting them at risk of developing a taste for wine. The populist, antibusiness, Bryan-led wing of the dry coalition, capitalizing on the looming disappearance of liquor tax revenues, used the war crisis to usher in sharply progressive income tax rates (by the time Prohibition took effect, the highest bracket had been jacked up past 70 percent, or more than six times the prewar level). Bryan accused the distillers of harboring a “passion for dollars” that might “make drunkards of the entire army and leave us defenseless before a foreign foe.” This was not simply Bryanesque minstrelsy; Thomas Gilmore, president of the distillers’ Model License League, in fact attempted to persuade Congress to give liquor to the soldiers to “insure the steadiness of nerve that wins battles.” After all, Gilmore explained, “the man who rushes a rapid fire gun should be given the relief from terror that alcohol imparts.”
The notion of national emergency also handed the drys the keys to an arsenal of practical arguments easily draped in patriotic rhetoric. The month the United States entered the war, the distinguished (and passionately dry) Yale economist Irving Fisher assembled a group of famous Americans, few of them previously associated with the movement, to endorse the need for national Prohibition; the lineup included novelists Upton Sinclair and Booth Tarkington, aviation pioneer Orville Wright, and E. H. Gary, chairman of U.S. Steel. Then Fisher parlayed his (and their) renown by issuing an analysis of the damage being done to the war effort by the wanton waste of food resources. The same amount of barley used in American breweries could instead yield eleven million loaves of bread a day, Fisher said. Distinguished though he might have been (Fisher’s Theory of Interest is still considered a milestone in economic thought nearly eighty years after it was published), his numbers didn’t always parse; in Fisher’s writings, the eleven million figure sometimes denoted a wildly inflated count of American soldiers at the front, and his associates sometimes said the daily loaves of bread left unbaked by the brewers’ disloyalty numbered five million, not eleven. Whatever the precise figure, it was certainly sufficient to nourish the army and to feed the starving Belgians as well. “How can we justify the making of any part of our breadstuffs into intoxicating liquor,” Bryan asked, “when men are crying out for bread?” Anticipating the end of the war, the advent of Prohibition, and an inevitable grain surplus, Billy Sunday took a more cheerful approach. “The problem of what to do with the farm surplus will be solved in a jiffy,” Sunday said. “The children of drunkards will consume this surplus in the form of flap-jacks for breakfast.”
The brewers tried to counter with statistics, asserting at one point that the entire industry used less than three-quarters of 1 percent of the nation’s grain production. Even if accurate, it was a futile defense. The dry assault included attacks on the alcohol industry’s use of railroad stock, fuel oil, and other war necessities. “The people have been requested to have heatless days, meatless days, wheatless days,” Wayne Wheeler said in a letter to President Wilson. But, he continued, “the breweries and saloons of the country continue to waste foodstuffs, fuel and manpower and to impair the efficiency of labour in the mines, factories and even in munitions plants near which saloons are located.” In a full-page ad in the New York Times, Dr. Kellogg of Battle Creek said that the liquor interests, who “use more fuel than all schools and churches combined,” were “conspirators against the public welfare.”
Their political power catalyzed by these appeals to patriotism, congressional prohibitionists used the emergency to enact measures that didn’t require constitutional sanction. Wilson, who needed the drys’ support on a variety of his war initiatives, by and large stayed out of the way. Between April 1917 and November 1918—the length of the U.S. involvement in World War I—a series of “for the duration” laws, proclamations, and executive orders first outlawed the sale of alcohol to soldiers, then proscribed the importation of distilled spirits, and, in the landmark Lever Food and Fuel Control Act of 1917, forbade their manufacture as well. Dry zones were established around naval bases (sale of liquor was forbidden within five miles) and around coal mines, shipyards, and munitions plants. In the name of the war effort, Food Administrator Herbert Hoover (who at this point in his career opposed Prohibition) ordered the amount of grain available to the brewing industry reduced by 30 percent. Legal beer was limited to 2.75 percent alcohol by weight. Even Theodore Roosevelt, who had long dismissed prohibitionists as “extremists” and believed that they suffered “a particularly annoying form of egoistic lunacy,” sounded the dry trumpet: “When we must feed our army and help the armies of our allies,” Roosevelt wrote to the head of the Methodist Church’s Board of Temperance, Prohibition, and Public Morals, “not a bushel of grain should be permitted to be made into intoxicating liquor.”
