Anti-Saloon League

The Anti-Saloon League, the leading organization for National Prohibition in the United States, was a non-partisan political pressure group established in 1893. It was a single-issue lobbying group that had branches across the United States to work with churches in marshaling resources for the prohibition fight. Its primary base of support was among Protestant churches in rural areas and the South.

Before the civil War (1861-1865) temperance groups had promoted voluntary abstinence from alcoholic beverages. That war and its aftermath had diverted national attention to other matters and the movement fell into abeyance.

Moral suasion had proved to be both difficult and frustrating. Following the Civil War, temperance groups increasing called for the power of the state to be used to prohibit the legal production and consumption of beverage alcohol.

Combined with the frustrations of moral suasion, the country was undergoing rapid industrialization and urbanization with serious social problems of crime, poverty and and disease.

The cities were increasingly populated by Catholic immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. The temperance movement has been viewed by some scholars as part of a cultural war between the largely Protestant rural residents from northern Europe and the newer and culturally different immigrants.

The Anti-Saloon League saw itself as primarily and fundamentally a (Protestant) church movement. In the words of leader Ernest Cherrington it was "the united Church Militant engaged in the overthrow of the liquor traffic." It promoted "Saloon Field Days," by which churches presented an appeal for contributions to the Anti-Saloon League at during at least one regular Sunday service each year.

The League also used churches more directly to achieve its objectives. For example, it arranged for pastors in over 2,000 churches in Illinois to discuss a pending temperance measure and urge congregations to ask their representatives to support it.

Its leaders insisted that the League was not simply another temperance organization and was not in competition with them. Rather, it was a league of temperance organizations and a clearinghouse for them.

The primary purpose of the Anti-Saloon League was to unify and focus anti-alcohol sentiment effectively to achieve results. Although idealistic in its goal, it was pragmatic in its action.

A secondary goal was to increase anti-alcohol sentiment. To that end it established the American Issue Publishing Company. The printing presses of the American Issue Publishing Company operated 24 hours a day and employed 200 people. Within the first three years of its existence, the publishing house was producing about 250,000,000 (one-quarter billion) book pages per month. Its superintendent, Ernest Cherrington, reported that if all the pages it printed over a twenty year period were placed end-to-end, they would circle the earth 80 times.

Unlike the Prohibition Party, the Anti-Saloon League was non-partisan; unlike the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), it did not discriminate against men; unlike democratic organizations, it operated from the top down; and unlike the Ku Klux Klan, it did not engage in the enforcement of prohibition laws.

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK)
was a major supporter of Prohibition.

The Anti-Saloon stressed its religious character and since it acted as an agent of the churches and therefore was working for God, anything it did was seen as moral and justified because it was working to bring about the Lord's will:

It didn't necessarily include the outright purchase of a politician, nor did it preclude such a buy if the situation warranted. In general, however, and briefly, it consisted of swarming into a contested area and bringing every imaginable sort of pressure to bear upon the candidates and officeholders; in saturating the country with speakers and literature; in laying down a barrage of abuse, insinuation, innuendo, half-truths, and plain lies against an opponent; and in maintaining an efficient espionage system which could obtain reliable knowledge of the enemy's plans.

In the minds of many leaders of the Anti-Saloon League, achieving prohibition justified many highly questionable actions. After Purley Baker assumed leadership of the League he raised large sums of money to create a major information campaign. The primary thrust of his campaign was to demonize the producers of alcoholic beverages. Most brewers were of German extraction and Baker contended that Germans "eat like gluttons and drink like swine." League posters vilified the "Huns" who were portrayed as ape-like Neanderthals threatening the U.S. and its way of life. Stigmatizing German brewers proved to be a highly successful strategy as World War I approached.

When the U.S. entered the war, Anti-Saloon League leader William H. Anderson equated the dry crusade as synonymous with patriotism. Under his direction, the League insisted that "The challenge to loyal patriots of America today is to demand the absolute prohibition of the liquor traffic."

The New York Times expressed concern over Anderson's unwavering dogmatism and bigotry. One pamphlet attacked "the un-American, pro-German, crime-producing, food-wasting, youth-corrupting, home-wrecking , treasonable liquor traffic" and asked "How can any loyal citizen, be he wet or dry, help or vote for a trade that is aiding a pro-German Alliance?" Another insisted that "Everything in this country that is pro-German is anti-American. Everything that is pro-German must go."

Anderson attributed resistance to Prohibition in New York City to "...unwashed and wild-eyed foreigners who have no comprehension of the spirit of America." He attacked Jews, Irish, Italians and others whose cultures generally included the consumption of alcohol.

