Progressives’ Prohibition

“I have often taken cigars and cigarettes out of men’s and boys’ mouths,” wrote the ax-wielding anti-saloon hacktivist Carrie A. Nation. “I wished to show them the wrong and that I was a friend.” Finding her name providential, the practitioner of “hatchetation” self-righteously smashed up bars as though she were God’s earthly agent.

Today’s crusaders against Four Loko, Joe Camel, and Happy Meals don’t see themselves in the most caricatured prohibitionist. Instead, they imagine the fanatical Carrie A. Nation as an ancestor of their ideological enemies. People who don’t know themselves can hardly be expected to trace their lineage. 

Public Broadcasting Service viewers have been treated this past week to the debut of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary “Prohibition.” The talking heads decry “the religious fundamentalist root of the prohibition argument” and ridicule hypocrites “who supported prohibition” but “didn’t believe in government spending” to enforce it. They can’t escape their politics. But they can’t escape history, either.

“People commonly think of prohibition as a conservative movement—not at all,” historian William Leuchtenburg remarks during the five-hour documentary. “It was a movement that was embraced by progressives.”

The documentary emphasizes the interchangeability between the suffragists and prohibitionists. It doesn’t quite capture how the dry cause ran with the current of the progressive era rather than against it. Crusades to save the world with democracy, to save future generations through eugenics, and to save the slum through social-gospel missionaries echoed prohibition’s redemptive rhetoric to rescue the drunk. It is a wonder that people so obsessed with their fellow man’s imperfections actually fell for visions of human perfectibility.     

The arduous process of changing the Constitution makes it impossible for any idea to be ratified as an amendment without support transcending faction. Progressives weren’t the only actors cast in the prohibitionist drama. But they played the starring role.

The muckrakers writing for McClure’s and Colliers averted their downward gaze from Big Oil and Big Railroads towards Big Booze, with Upton Sinclair’s The Wet Parade seeking to caricature liquor interests the way The Jungle had undermined Chicago meatpackers. The Wobblies, countering most of organized labor, pushed prohibition. So did The Masses, the journal of the supposedly gay and carefree Greenwich Village Left. Its hard-Left successor, The New Masses, peddled prohibitionist literature. Dry articles in The New Republic and The Nation exponentially outnumbered wet ones. Proponents of the Social Gospel, such as Jane Addams and the Federal Council of Churches, might have jailed an early 20th-century Jesus had he dared turn water into wine.

Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of the navy banned booze aboard ships. Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, the populist rock star who famously implored Democrats to ditch the gold standard, refused to serve booze at diplomatic functions (perhaps helping to explain the subsequent diplomatic breakdown). He later even suggested revoking the passports of Americans who imbibed abroad. Although Bryan’s boss vetoed the Volstead Act, he signed the law making the District of Columbia dry.

More unequivocal on the question were the capital “P” Progressives, whose state parties endorsed national prohibition in Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, North Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma, Georgia, New Mexico, Vermont, Maine, and points beyond. “The Progressive Party,” its Ohio affiliate boasted in 1914, “is the only political party this year that stands for State and Nation-wide Prohibition.”

Just don’t tell that to today’s progressives. Their version of history is like the drunk’s version of last night. They project their misbehavior upon everybody else. At least the alcoholic can credibly blame Jose Cuervo or Jim Beam. What’s the excuse of the politically inebriated?

Opponents of the Eighteenth Amendment included those routinely denounced by progressives as reactionaries: industrialist Pierre DuPont, Archbishop Patrick Hayes of New York, Empire State Building financier John Jakob Raskob, and former president William Howard Taft.

“I am opposed to [prohibition] because I think it is a mixing of national government in a matter that should be one of local settlement,” Taft explained. “I think sumptuary laws are matters for parochial adjustment. I think it will vest in the national government, and those who administer it, so great a power as to be dangerous in political matters. I would be in favor of state prohibition if I thought prohibition prohibited, but I think in the long run, except in local communities where the majority of citizens are in favor of the law, it will be violated. I am opposed to the presence of laws on the statute book that cannot be enforced and as such demoralize the enforcement of all laws.”

It would have been nice to hear the big man’s prescient words on PBS’s small screen. The former president and future chief justice’s predictions of prohibition expanding the reach of the federal government, breeding political corruption, and fomenting a general disrespect for law all came to pass. Taft, an eater but not a drinker, thought on a full stomach and a clear head.

Utopian delusions, like intoxicating drinks, make a haze of reality.

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