All this was concurrent with another product of war that served dry interests: the radical reshaping of the powers and perceptions of the federal government, a process that would further diminish the shock of constitutional Prohibition. Distrust of federal power had, of course, made even some dedicated drys oppose the idea of a constitutional amendment. But Wilson’s expression and exaltation of national purpose, which provided a noble soundtrack for the federal government’s sudden leap into countless aspects of American life, would make the idea of federal enforcement of Prohibition no more alien than, say, the military draft. The war emergency handed proponents of government activism a hunting license. As Charles Merz put it in The Dry Decade, the wartime emergency enabled Wilson, with scant public opposition, to “seize railways, requisition factories, take over mines, fix prices, put an embargo on all exports, commandeer all ships, standardize all loaves of bread, punish all careless use of fuel, draft men for an army, and send that army to a war in France.” Compared to all that, closing down distilleries and breweries didn’t seem so radical at all.
THE WAR’S CLINCHING contribution to the dry cause arrived in February 1918, as the Eighteenth Amendment was beginning its journey through the state legislatures. “We have German enemies across the water,” a dry politician named John Strange told the Milwaukee Journal that month. “We have German enemies in this country too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz, and Miller.”
Strange’s call to arms was the preface to the Senate investigation of the German-American Alliance conceived, directed, and brilliantly exploited by Wayne B. Wheeler, an extravaganza that played out as the perfect accompaniment to the ratification campaign. Wheeler arranged for the appointment of the subcommittee that conducted the inquiry. He recruited the witnesses and bankrolled their expenses. But the stage for this final act of dry dramaturgy had been prepared by journalist George Creel, whom Wilson had placed at the head of a malignant propaganda body officially called the Committee of Public Information but known to critics as the “House of Truth.” Employing a tactic it may have borrowed from the ASL, Creel’s organization spread seventy-five thousand “Four Minute Men” throughout the country to advance the war cause in brief and usually inflammatory orations before every conceivable audience. Said Creel, “People do not live by bread alone; they live mostly by slogans.” He also told his men that fear was “an important element to be bred in the civilian population.” When the fear was attached to all things German, it proceeded to breed like an out-of-control virus.
Soon Red Cross leaders were claiming that German-Americans had penetrated their organization and were putting ground glass in bandages meant for U.S. troops. Addressing the members of the Union League Club in New York, Elihu Root—former secretary of state, former secretary of war, Nobel Peace Prize winner, recently retired U.S. Senator—said, “There are men walking about the streets of this city who ought to be taken out at sunrise and shot for treason.” In his infamous “Babel Proclamation,” Governor William L. Harding of Iowa declared speaking German in public or on the telephone unlawful. German books were burned in Wisconsin, playing Beethoven in public was banned in Boston, and throughout the country foodstuffs and street names of German origin were denatured by benign Anglo-Saxonisms. Nearly ninety years before french fries became freedom fries during the Iraq War, sauerkraut became liberty cabbage and, in an odd homage to the president, Cincinnati’s Berlin Street became Woodrow Street. “Cotton Tom” Heflin of Alabama, who could always be counted on to transcend the limits of ordinary, everyday bias, said, “We must execute the Huns within our gates. The firing squad is the only solution for these perverts and renegades.”
The most horrifying single example of anti-German hysteria was described by historian David M. Kennedy in Over Here, his history of the home front during World War I:
Near St. Louis in April 1918, a mob seized Robert Prager, a young man whose only discernible offense was to have been born in Germany. He had, in fact, tried to enlist in the American Navy but had been rejected for medical reasons. Stripped, bound with an American flag, dragged barefoot and stumbling through the streets, Prager was eventually lynched to the lusty cheers of five hundred patriots. A trial of the mob’s leaders followed, in which the defendants wore red, white, and blue ribbons to court, and the defense counsel called their deed “patriotic murder.” The jury took twenty-five minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.
As anti-German passions raged, Wheeler married them to his own cause. The German-American Alliance made it an easy coupling. Founded in 1901 to promote unity among Americans of German birth or extraction, it had been transformed by the Prohibition issue into the brewers’ most prominent and powerful ally. The GAA held the line on suffrage as well: “Our German women do not want the right to vote,” the Nebraska chapter asserted in 1914, “and since our opponents desire the right of suffrage mainly for the purpose of saddling the yoke of prohibition on our necks, we should oppose it with all our might.” By 1914, GAA membership approached two million, and its political clout in some places, especially the large cities of the Midwest, was commensurate with its size. But then the guns of August rang out, and by 1917 the GAA had been identified by Wheeler as an organization whose “leaders urge its members to vote only for those who stand for Germanism and oppose Prohibition.” “Germanism” meant anti-Americanism, and by Wheeler’s conflation, it also meant “wet.”
