The Anti-Saloon League was the political arm of the Prohibition movement, one of the most successful single-issue lobbies in U.S. history, the first to call itself a “pressure group,” the first to use a “wedge issue” — wet or dry, no middle ground.
They had the power to elect dry candidates and defeat anyone who was even a little bit damp. By 1920, they had elected enough dry Congresspeople, U..S. Senators, state legislators, governors, town councilors, and county sheriffs to pass a Prohibition Amedment to the U.S. Constitution, and the Volstead Act. a draconian federal enforcement act that made practically every citizen a criminal.
It started in Oberlin, Ohio, and was led by two Oberlin College graduates, which is my alma mater .
Oberlin is proud of its history of progressive activism that goes back to its beginning in 1833. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad, the first college to grant A.B. degrees to women, and ordain women for the ministry. That heritage continues unbroken to this day, and the College uses it as a “selling point” in its institutional publicity.
There is less official bragging about the major role Oberlin played in the Prohibition movement for decades leading up to ratification of the 18th (Prohibition) Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. How does this cause fit with the liberal, humanitarian causes we’re so proud of?
Rev. Stephen Hoffman, Oberlin ’69, and pastor emeritus of St. John’s Church (UCC) of Chambersburg, Pa., said Prohibition was a progressive movement in the 1800’s, the answer to a long list of social problems: poverty, domestic violence, abuse, and neglect, street crime, public corruption, sloth, and unemployment.
“In reaction to Calvinist thinking, which focused on the total depravity of man – and all but a select few going to Hell – Charles Grandison Finney, influenced by Methodism, taught that humans could be pushed closer to perfection. This really freaked out orthodox Calvinists. It was very left wing in the 1830’s,” Rev. Hoffman said.
Finney and his associates encouraged social uplift in many forms: abolition of slavery, equal rights, women’s education and suffrage, and temperance. Temperance included Sabbath-keeping, so people would not be made to work seven days a week. For awhile, the college excluded students who did not keep the Sabbath. Temperance also included a healthy diet, based on whole grain with little or no meat, Rev. Hoffman said.
Rev. Sylvester Graham, an early advocate of temperate diets, ran the Oberlin food service, Rev. Hoffman said. Home-baked bread from dark, coarse, whole wheat was superior to factory-made white bread, which the privileged classes considered a status symbol. Graham did not last long at Oberlin because too many students started elating off campus, Hoffman said. Today, he is best remembered as the inventor of the “Graham cracker.”
Ken Burns, whose documentary Prohibition appeared on PBS in October, 2011, said the same thing about this optimistic strain of 19th Century Protestantism in an interview without the Oberlin-specific references.
Howard Hyde Russell, an Iowa attorney and politician who experienced a religious conversion in 1883, graduated the Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1888. That year, he and the leading citizens of the town and college faculty lobbied the Ohio legislature for a “local option” law, to allow townships to vote themselves dry. Russell organized that citizen’s lobby into the Anti-Saloon League (ASL), the first grassroots movement to call itself a “pressure group.” It became the political arm of the national temperance movement
The temperance movement had been around since the 1820’s, but it was unfocused and poorly led, Daniel Okrent says in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) also advocated vegetarianism and public ownership of utilities. The new Prohibition Party also advocated forest conservation and post office reform. Russell and his top associate, Oberlin graduate Wayne B. Wheeler, declared the ASL would be interested only in laws against alcohol.
Wayne B. Wheeler, born in 1869, was “reborn” in 1893, during a temperance lecture by Russell. He had worked his way through Oberlin College as a waiter, janitor, teacher, and salesman. He became one of ASL’s first full-time employees. He invented the term “pressure group,” and most of the political strategies and tactics pressure groups use to this day.
Okrent says the ASL was “the most effective grassroots lobby up to that time.” He and his book were major sources for Ken Burns’s Prohibition.
Prior to 1913, ASL focused on state and local prohibition laws. Until passage of a federal income tax in 1913, liquor tax was the federal government’s largest source of revenue. National prohibition was too far-fetched to consider or advocate. Writing in Our Day, ASL’s national publication, Russell held Oberlin up as a successful, replicable model of local prohibition.
