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Authors: Eric Burns

1920 (8 page)

BOOK: 1920
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The result was the “Miracle of Hillsboro.” In two weeks, all twenty-one saloons in town had been prayed out of business. For a while.

The Crusade spread: “east to Wheeling, West Virginia; northwest to Ripon, Wisconsin; southwest to Carthage, Missouri; and north to
Minnesota.” The results, however, were not always similar to those in Hillsboro.

Sometimes bartenders “baptized” the women with buckets of warm, sudsy beer, dumping the liquid over their heads so that they would return home from their labors smelling not of triumph but of conversion to the other side. On one occasion, and a bitterly cold one at that, a saloonkeeper turned a powerful spray of water on the crusaders, causing [historian Herbert] Asbury to remark that the “line of praying crusaders resembled a row of icicles.” And in yet another town, a gang of thugs who had been deputized by the mayor to enforce a spur-of-the-moment decree against public praying threw a seventy-year-old woman down a flight of stairs and, after she landed, struck her on the arms a number of times with wooden clubs.

The problem with the Women's Crusade was that its effects could not last. There were almost always more saloons in a town than there were groups of women to pray before them. The Crusaders might close one establishment with their piety, but the next remained open. When the women moved on to the next, the imbibers simply sneaked out the back door of that joint and returned to the first. Their shame had been brief; their thirst endured. In the long term, especially when viewed from a distance, the Women's Crusade was little more than a game. Musical saloons. The habitués always won.

Nonetheless, a start toward a dry America, futile though it turned out to be, had been made.

IN
1873,
THE WOMAN'S CHRISTIAN
Temperance Union was created, and its strategy was not only different from that of the Crusaders, but much more effective. The group was largely responsible for the banning of demon rum and its kin in fourteen states. Most were Midwestern, surrounding Illinois; the WCTU headquarters was, and remains to this day, in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. But the membership has largely given up
on a dry America and added to its roster crusades against tobacco and drugs, to which it devotes more time and money. Its guiding principle, then as now, was “organized mother love.” In the wake of the failure of the Women's Crusade, it displayed that affection, free of charge, by providing educational materials to school systems whose budgets did not include enough money for needed books. Most American school systems were in that position and appreciated the WCTU's largess. But in return, the schools had to teach the lessons that the books, pamphlets, and posters taught. They were not the conventional three “r's.”

“Tremble, King Alcohol, we shall grow up!” the youngest of students were instructed to say in unison—and an educator could certainly feel comfortable with a sentiment like that. The students
did
have to learn to read, after all, and to practice their elocution as they did. Then they were given pledges to sign, vowing not to imbibe when they had reached the legal age. Those who didn't want to sign were often chanted at in verse by their more compliant classmates.

Young man, why will you not sign the pledge,

And stand with the true and the brave?

How dare you lean over the dangerous ledge

Above the inebriate's grave?

IN ADDITION TO THE WCTU'S
fourteen states, a few more had outlawed booze during the Great War—temporarily, they thought at first—to provide U.S. troops with the grains they needed for their rations. But the real test for ridding the nation of alcohol would come after the war when, according to Congressional mandate, all states would vote on outlawing booze by means of a Constitutional amendment. To many, it seemed as if the government itself were conspiring against individual pleasure just when it was needed most, in the aftermath of warfare's horrors.

Support for the Amendment, which would be the Eighteenth, was gathering momentum, and the momentum was real; what it represented, however, was not. There was never a time when a majority of Americans supported Prohibition, never a time when they wanted, en masse, to deny themselves the satisfactions and consolations of beer, wine, and whiskey.
It was a tiny yet zealous group of non-drinkers that was responsible for Congress's decision to consider outlawing alcoholic beverages and the states' decisions to approve it—and that group would not be dissuaded by the thirsts of the multitude.