Wheeler knew he had scored a kill from the moment the Senate hearings opened with his star witness, Gustavus Ohlinger. A Toledo lawyer of Swedish and German extraction, in 1915 Ohlinger had published Their True Faith and Allegiance, a tract that had identified first- and second-generation German-Americans as “prophets of disunion.” (His own family, Ohlinger boasted, had “been in this country for 250 years.”) “Before he had testified 20 minutes the committee was on fire,” Wheeler told Purley Baker. Baker must have been thrilled. He believed Germans were “a race of people . . . who eat like gluttons and drink like swine.”
From that moment forward a steady sequence of congressional reports and administrative rulings initiated and then publicized by Wheeler and the ASL consigned the brewers to their final defeat. The first set of hearings alone produced more than seven hundred pages of subpoenaed documents. It was conclusively established that the United States Brewers’ Association had funded the Washington office of the German-American Alliance and that annual support for the GAA was the third largest item in the USBA’s annual budget, after salaries and publications. When the brewers captured control of the American Association of Foreign-Language Newspapers, they provided prepackaged editorials attacking Prohibition and implicitly supported a 1915 editorial campaign against war-preparedness spending. When the names of the brewers who had staked Arthur Brisbane to the Washington Times and had funded other wet papers were revealed, the list read like a page from the Munich telephone book. During the war, it turned out, the Anheuser-Busch Company had cabled nearly $300,000 in cash to Adolphus Busch’s widow, who remained at Villa Lilly with her daughter Wilhelmina, caring for wounded German soldiers. News that the Busch family held a million dollars in German war bonds was not mitigated by the fact that they had been purchased before the United States entered the war. The blacklist of American corporations the brewers had boycotted was duly subpoenaed, leaked, and then published, along with reams of other documents from the USBA’s files that had nothing to do with Germany and the war, but everything to do with the chronic depravity of the beer kings.
The brewers had not been unaware of the war’s threat to their welfare. As early as 1914 the Anheuser-Busch executive committee had considered removing German names from their labels (they did remove them from bottles sold in Australia and Canada). August A. Busch, Adolphus’s son and heir, took to wearing a small American flag button in his lapel and ordered the removal of portraits of German heroes that decorated the walls of the company’s plants. More substantively, Gustave Pabst’s son Henry, among many other members of brewery families, enlisted in the marines; the Busch family contributed half a million dollars to the U.S. war effort; and a group of Milwaukee brewers purchased $2 million in Liberty Bonds.
But none of this mattered. The hearings had branded the brewers’ underhanded tactics as outright disloyalty. When the Newark brewer Christian Feigenspan was called before the Senate committee, he could offer only a faint, weary explanation of how it had all gone wrong. A long-serving president of the USBA, Feigenspan was cultured and capable, among the best the brewing industry had to offer. But the ASL’s onslaught against all things German had brought him to his knees. Trying to explain what had led the brewers to engage in their various subterfuges and misdeeds, Feigenspan offered a preposterous, even shameless, explanation. He said Percy Andreae, the brewers’ chief publicist, had “hypnotized our convention one year”—a convention of some of America’s most powerful businessmen—and thereby won the authorization to conduct his covert campaign.
This sounded more like an acknowledgment of defeat than the roar of the powerful enemy Purley A. Baker evoked that fall. “Does anyone doubt,” Baker asked an ASL conference in Columbus, “in the light of the immediate past, that if there had not been a strong, virile Prohibition movement to combat the propaganda of this disloyal but well-financed organization, that America would have been sufficiently Germanized to have kept her out of the war?”
ON JANUARY 8, 1918, the thirty-three members of the Mississippi state senate and the ninety-six members of the state house gathered in Jackson to vote on the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The vote, which proceeded without debate, took exactly fifteen minutes, passing 28–5 in the upper house and 93–3 in the lower one. Mississippi was much more agreeable to this second constitutional amendment ever to place limits on individual behavior than it was to the first one. It didn’t get around to ratifying that one—the Thirteenth, abolishing slavery—until 1995.
