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.