It was called the Anti-Saloon League, and the name was clever in its duplicity, as it implied that its only purpose was to rid communities of their most disreputable businesses. A saloon was not just a place that served alcohol but, by connotation, did so in unsavory surroundings. The talk was loud and obscene, the odor offensive, the décor un-decorous, the furniture scratched and stained, an uppercut to the chin the preferred means of settling disputes, and the behavior lewd—and even more lewd if purchased in an upstairs bedroom where both the sheets and the women were seldom changed.

And so the ASL won the support not only of non-drinkers, but of people who preferred to sip their beverages in more pleasant surroundings: well-tended taverns, restaurants, their own homes. The League seemed to support just that, only that. Yet its true purpose was not just to shut down saloons; it was to ban the products they dispensed. Such a sweeping vision would have come as a surprise to many of the League's less attentive members, those who might have skimmed the ASL's written material without paying attention to the fine print; but what they had signed on for was total abstinence, not a drop of the devil's beverages from sea to shining sea.

The League was headed by Wayne Wheeler, himself tiny yet zealous, a man whose wire-rimmed glasses rested upon a steely resolve: as a younger man he had been known to his college chums as a “locomotive in trousers,” and he had never slowed down since in pursuit of his goals. It was because of Wheeler that the ASL turned into one of America's first all-powerful, government-bending, will-of-the-people-altering band of lobbyists—more powerful than the National Rifle Association, already in existence, would become midway through the twentieth century; more influential than the American Association of Retired Persons has been for several decades as this is written, early in the twenty-first century.

Wheeler was a remarkable fellow. He grew up lonely, with no nearby children of his approximate age as playmates, and few material possessions,
on a small farm outside Brookfield, Ohio. In a book called
The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol
, I wrote about Wheeler's early boyhood. It provided him, he claimed, with a life-changing experience:

One day a laborer on the farm had a few belts of whiskey, then began feeding a bale of hay to some horses. Wheeler stood close to him, too close, and the man accidentally stabbed him in the leg with his pitchfork. Wheeler fell backward, crying out, then quickly clutched at the wound to stop the bleeding, which seems to have been profuse. Other farmhands rushed to help, carrying the boy into the house and getting the leg bandaged. If his later account of the mishap is accurate—and one cannot help but suspect a bit of tailoring for dramatic effect—what Wheeler said at the moment was, “I hope that some day there won't be any more liquor to make men drunk.” He also claimed that, even after many years had passed, he could still remember the terrible alcoholic reek of the man with the pitchfork, and the shimmery flush of his skin.

Whether the account is true or dramatized, Wheeler had taken his first steps along the road that would lead him to the Anti-Saloon League, a well-financed group already in existence, founded by a minister named Howard Hyde Russell. In time, Russell would cede control of his mission to the young man who, upon his graduation from Oberlin College, Russell would come to consider his protégé. It was at that moment, when the baton was passed, that what had been just another collection of drys was transformed into a force that American lawmakers would find irresistible. Wheeler simply never tired, never ran out of ideas, never took no for an answer when he could respond with either reason or a threat.

For instance, at one point he communicated with A. Mitchell Palmer, not yet attorney general but rather the government's Custodian of Alien Property, a wartime office whose responsibility it was to seize and sometimes sell materials confiscated from the enemy in battle. Wheeler did not know Palmer but had made it a point to learn his sympathies, and played upon not only his latent xenophobia but, more specifically, his disdain for
all things German that had resulted from the Great War. Wheeler sent a letter to Palmer, saying he had been “informed that there are a number of breweries in this country which are owned in part by alien enemies. It is reported to me that the Anheuser-Busch Company and some of the Milwaukee companies are largely controlled by alien Germans. … Have you made an investigation?”

It didn't matter to Wheeler whether an investigation had been made or not.
Of course
Germans owned breweries in the United States; the very name of their products made that clear, and the very nature of the German culture made it inevitable. Wheeler's intention was merely to call attention to the issue—to raise consciousness, as it would be said today—and, according to plan, he had done so with a man who was especially receptive to the dangers of outside influence in the United States.