As the accumulating ratification votes would soon establish, the rapidly expanding (and usually wet) urban populations were rendered irrelevant by the anti-German hysteria and also by geography and demography. Richmond Hobson had asserted in a strategy brief four years earlier that because the major cities were concentrated in relatively few states, the seemingly daunting challenge of winning approval in thirty-six separate state legislatures would be much easier than winning two-thirds margins in Congress. You could conceivably write off the twelve most urbanized states—the Connecticuts, the New Jerseys, the Pennsylvanias—and still achieve ratification.
But even Hobson could not have imagined how smoothly ratification would proceed—“as if a sailing-ship on a windless ocean were speeding ahead, propelled by some invisible force,” said the New York Tribune. Had the Tribune editors looked more closely, they would have realized that the “invisible force” was actually an obvious one: the universal malapportionment of state legislatures. Forty-four years later, in what Chief Justice Earl Warren called “the most important case of my tenure,” the Supreme Court would decide that legislative seats had to be apportioned according to the principle of one man, one vote. But in 1918 the legislatures, and thus the ratification process, were rigged. The ASL’s demonization of the brewers as disloyal servants of the Kaiser had softened the remaining opposition; the makeup of the state legislatures buried it.
You could find many reasons for legislative malapportionment: the inherent peculiarities of many state constitutions; the intrastate conflict arising from the shrinking population of the countryside and the booming growth of the cities; the eternal unwillingness of those in power to yield it. But in terms of Prohibition, there was only one consequence: this distortion of democracy was a blessing for the dry cause. In New York, for example, the legislature was configured in such a fashion that an urban assemblyman might represent seven times as many people as the rural representative at the next desk. Put another way, in choosing members of the state assembly, the vote of a farmer from upstate Preston Hollow—more than likely native born, Republican, and dry—was equivalent to the vote of seven Democratic, Irish-American wets from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. In New Jersey, where each member of the state senate represented a single county irrespective of population, the man from Cape May County served just 19,640 constituents, while his colleague from Essex County represented 652,089.* The farmers and fishermen who controlled Maryland’s legislature had conspired to avoid any redistricting since 1867; in the intervening decades, while the population of urban, ethnic Baltimore had jumped 175 percent, the population in the rest of the state had increased only 46 percent. By 1918 democracy in Maryland had been imprisoned for half a century.
That these were not necessarily anomalies became clear as the race to ratification accelerated through 1918 and into early 1919. Statewide wet majorities were rendered irrelevant by the rotten-borough legislatures. The very same day the citizens of Missourirejected a dry amendment to the state constitution by a margin of 47 percent dry to 53 percent wet, they elected a legislature that just two months later would ratify the Eighteenth Amendment by a 75 percent to 25 percent margin. In Ohio, the sacred cradle of the ASL, legislative districting and assiduous politicking put ratification over by a combined legislative vote of 105–42; however, when left to their own devices, Ohio voters rejected the very same measure in a referendum.
Not that it did them any good: as Hobson had written, “once ratified, always ratified.” Under Article V of the Constitution the legislatures, however misshapen by rural domination, had the authority to enact constitutional Prohibition, and they did so with the speed of an epidemic, immune from referenda or gubernatorial vetoes. Setting aside Connecticut (population 67 percent Catholic) and Rhode Island (76 percent Catholic), both of which held out and refused to ratify, more than 80 percent of the nation’s state legislators voted dry. Generally speaking the more rural the state, the more arid the vote: among the six states whose legislatures were unanimous for ratification were Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The only one of the six with any substantial urban presence was Washington, hardly an urban stronghold.
On January 16, 1919, when Nebraska’s lower house went 98–0 for Prohibition (three days earlier one lone state senator out of the chamber’s thirty-two had demurred), the Eighteenth Amendment was embedded in the United States Constitution. From the moment of submission it had taken 394 days to meet the approval of thirty-six state legislatures—less than half as long as it had taken eleven of the first fourteen states to approve the Bill of Rights.
THE OPENING CLAUSE of the Eighteenth Amendment—“After one year from the ratification of this article . . .”—meant that life in the United States was no different on January 17, 1919, from what it had been on January 15. This didn’t stop people from airing their reactions. H. L. Mencken sold his 1915 Studebaker and told his friend Ernest Boyd that he “invested the proceeds in alcohol.” William Jennings Bryan passed the time reading congratulatory telegrams. A woman in Missouri received a letter from her fiancé, a captain in the 129th Field Artillery, still with the U.S. Army near Verdun in northeastern France. “It looks to me like the moonshine business is going to be pretty good in the land of the Liberty Loans and Green Trading Stamps,” thirty-four-year-old Harry S. Truman wrote to Bess Wallace, “and some of us want to get in on the ground floor. At least we want to get there in time to lay in a supply for future consumption.”
