Throughout the history of the United States, two concepts have washed over the country in waves. Those two concepts are nationalism and Puritanism (Kerr, 1997). I believe, the two, taken together, are often at the root of some of the worst failures in, and of, American culture. Prohibition was one of those failures. While it is important to remember that prohibition itself was not the law of the land until the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919 (WestLaw, 2004), it is also important to understand how and why this amendment was considered, as well as to understand some of the people who were involved in its creation.
One of the most unsettling observations, concerning the roots of Prohibition, are alluded to by Kerr (1997), a professor of History at Ohio State University, who points out that, during the late 1800s, Americans began to be concerned about the influx of large numbers of Europeans. Since alcohol was part of the European culture, I suspect that this was one characteristic of the newcomers that the Americans, still dragging along their Puritan roots, could point to with distain. It may not have been nice to behave badly toward immigrants, but it was acceptable to point out the evils of their behavior.
The Anti-Saloon League was founded in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1893. Within two years, it had become a powerful, national organization and, by working with all religious denominations, was able to develop a power-base sufficient to sway the thinking of the entire country (Kerr, 1997). By 1916, the Anti-Saloon League was allied with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in 1874. The union of the two groups gave them enough power to elect their own candidates to Congress and to meet the required two-thirds majority necessary to pass the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Their position was solidified when World War I began and they could add “do it for the troops” to their doctrine. I believe that such unions are a danger to the very survival of the United States because their sole purpose is to disenfranchise huge sections of the American population, all under the guise of such slogans as “family values,” while wearing the cloak of Christianity. Anyone who dares to disagrees with that kind of union can be declared a traitor, or worse.
One of the most flamboyant members of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was Carrie Amelia Moore Nation. She was a heavy-set woman, almost 6 feet tall, and furious because of a brief marriage to an alcoholic. She was an outspoken protestor and began physically destroying saloons and alcohol about 1900 (PBS, 1999). While Carrie Nation did provide women with an opportunity to make their power visible, she also described herself in a way that, I believe, is a dangerous prescient that mixes politics and religion. According to Nation herself, she was ” ‘a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn’t like,’
Wayne Wheeler was the attorney and general counsel for the Anti-Saloon League. He soon became their chief lobbyist, and not only wrote their propaganda, but also is credited with authoring the Eighteenth Amendment itself (OSU, 2004). Wheeler, to me, seems to be a cross between a John Ashcroft and a Donald Rumsfeld. In other words, God had led him to the cause of the Anti-Saloon League, but the love of power kept him there. In either case, Wheeler was a dangerous man, espousing the cause of the just, while making any form of resistance, or even the wish to discuss the issue, equivalent to evidence of anti-Americanism. Most of the saloons were owned by Germans. Spending money in a saloon was, according to Wheeler, the equivalent of disrespect for our fighting boys in uniform. Therefore, anyone who would stoop so low as to drink alcohol must, necessarily, be devoid of patriotism for their country. This is a frightening scenario because we have seen countless replays of this same dynamic, throughout the history of man, and the outcome has never been good.
As has been the case with most of the groups that grab for power, with no thought for the rights and welfare of the people, the Anti-Saloon League was finished when, in the early 1930s, irregularities in its finances were discovered at about the same time that Wayne Wheeler died (OSU, 2004). Whether there was a connection between the two has not been investigated. However, with the Great Depression on the way and problems still brewing in Europe, it was not long before the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was repealed on August 27, 1935 (WestLaw, 2004).
The lessons learned from reading the rise and fall of the Anti-Saloon League are important. The phrase “never again” has rung out, in nearly every society, throughout the history of civilization. Yet, we do not seem to learn not to grant extreme power over our lives to people we do not know. Is it that anyone can rush out, claim to be doing the work of God, and we will fall over ourselves giving them the power they crave? Is there something in our societies that cause us to dislike people of other nationalities so badly that we will give up our own freedom to get back at them for just being different? Will we ever know why societies repeat this same scenario, over and over again? It is a puzzle, and one that will not likely be answered soon.
Kerr, A. (1997). Temperance & Prohibition. Retrieved October 23, 2004, from: http://prohibition.history.ohio-state.edu/
Ohio State University, Library. (OSU). (2004) History of the Anti-Saloon League 1893 – 1933. Retrieved: October 23, 2004, from: http://www.wpl.lib.oh.us/AntiSaloon/history/
Public Broadcasting System (PBS). (1999). People and events: Carrie Nation. The American Experience. Retrieved: October 23, 2004, from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/1900/peopleevents/pande4.html
WestLaw. (2004). U.S. Constitution: Eighteenth Amendment. FindLaw. Retrieved: October 23, 2004, from: http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/amendment18/