Wheeler's first widespread effort to affect public opinion was as direct as could be. He instructed ASL members all over the country to stop their fellow citizens on the street and, once they did, writes historian Ethan Mordden, they “pleaded, they wheedled, they harangued, they threatened. And they appealed to voters' lambent Christian righteousness: ‘Don't you want to end the distress of the wine widow and her starving children? Close the saloon and bring her husband home!'”

But the League was more effective operating behind the scenes than in being the scene themselves. To clergymen, for instance, Wheeler's minions privately suggested that a congregation whose members were not hung over from Saturday-night revels would be a more attentive congregation Sunday morning, more likely to take the sermon to heart, more likely to follow the paths of purity, more likely to drop coins into the collection basket. To the robber barons—Carnegie, Henry Frick, Henry Ford, Pierre du Pont, Gustavus Swift, John D. Rockefeller Sr. and Jr., and others—the ASL suggested that a sober workforce would be less likely to slow up production by getting body parts caught in machinery. Such an impression did this point make on the younger Rockefeller, it is said, that he “actually purchased, and then razed, several breweries and distilleries, the rubble a much-appreciated present for Wayne Wheeler.”

And although Wheeler himself had never had any previous experience in government and never held any office, either elective or appointed, the
League under his tutelage was masterful at back-room political maneuvering. He proudly explained his method.

I do it the way the [political] bosses do it, with minorities. There are some anti-saloon votes in every community. I and other speakers increase the number and passion of them. I list and bind them to vote as I bid. I say, “We'll all vote against the men in office who won't support our bills. We'll vote for candidates who will promise to. They'll break their promise. Sure. Next time we'll break them.” And we can. We did. Our swinging, solid minorities, no matter how small, counted.

So effective did Wheeler turn out to be as a political manipulator that, according to biographer Justin Steuart, there was a point at which he

controlled six Congresses, dictated to two Presidents of the United States, directed legislation for the most important elective state and federal offices, held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from the outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.

The hyperbole seems to leap off the page. But it is not as great as one might think; nor is it exaggeration to state, as Steuart does, that a number of political figures at the federal, state, and local levels “served under” Wheeler at various times. His power could be overstated, but it was real and it made a difference.

In fact, only once during the reign of the Anti-Saloon League did the trousered locomotive overreach himself. It happened when he approached the White House, only to have President Wilson refuse the ASL's plea “demanding,” as I wrote in
Spirits
, “that a worldwide prohibition of alcoholic beverages be written into the Treaty of Versailles. Wilson did not agree. He did not even respond, nor discuss the matter with his
advisers. He figured he had enough problems with the postwar world as it was.

Wayne Wheeler was not surprised. He had already suspected Wilson of cowardice.

THE ANTI-SALOON LEAGUE'S SUCCESS WAS,
although unrecognized by most historians, one of the most significant and dismal episodes in all of American history. Political bosses had controlled their “swinging, solid minorities” long before Wheeler came along; and representatives of industries like steel and railroads had slipped wads of cash into the pockets of many a legislator. But these men were less an organized group than a series of powerful individuals paying for favors at different times for different reasons.

It was Wayne Wheeler whose efforts, it may be said, institutionalized the beginning of the end of the republic that the Founding Fathers had imagined. The point is arguable, but a strong case can be made for viewing the Anti-Saloon League as the death knell for majority rule in the United States, the end of the sovereignty of the people and the transfer of political power to passionately committed special-interest groups who began to sow both money and intimidation throughout the halls of government to achieve their ends. If this is so, then an equally strong case can be made for lobbying, in the modern sense, having been born in 1920, and having been brought into existence by a man who, unlike many of today's lobbyists, was not in it for the money, but for the cause. The tiny man with the iron-rimmed glasses was a true believer. They are, of course, the most dangerous kind.

BOOK: 1920
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