Truman couldn’t have been serious—at least not terribly serious—but his perception was on target. The experience of states that had already gone dry suggested there was a large and liquid gulf between how people voted and how they drank. Washington banned the in-state sale of liquor in 1916 but allowed individuals with permits to import it from other states; 34,000 permits were issued in Spokane County, where there were only 44,000 registered voters. Kansas had been officially dry since 1880, but enough saloons were operating under the protection of corrupt or lenient politicians for Carry Nation to have fashioned a career from their presence.
The most vivid example of thirsty behavior in a Prohibition desert played out in the month immediately after ratification, as Congress prepared to enact the legislation that would engrave into law the procedures, penalties, appropriations, exceptions, and hundreds of other necessary details that the 112 words of the Eighteenth Amendment didn’t begin to address. After Michigan went bone dry in 1918 (the referendum that passed in 1916 didn’t go into effect until then), you couldn’t buy liquor in the state legally. But U.S. Highway 25, running from Dry Detroit to Wet Toledo, was so convenient for smugglers that it became known as the “Avenue de Booze.” When a court decision made the liquor traffic along its sixty miles temporarily legal in February 1919, the Detroit News described “two almost continuous streams” of cars pouring along its length. “Those bound Detroitward and loaded to capacity with Toledo liquor” had their “rear fenders almost scraping the tires”; those going south were empty, ready to load up. “Wrecked automobiles dotted the length of the highway after the mad rush of Wednesday night,” the paper noted.
Detroiters who were parched but carless “stormed” Toledo-bound interurban streetcars in the “thousands,” the News reported, carrying “cheap, dirty suitcases, paper parcels, oil cans, bags and boxes” to fill up in Ohio and then tote back home. On the return trip, the Toledo train station was so crowded that would-be passengers “shouldered their heavy burdens and trudged three miles along the tracks to the city limits, only to find the incoming cars were jammed with new arrivals.” After the governor of Michigan obtained a court injunction and heavily armed state police and federal agents were stationed on the highway (in the appropriately named border town of Temperance, Michigan), it was finally “safe for an innocent motorist to venture out on the highway . . . without being crowded into the ditch or trampled down by liquor runners.”*
The Michigan experience suggested that only the hopelessly naïve believed that the moonshine business, the smuggling business, and any other form of illegal trade in alcohol would evaporate in the glorious sunlight of Prohibition. Men planning to get in on what Truman called “the ground floor” tended not to record their thoughts in letters that would be preserved in scholarly archives, but certainly they realized the opportunity that lay ahead of them. Back in the original debate over the Hobson Amendment, wet representative J. Campbell Cantrill of Kentucky had said the measure was effectively “a resolution legalizing the manufacture of intoxicating liquor without taxation,” a privilege the legal distillers and brewers had never enjoyed. For those willing to risk the perils of unlawful activity, selling liquor without having to pay state or federal taxes was a business model of considerable appeal. Vastly enhanced profit margins could underwrite a lot of the overhead associated with lawbreaking—for instance, the cost of corrupting police, judges, politicians, and anyone else remotely involved in enforcement. William Howard Taft, serving as a professor of law at Yale during the interval between his presidency and his eventual appointment as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, said, “The business of manufacturing alcohol, liquor and beer will go out of the hands of law-abiding members of the community, and will be transferred to the quasi criminal class.” The only ill-chosen word in that sentence was “quasi.”
THE MAN WHOSE legislative skills were called upon to prevent the realization of Taft’s prediction was Andrew John Volstead, whose name would forever be attached to Prohibition as if it were an especially cheerless leit-motif in a Wagnerian opera. In Webster’s unabridged Third New International Dictionary, “volsteadism” was still defined in the 1996 printing as “the doctrine of or adherence to prohibition.” The word is much better remembered than the man.