“As with anti-slavery, so with anti-saloon reform, Oberlin has been a pioneer. What was achieved there is likewise possible for you, my friend, in your village or city. Intemperance and its treatment are largely local questions. The problem is how to keep men from alcohol, and alcohol from men, in each locality,” he wrote.
Russell writes that the first saloon opened in Oberlin in 1875. The brewers supported it by providing free beer for a year. Mass meetings at First Church, and committees of businessmen, women, and college faculty, sent a delegation that convinced the owner his business was not welcome, and would not succeed in their town.
In 1876, the town’s four druggists signed a pledge not to sell alcohol after visits from similar committees. Many drug stores were thinly disguised liquor stores in those days, Okrent says.
In 1881, four saloons opened simultaneously in different parts of town, Russell writes in Our Day. When persuasion failed with the owners, groups of women, faculty, and leading citizens handed out temperance literature inside the bars and near the doors. They appealed to customers not to drink.
“One by one, the beer sellers yielded to the consecrated [cq] persistency of the Oberlin citizens,” Russell writes.
Later, a liquor dealer from Cleveland rented space for a wholesale business and bottling works, Russell says. He met with aggressive opposition, and another committee convinced him to give up the plan.
One of the druggists who signed the 1876 agreement sold, or pretended to sell, his store. “They began the promiscuous sale of liquor in 1883,” Russell says. It turned out to be the last battle for temperance forces in Oberlin.
In a fiery sermon, Rev. James Brand of First Church called the store “a whiskey shop in the guise of a drug store, kept by an utterly unprincipled man…perfectly rotten in character. He has insulted and slandered the businessmen of Oberlin [and] twice laid his ruffian hands on one delicate Christian woman, and pushed her with violence out the door, simply for distributing, in a quiet way, temperance literature to the men and boys who had become his willing victims. He is a corrupter of youth.”
When the sermon was printed in the Oberlin News, the druggist sued for libel. Knowing he could not win in Lorain County, Russell writes, the druggist served the publisher in Cleveland. Three trials produced three hung juries, and the druggist dropped the case. The Temperance Alliance of Oberlin paid the attorney fees and other expenses, Russell writes. After that, there were no more attempts to sell liquor openly in Oberlin, Russell says.
With the income tax in place, popular election n of Senators, and women voting more and more, the Prohibition movement developed the political strength and savvy to elect U.S. Congressmen and Senators. Wheeler engineered it by inventing what we now call “the wedge issue.” Wet or dry the only issue in every election from Congress to town selectman. There was no middle ground. Think of the abortion fight today.
Wheeler drove that wedge between populations across the entire social landscape, and played “us and them” politics as well or better than Sarah Palin:
- “Real Americans” live in small towns or on farms, which are bastions of good values. Cities are corrupt, riddled with dirty politicians, and unwashed immigrants, who brought their stinking drinking habits to America.
- In the South, he allied with white racists, including the Ku Klux Klan, who said alcohol made black people more lazy, lecherous, and violent than they already were.
- Rural Protestants were drier than urban Catholics.
- In the run-up to World War I, the League joined the anti-German hysteria. German Americans drank a lot of beer, and produced practically all of it: Annheuser, Busch, Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and countless local breweries that no longer exist.
Okrent sees a strong parallel between Prohibition and today’s War on Drugs. Both started as noble attempts to improve society, and cure a social evil. Both failed. Both had major unintended consequences that damaged whole societies. And both produced murderous criminal conspiracies that grew rich and powerful enough to corrupt whole governments, assassinate people they could not corrupt, and out-general and out-gun law enforcement agencies of entire countries. Both also pressured government to keep their illegal product illegal and expensive.
Interviews with Rev. Stephen Hoffman and Ken Burns
Okrent, Daniel, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibtion, 2010, Scribner, 486 pp.
Russell, Howard Hyde, writing in Our Day, in the digitized archives of the Anti-Saloon League, housed at Ohio State University
Ken Braiterman ’69 is a writer living in Concord, NH. He can be reached at Kenbrait@gmail.com, or his website www.kenbraiterman.com