However, Catholics became a special target of Anderson's bigotry. He accused the Catholic Church of mounting an "assault on law and order" and said Catholic leaders were "indignant over what they consider a Protestant victory." Therefore, Anderson said, the Church was engaged in "efforts to destroy [the Prohibition] victory and bring back the saloons." A Catholic newspaper argued that the New York Anti-Saloon League, under Anderson, had supplanted the Ku Klux Klan as the leading anti-Catholic organization in the state. For his part, Anderson said that the resurgence of the KKK was a natural and welcome response to Catholic opposition to Prohibition and "the aggression of these wet anti-Protestant forces."

In 1924, Anderson was accused of embezzling money from the Anti-Saloon League and convicted of forgery for which he was sentenced to two years imprisonment in the maximum security penitentiary at Sing Sing.

The Legislative Superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League was Bishop James Cannon, Jr. who hated Catholicism almost as much as alcohol and called it "The mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance, and sin." During the presidential campaign between Catholic Al Smith and Protestant Herbert Hoover, Cannon "launched extremely personal attacks on Smith that shocked even many seasoned political observers."

Bishop Cannon also used blatant bigotry. He told voters that Smith wanted

…the Italians, the Sicilians, the Poles, and Russian Jews. That kind has given us a stomach ache. We have been unable to assimilate such people in our national life, so we shut the door on them. But Smith says ‘give me that kind of people.' He wants the kind of dirty people you find today on the sidewalks of New York.

Bishop Cannon's reputation and power were destroyed after he was charged with numerous crimes in both civil and church courts. He illegally used church funds to support a political candidate, engaged in shady or illegal stock market manipulations with a corrupt firm, illegally hoarded flour during World War I which he sold at great profit, embezzled a substantial fortune, and had a sexual affair with his secretary while his wife was still alive. These revelations destroyed the reputation and influence of this once powerful dry leader.

Leader William E. ("Pussyfoot") Johnson developed some of the tactics used by the Anti-Saloon League. For example, he wrote to wet leaders, claiming to be a brewer and asked them for advice on how to defeat temperance activists. He then published the incriminating letters he received.

"Pussyfoot" Johnson seemed proud of his dishonesty. "Did I ever lie to promote prohibition? Decidedly yes. I have told enough lies for the cause to make Ananias ashamed of himself" he wrote in an article titled "I had to lie, bribe and drink to put over prohibition in America." (Ananias was a notorious liar in the New Testament.)

Wayne B. Wheeler was the highly talented and skillful de facto leader of the ASL for decades. According to his biographer, he often bragged about the many deceptions he used in promoting Prohibition. With the formidable machinery and well-known intimidation tactics of the League backing him, Wheeler became very powerful:

Wayne B. Wheeler controlled six congresses, dictated to two presidents of the United States, directed legislation in most of the States of the Union, picked the candidates for the more important elective 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 outside without official authority, and was recognized by friends and foes alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States.

By 1926, however, Wheeler was being criticized and investigated by members of Congress who were questioning the legality of the League's spending in some congressional races; he retired shortly thereafter.

The League was quickly loosing power as the failure of National Prohibition and the massive problems it caused became painfully and increasingly apparent to the American public. Organizations calling for Repeal proliferated and grew quickly. Former supporters of Prohibition such as John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Henry Ford came to believe that Prohibition was not only ineffective but counterproductive and publicly called for its repeal.

The League fought bitterly to the very end, but the 21st Amendment repealed the prohibition experiment in 1933. In spite of Repeal, the Anti-Saloon League never really died. From 1948 until 1950 it was known as the Temperance League, from 1950 to 1964 it was called the National Temperance League; from then it has been known as the American Council on Alcohol Problems. The current name disguises its neo-prohibition and, ultimately, prohibition agenda.

Although Prohibition was rejected over 75 years ago, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the vestiges of Prohibition that still remain.


The best single source of information about the Anti-Saloon League is Peter H. Odegard, Pressure Politics: Story of the Anti-Saloon League. New York: Columbia University Press, 1928, reprinted 1966); the League's archives and other materials are now located at the Anti-Saloon home page (