He might not have minded, for Volstead did not seek attention; his sponsorship of the legislation required to enforce the Eighteenth Amendment thrust attention upon him. Born Andreas Joseph Vraalstad in 1859, the son of Norwegian immigrants, he was about as colorful as the snow that each winter blanketed his hometown of Granite Falls, Minnesota, and no more eager for the spotlight than a cloistered monk. “He had few inferiors when it came to dealing with the newspaper correspondents,” one of them wrote, and Volstead would not have argued the point. He found press attention so disagreeable he once ran across the White House lawn to avoid being photographed. Volstead chewed cut-plug tobacco and indulged in the occasional glass of homemade chokecherry wine, but that was about as far from the straight and narrow as he would wander. He even wore a tie while tending the peonies in the garden of his wood-frame home in Granite Falls.
After serving fourteen years as the Yellow Medicine County prosecuting attorney, Volstead entered Congress in 1903 and generally aligned himself with the progressive, prosuffrage, pro–income tax wing of the Republican Party. He had been in the House sixteen years before assuming the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee and, therefore, responsibility for the National Prohibition Act, which was the formal name of the legislation that would turn the Eighteenth Amendment’s stark declarations into a code of enforcement. Volstead’s one distinguishing physical characteristic was a broom of a mustache so luxuriant it reached his lower lip and made his face one of the most recognizable in the Capitol. But because of the duty that fell to him, both history and his wet colleagues in Washington saw something else when they looked at him. James A. Reed of Missouri—the most eloquent, most aggressive, most vituperative, and wettest wet in the Senate—said, “I have gazed upon pictures of the celebrated conspirators of the past,” the leaders of “fanatical crusades, the burners of witches, the executioners who applied the torch of persecution, and I saw them all again when I looked at” the congressman from Granite Falls. Of course, Reed also said that Volstead was foreign-born and “speaks a very broken English,” so it’s somewhat understandable that he got everything else about him wrong, too.
Volstead was indeed a dry, but not a terribly vociferous one. He’d never delivered a speech on the subject and never joined the ASL. The Prohibition Party twice put up candidates to run against him. But he recognized “the vast movement that has gone on in this country in the last few years,” and he believed in the rule of law. The Constitution had turned against liquor, and after the Sixty-sixth Congress opened for business in March 1919, Volstead did his best to implement the sacred document’s intentions.
The legislative process that turned the Volstead Act into law encompassed all the elements that had come to characterize Prohibition’s progress in Washington: the unshirted zealotry of the dry-drys, the winking compromises of the wet-drys, the general irrelevance of wets of every degree of dampness, and the canny tactical decisions of Wayne Wheeler. It incorporated the semantic tap dancing that could imbue a single, uninflected word with a meaning that would affect the lives of millions, and it accommodated political dissimulations even Wheeler would come to regret.
The sixty-seven separate sections of the Volstead Act indicated the breadth of its concerns and at the same time suggested how many different parties had a stake in it. The final bill covered everything from the definition of “intoxicating” (its single most crucial sentence) to whether de-alcoholized beer could still be called beer or “near beer” (it could not) to whether a foreign ship would be allowed to pass through the Panama Canal if it carried a few bottles of rum for its crew (it would, but only if it was in transit from one foreign country to another and wouldn’t be visiting a U.S. port along the way). Parties of interest weighing in on the law ranged from rabbinical associations fearful of a ban on sacramental wine to the Farm Bureau to the nation’s manufacturers of hair tonic, flavor extracts, industrial dyes, and men’s hats. And, most crucially, the Anti-Saloon League.
Popular accounts have long attributed the bill’s authorship to Wheeler, partly because his eulogists wanted to credit him with it and partly because it was unimaginable that he wouldn’t have commandeered the process. In fact Wheeler did fashion a version of a Prohibition enforcement law out of a number of existing state laws and presented it to Volstead and to the measure’s Senate sponsors. But Volstead, who found Wheeler’s draft “too loosely drawn” and possibly vulnerable to court challenges, spent several months crafting a measure so tight that not one of its provisions was ever deemed unconstitutional. Even though Wheeler may have spent nearly as much time in the committee room as many of its members, he never claimed sole authorship of the act. Grilled by hostile wets during a Senate hearing several years later, he was asked if he had dictated the various amendments to the bill as it passed through Congress. Wheeler replied, “Only in part.”
The parts he seemed to care about most were the section enumerating the acts deemed criminal and the one that defined “intoxicating liquors.” What was carefully kept out of the criminal code was any specific proscription against drinking or buying alcohol; savvy drys knew that without this enormous carve-out no user would ever testify against his supplier. Wheeler also got what he wanted in the definition of “intoxicating liquors,” the vague formulation he and his allies had inserted (instead of “alcoholic beverages”) in the amendment itself. This conscious dodge had enabled fence-sitters, conflict avoiders, and wishful thinkers to support the amendment in the hope that the eventual definition would leave room for some of the milder forms of liquid stimulation. Herbert Hoover, virtually a national hero because of his leadership of the wartime Food Administration, said he didn’t think it was possible for a man to get drunk on beer that was 2.75 percent alcohol.
