One hundred years ago, by a bipartisan vote of 65 to 20, the U.S. Senate submitted to the states what became the 18th Amendment. A century on, the common understanding of the Prohibition Era is based more on folklore than fact. Many believe temperance was about right-wing “Bible-thumpers” dictating to everyone “thou shalt not drink.”
Even academics embrace that misunderstanding. The late sociologist Joseph Gusfield argued that Prohibition was a “symbolic crusade” of rural evangelicals against modernization and immigration. Historian Lisa McGirr says Prohibition was meant to “discipline” poor, urban, immigrant, and minority communities. Cast as culture clash, Prohibition would fit comfortably into a lineage of reactionary politics from nativist “Know Nothings” through the “whitelash” of Trumpism.
But viewing Prohibition as a conservative cultural backlash runs into many inconvenient facts. Here are three myths about the movement.
- Temperance crusaders were mostly backward cultural conservatives.
Not so. To be sure, famed evangelists like firebrand Billy Sunday espoused temperance ideals. But they were fellow travelers with a progressive movement that worked to extend suffrage and rein in big business. Alcohol purveyors, by contrast, were cast as colonizers and capitalists, reaping revenue and taxes from their customers’ addiction.
Prohibition was not solely an evangelical movement, but rather an economic, political, and cultural coalition of Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus. Moral entreaties joined movements for self-determination and community protection against a trade that profited from its customers’ misery, and against the predatory state that drew income from it.
- Prohibition was a uniquely American utopian fever.
Nope. In fact, it was part of the global progressive moment. In Europe, secular humanists — like Czechoslovakia’s founder, Tomas Masaryk — argued that sobriety was necessary for enlightened democratic governance. Hjalmar Branting, the first Social Democratic prime minister of Sweden and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, saw temperance as liberation from the excesses of capitalism that would permit every individual to flourish.
All this was in contrast to the behavior of the alcohol merchants. Throughout the colonized world, European drink sellers — with the backing of their home governments — profited by hooking indigenous populations on booze. No wonder Mahatma Gandhi made prohibition the cornerstone of his noncooperation movement against British domination. Gandhi was hardly alone: From South Africa to Egypt to Istanbul, prohibition became synonymous with anti-imperialism and self-determination.
After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Petrograd, Vladimir Lenin prohibited the czarist vodka monopoly that provided fully one-third of the revenue of the Romanov dynasty, siphoned largely from the drunken and impoverished peasantry. Such state reliance on booze was the norm before income taxes. Alexander Hamilton levied the United States’ first foreign tariff in 1789 and first domestic tax in 1791; both were on liquor.
By the dawn of the 20th century, the U.S. likewise drew a third of its income from the liquor tax. From the czarist empire to the British Raj to the U.S., prohibitionists had a legitimate gripe that their governments were profiting from the misery of their people.
- Prohibitionists were trying to legislate individual morality.
No. Their focus wasn’t on drink or the drinker’s liberty to imbibe, but on the drink traffic — its sale rather than its consumption. That may seem like splitting hairs but is actually the source of tremendous confusion.
Most histories nowadays omit that key word traffic. That’s like suggesting activists who oppose human trafficking actually oppose humans. Prohibitionists were the enemies of predatory business, not individual choice. Even Bible-toting, hatchet-wielding temperance titan Carry A. Nation focused not on reforming drunkards but on smashing saloons and disrupting the predatory traffic that went on there.
Consider this: In 1929, Winston Churchill publicly lambasted American Prohibition, rooted in the “extreme self-assertion which leads an individual to impose his likes and dislikes upon others.” Famed prohibitionist William Johnson fired back:
“Any law telling the people what to drink and what not to drink would be overwhelmingly defeated in America. I would fight against such a law myself. … But when a man engages in the business of selling what causes such a vast amount of trouble, society becomes directly and acutely affected, and it has the right and the duty of protecting itself against unsocial acts. Our laws against selling liquor rest upon exactly the same basis as our laws prohibiting the selling of rotten meat, impure milk or dangerous drugs.”
That comparison is telling. The progressive movement’s monuments of consumer protection, the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act, were passed in 1906. Prohibition similarly aimed to protect the individual from political and corporate exploitation, much as did the Harrison Narcotic Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, all passed in 1914.
Without the word traffic, our understanding of history gets out of whack. We vilify prohibitionists as crusaders of puritan morality rather than opponents of an exploitative traffic. Without traffic, we misguidedly ask how the powerful Women’s Christian Temperance Union could simultaneously champion both “regressive” Prohibition and progressive suffragism. In reality, the WCTU viewed both as necessary to women’s emancipation and empowerment. Without traffic, we look quizzically at the 18th Amendment that bans “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors” — but not their consumption.
Introducing the Prohibition amendment, Texas Sen. Morris Sheppard claimed: “I am not a prohibitionist in the strict sense of the word. … I am fighting the liquor traffic. I am against the saloon, I am not in any sense aiming to prevent the personal use of drink.”
Without traffic, we cast such prohibitionists as duplicitous liars or idiots, as though we have a better idea, a century later, as to what their true motivations were than they themselves did.
Perhaps, at this centennial moment, we should listen to what prohibitionists said they stood for, rather than what we now think they stood for.
Mark Lawrence Schrad, an associate professor of political science at Villanova University, is the author of “Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State” (Oxford University Press, 2014) and is writing a global history of prohibition. He wrote this for the Washington Post.