Drunk History Takes on the Father of Prohibition: The Ban on Alcohol in the U.S. Started 100 Years Ago This Month

There may be plen­ty of good rea­sons to restrict sales and lim­it pro­mo­tion of alco­hol. You can search the stats on traf­fic fatal­i­ties, liv­er dis­ease, alco­hol-relat­ed vio­lence, etc. and you’ll find the term “epi­dem­ic” come up more than once. Yet even with all the dan­gers alco­hol pos­es to pub­lic health and safe­ty, its total pro­hi­bi­tion has seemed “so hos­tile to Amer­i­cans’ con­tem­po­rary sen­si­bil­i­ties of per­son­al free­dom,” writes Mark Lawrence Schrad at The New York Times, “that we strug­gle to com­pre­hend how our ances­tors could have pos­si­bly sup­port­ed it.” Pro­hi­bi­tion in the Unit­ed States began 1oo years ago–on Jan­u­ary 17, 1920–and last­ed through 1933.

How did this hap­pen? Demand, of course, per­sist­ed, but pub­lic sup­port seemed wide­spread. Despite sto­ries of thou­sands rush­ing bars and liquor stores on the evening of Jan­u­ary 16, 1920 before the 18th Amend­ment ban­ning alco­hol nation­wide went into effect, “the final tri­umph of pro­hi­bi­tion was met with shrugs…. The Unit­ed States had already been ‘dry’ for the pre­vi­ous half-year thanks to the Wartime Pro­hi­bi­tion Act. And even before that, 32 of the 48 states had already enact­ed their own statewide pro­hi­bi­tions.”

We tend to think of pro­hi­bi­tion now as a wild over­re­ac­tion and a polit­i­cal mis­cal­cu­la­tion, and frankly, it’s no won­der, giv­en how bonkers some of its most promi­nent advo­cates were. Who bet­ter to pro­file one of the most fanat­i­cal than the irre­spon­si­bly drunk come­di­ans of Com­e­dy Central’s Drunk His­to­ry? See John Lev­en­stein and friends take on the leader of the Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheel­er, above,

Wheel­er indi­rect­ly killed tens of thou­sands of peo­ple when his ASL pushed to have poi­son added to indus­tri­al alco­hol to deter boot­leg­ging in the 20s. His pre-pro­hi­bi­tion tac­tics (he coined the term “pres­sure group”) recall those of the Moral Major­i­ty cam­paigns that took over local and state leg­is­la­tures nation­wide in the U.S. in recent decades, and it is large­ly due to the ASL that pro­hi­bi­tion gained such sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal ground.

They allied with pro­gres­sives in the North and racists in the South; with suf­frag­ists and with the Klan, whom Wheel­er secret­ly employed to smash up bars. As Daniel Okrent writes at Smith­son­ian:

Wheeler’s devo­tion to the dream of a dry Amer­i­ca accom­mo­dat­ed any num­ber of unlike­ly allies. Bil­ly Sun­day, meet pio­neer­ing social work­er Jane Addams: you’re work­ing togeth­er now. The evan­gel­i­cal cler­gy of the age were moti­vat­ed to sup­port Pro­hi­bi­tion because of their faith; reform­ers like Addams signed on because of the dev­as­tat­ing effect that drunk­en­ness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sen­ti­ment was root­ed in its hatred of the immi­grant mass­es in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a cap­i­tal­ist weapon used to keep the work­ing class­es in a stu­por.

Dogged, uncom­pro­mis­ing, shrewd, and seem­ing­ly amoral, Wheel­er was once described by the Cincin­nati Enquir­er as a cru­sad­er who “made great men his pup­pets.” Pro­hi­bi­tion may be impos­si­ble to imag­ine one hun­dred years lat­er, but we sure­ly rec­og­nize Wayne Wheel­er as a peren­ni­al fig­ure in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Don’t trust a drunk come­di­an to give you the straight sto­ry? Get a sober his­to­ry above in the excerpt from the Ken Burns’ doc­u­men­tary Pro­hi­bi­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

A Whiskey-Fueled Lin-Manuel Miran­da Reimag­ines Hamil­ton as a Girl on Drunk His­to­ry

Drunk His­to­ry: An Intox­i­cat­ed Look at the Famous Alexan­der Hamil­ton – Aaron Burr Duel

Ben Franklin’s List of 200 Syn­onyms for “Drunk”: “Moon-Ey’d,” “Ham­mer­ish,” “Stew’d” & More (1737)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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