But now the drys had a much smaller mountain to climb. To pass the Volstead Act they needed only a majority in each house of Congress, rather than two-thirds of each house plus three-quarters of the state legislatures. The prudence that had replaced “alcoholic beverages” with “intoxicating liquors” in the text of the Eighteenth Amendment could now be cast aside. “Alcoholic” was not something that could have been argued; anything containing alcohol was alcoholic, and Wheeler believed that if the word had been included in the text of the Eighteenth Amendment, the amendment would have died in Congress. Now, though, Wheeler’s hammer came down on a stunningly severe definition of “intoxicating”—anything ingestible that contained more than 0.5 percent alcohol. This proscribed the lightest of wines, the most diluted forms of beer, and, if you really wanted to get serious about it, the naturally occurring fermentation that takes place in some recipes for sauerkraut (up to 0.8 percent alcohol) and German chocolate cake (0.62 percent). After this definition of “intoxicating” was established, a House Judiciary Committee report said, “No one who supported this amendment had in mind that there could be any question as to the meaning of the term.” On the contrary: its appeal to Wheeler and his allies when they inserted the term into the amendment had been its exquisite vagueness. Less vague was the meaning of “beverage,” at least to Representative Nicholas Longworth of Ohio, a future Speaker of the House with little patience for Prohibition. He said a beverage was “anything you can eat with a sponge.”
Apart from his insistence on the strict definition of the word that was the Eighteenth Amendment’s fulcrum, Wheeler displayed a surprising willingness to compromise on other aspects of the Volstead Act and to accommodate exceptions that would render it less than absolute. Having won the larger war, taking prisoners wasn’t at the top of his agenda. Wheeler wasn’t going to win meaningful support for the bill by accommodating the religious practices of the nation’s Jews and Catholics; they had been nearly unanimous in their opposition to Prohibition. But the delegation of Orthodox rabbis who called on Volstead (much to the later dismay of the Reform rabbinate) nonetheless came away with continued access to sacramental wine for their congregants, as did the Catholic Church. Many hard-line drys wanted to deny physicians the right to prescribe alcohol, but this, too, wasn’t worth the fight. No one questioned the need for the continued production of industrial alcohol for its many critical and/or popular uses, and if the enabling regulations were too loose, they could be tightened later. In a nod to those who had invested in their personal cellars (including various dry senators and representatives), Wheeler agreed to a clause that allowed individuals to continue to own, and to drink in their own homes, alcohol purchased before the Eighteenth Amendment’s effective date.
Wheeler was so obliging he even allowed a single exception to the definition of “intoxicating”—in this case not because of a sudden fit of permissiveness, but because he had little choice. America’s rural population and its elected representatives had nourished and sustained so much of the Prohibition crusade that ignoring their interests might have made passage of an effective enforcement act impossible. As a result, Section 29 of the Volstead Act specifically exempted cider and other “fruit juices” that just might happen to acquire an alcoholic tinge through the natural processes of fermentation. They were not subject to the 0.5 ceiling but to a determination of whether they were “intoxicating in fact”—a condition, said the very dry and very rural Senator Thomas Sterling of South Dakota, “for the jury to determine in any given case.” As intended by Wheeler and Volstead, and as later interpreted by the courts, the law made home manufacture of hard cider perfectly acceptable. No husbandman would be denied the barrel by the homestead door, the jug stashed in a corner of the field, the comforting warmth on cold country nights. One dry honest enough to object to this dodge, Alben Barkley of Kentucky, noted that if it was legal to transform the juice of the apple into something stronger, then “Why not corn juice?”
Several years later, alighting on a justification for his departure from dry orthodoxy, Wheeler explained—apparently with a straight face—that the exception was meant to “enable the farmers and housewives of the country to conserve their fruits.”
DID IT MATTER that the Volstead Act failed to provide a judicial procedure other than jury trial for anyone accused of any violation, dooming the federal court system to an unremitting fourteen-year flood of petty cases? Did it matter that the army of federal agents hired to enforce the act would not be part of the civil service because Andrew Volstead, among others, feared that civil service protection would guarantee “the offices would be filled with Wets that we could not get rid of”? Did it matter that the total initial appropriation for federal enforcement of this radical and far-reaching new law amounted to $2.1 million, or slightly less than the amount paid in one day a few months later for muskrat pelts at the St. Louis fur auction?