Resources on the Anti-Saloon League

  • Anti-Saloon League of America. Anti-Saloon League of America Yearbook. Westerville OH: American Issue Press, 1920.
  • Anti-Saloon League of America. Convention Song Book of the Anti-Saloon League of America. Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing company, 192-.
  • Asbury, Herbert. The Great Illusion: An Informal History of Prohibition. NY: Greenwood Press, 1968 (originally published 1950).
  • Brown, Ralph A. Review of Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1986, 487, 229-230.
  • Burke, W.M. The Anti-Saloon League as a political force. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science,1908, vol. 32, pp. 27-37.
  • Chalfant, Harry M. The Anti-Saloon League - why and what? The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1923, vol. 109, pp. 279-283.
  • Cherrington, Ernest. History of the Anti-Saloon League. Westerville, OH: American Issue Publishing Co., 1913.
  • Childs, Randolph W. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia, PA: Pennsylvania Alcoholic Beverage Study, Inc., 1947.
  • Clapp Edwin J. Secret Records of the Anti-Saloon League Exposed: They Reveal an Amazing Story of dictatorial Super-Government in Washington with Elected and Appointed Officials as Mere Pawns in the Hands of a Little Group of Prodigally Financed Professional Propagandists. Washington, DC: Joint Legislative Committee on Modification of the Volstead Act, 1927.
  • Cumberland, William H. Walking straight: Claud McMillan and the Anti-Saloon League. Palimpest, 1988, 69(4).
  • Dohn, Norman Harding. The History of the Anti-Saloon League. Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1976.
  • Donovan, Brian L. Framing and strategy: Explaining differential longevity in the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League. Sociological Inquiry, 1995, 65(2), 143-155.
  • Ewin, James Lithgow. The Birth of the Anti-Saloon League. Washington, D.C., 1913.
  • Hanson, David J. Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Jackson, J.C. The work of the Anti-Saloon League. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 1908, 32, 12-26.
  • Kerr, K. Austin. Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985.
  • Kerr, K. Austin. Organizing for Reform: The Anti-Saloon League and Innovation in Politics. American Quarterly, 1980, 32(1), 37-53.
  • Lamme, Margot Opdycke. The "Public Sentiment Building Society": the Anti-Saloon League of America, 1895-1910. Journalism History, 2003, 29(3), 123-132.
  • Lien, Jerry. The Speechmaking of the Anti-Saloon League. University of Southern California, 1968.
  • Noel, Thomas J. Review of Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. American Historical Review, 1986, 91(3), 750.
  • Pegram, Thomas R. Temperance Politics and Regional Political Culture: the Anti-saloon League in Maryland and the South, 1907-1915. Journal of Southern History, 1997, 63(1), 57-90.
  • Pegram, Thomas R. The Dry Machine: the Formation of the Anti-Saloon League of Illinois. Illinois Historical Journal, 1990, 83(3), 173-186.
  • Steuart, Justin. Wayne Wheeler, Dry Boss: An Uncensored Biography of Wayne B. Wheeler. NY: Fleming H. Revell, 1928.
  • Ware, H. David. The Anti-Saloon League Wages War in Phoenix, 1910. Journal of Arizona History, 1998, 39(2), 141-154.

Newspaper Articles

  • New York Times. ANTI-SALOON LEAGUE INQUIRY DEMANDED; Tinkham Declares It Should Be Prosecuted for Violation of Corrupt Practices Act BY DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE Says Plea to House to Investigate Would Be Futile Because It Is Dominated by the League. Says No Returns Were Filed. Congresmen (sic) Under Obligation. New York Times, April 5, 1933, p. 6.
  • New York Times. ANDERSON'S INCOME UNDER TAX INQUIRY; Federal Agents Get Anti-Saloon League Books to Check Convicted Man's Returns. New York Times, February 1, 1924, p. 19.
  • New York Times. SHUMAKER TO SERVE SENTENCE IN INDIANA; Anti-Saloon League Leader Will Begin 60-Day Term Today at State Penal Farm. New York Times, October 19, 1928, p. 29.
  • New York Times. WHEELER'S "DRY" BUDGET STRENGTHENS HIS HAND; Anti-Saloon League Counsel Expected to Wage a Campaign Against Presidential Candidates Who Have "Wet" Leanings -- A Man of Few Words. New York Times, June 26, 1927, p. 6.
  • New York Times. ANTI-SALOON LEAGUE INQUIRY CALLED FOR; Albany Resolution Plans for Investigation of Anderson as Lobbyist. 'WETS' DESCEND ON CAPITAL Prominent New York Hotel Keepers Ask Up-State Men to Help Raise Big Fund. New York Times, March 4, 1919, p. 5.
  • New York Times. LEGISLATORS CHARGE COERCION BY DRYS; Will Testify at Anti-Saloon League Investigation of Signing Pledges Under Threat. BILL FOR 10 PER CENT. WINE Two Rigid Enforcement Measures at Albany Sponsored by League to be Abandoned. New York Times, March 9, 1920, p. 11.

This site does not dispense medical, legal, or any other advice and none should be inferred.
For more fine print, read the disclaimer.