Not really. By the time the Volstead Act became law, the drys had become giddy in their political dominance and confident they would retain power sufficient to correct any errors or omissions. They believed that their cause had been sanctified by the long, long march to ratification, that it had truly been a people’s movement every bit as glorious as any other in the nation’s history. They were not alone in this belief, and they found strong defenders when their enemies attributed the movement’s success to manipulation or deceit. “Prohibition was written into the Constitution with as much deliberation as attended the enactment of any amendment to the Constitution,” wrote Felix Frankfurter of Harvard Law School. It was, he added, “the culmination of fifty years of continuous effort.” Those who had organized to oppose it—the brewers, chiefly—had in fact been far more deceitful than the worst of the drys. “Pressure groups are our oldest political inheritance,” said Wayne Wheeler, whose expertise on the nature of pressure groups was underscored by the fact that it was he who had coined the term. “They are lineal descendants of the group of barons who met King John at Runnymede” and crafted the Magna Carta.
Disorganized, dysfunctional, and disbelieving, the wets had watched the approach of Prohibition, said the San Francisco Wholesalers’ and Retailers’ Review, “in a dumb stupor.” Now they had to adjust. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who did not employ men who drank but who had long owned an interest in the Old Overholt rye distillery, thoughtfully began to distribute his own reserves of Overholt to his pals while it was still legal; Senator Philander C. Knox of Pennsylvania, who had voted in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment, took receipt of twenty cases. In St. Louis, the Busch family stepped up production of a nonalcoholic “cereal beverage” called Bevo; by 1919 state laws and the various wartime codes had already cut sales of their intoxicating brands by 80 percent. In New York, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Delano Roosevelt had four cases of Old Reserve delivered to his townhouse on East Sixty-fifth Street—which, he told a friend, “is for the time being at least on the ‘wet’ list.”
But perhaps more important than the celebrations of the drys or the adjustments of the wets was the stirring of activity in some quarters that had remained untouched by the decades of debate. Consider, for instance, the bustle in the Canadian prairie town of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, where Harry Bronfman, the thirty-three-year-old operator of the local railroad hotel, opened something called the Canada Pure Drug Company in a ramshackle warehouse building next door at 29 Front Street. Now, on Christmas Day 1919, only twenty-two days before the Great Dry Future was to begin 160 miles to the south, Harry and his younger brother Sam prepared to stock the shelves of the “drug company.” Across Front Street, in the Canadian Pacific Railway freight shed, five carloads of Scotch whiskey were waiting to be unloaded.
In 1921 Andrew J. Volstead, who was a realistic man, told his House colleague John Nance Garner that although “we will gradually work out the machinery that will, with the cooperation of the states, make the country dry, we cannot hope that this law can be enforced so as not to be violated. All laws will be violated.”
If he had only known. Over the next decade, the product of eighty years of marching, praying, arm-twisting, vote trading, and law drafting would be subjected to a plague of trials, among them hypocrisy, greed, murderous criminality, official corruption, and the unreformable impulses of human desire. Another way of saying it (and it was said often in the 1920s): the drys had their law, and the wets would have their liquor.
* Because the lower house of the legislature was apportioned by population, New Jersey found itself in the odd position of having its senate voting to ratify, its lower house against. This wasn’t resolved until the latter body came around in 1922, ratifying the Eighteenth Amendment two years after it had been put into effect.
* The most prominent of the early Detroit smugglers were the Billingsley brothers of Oklahoma, a family of criminal operators who had set up operations in Michigan shortly after statewide Prohibition was established. The youngest of the Billingsleys, Sherman, opened one of the plushest New York speakeasies, the Stork Club, a few years after his release from a fifteen-month sentence in the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
Among the suspected smugglers arrested during the Toledo frenzy was a young Detroit delicatessen owner, Sam Boesky. Sam’s son Ivan, who would become the most notorious stock market operator convicted in the insider-trading scandals of the 1980s, called one of the firms he set up to handle his market activity Farnsworth & Hastings Ltd.—a name he took from the location of the deli Sam ran (and from which the police believed he sold contraband liquor) at the corner of Farnsworth and Hastings streets in Detroit’s East Side Jewish ghetto.