Wayne Wheeler

Wayne Bidwell Wheeler, prohibitionist and de facto leader of the Anti-Saloon League, was born on November 10,1869 near Brookfield, Ohio, the son of Joseph Wheeler and Ursula Hutchinson.

While working as a boy on the family farm, Wheeler's leg was injured by the hayfork of an inebriated hired hand. Young Wheeler also observed another inebriated person frighten his mother and sisters. These events appear to have traumatized him and led to his antipathy to alcoholic beverages.

Upon graduation from high school, Wheeler taught school for two years and then entered Oberlin College, where he excelled in argument and debate.

After receiving his B.A. from Oberlin in 1894, Wheeler accepted employment as an organizer for the recently established Anti-Saloon League. While continuing to work full time, he attended Western Reserve Law School, from which he received his LL.B. in 1898. Wheeler was then promptly named attorney for the League, an organization to which he devoted the rest of his life.

Early in his career Wheeler exhibited a keen sense of politics and the use of power. Wheeler soon developed what is now known as pressure politics, which is sometimes also called Wheelerism. He became superintendent of Ohio for the League in 1903.

Wheeler's organizational skills and political success in engineering the reelection defeat of a prominent wet (anti-prohibition) governor of Ohio dramatically increased his stature, and in 1915 he moved to Washington, DC, where he could more easily wield important political pressure and influence.Early in his career Wheeler exhibited a keen sense of politics and the useof power. He soon developed what is now known as pressure politics, which is sometimes also called Wheelerism. Wheeler became superintendent of Ohio for the League in 1903.

Under Wayne Wheeler's brilliant leadership, the League focused entirely on the goal of achieving Prohibition. It organized at the grass-roots level and worked extensively through churches. It supported or opposed candidates entirely based on their position regarding prohibition and nothing else. It completely disregard their party affiliation or position on other issues. Unlike other temperance groups, the Anti-Saloon League worked with the two major parties rather than backing the smaller Prohibition Party.

Wheeler tended to present his views as the views of the League, when the organization often had either no view or a different view on the question. Convinced of the importance of the cause of prohibition for which he fought, he demanded hard work from himself and others in its furtherance. Frequently ignoring holidays, including Christmas and Easter, he expected others to do the same.

Even his love letters to his fiancee, Ella Belle Candy, typically contained observations on prohibition along with professions of affection. After their marriage in 1901, their house became an extension of his office. The couple had three children, but everything in life, including his family was subordinate to his prohibition activities. Even on their 50th wedding anniversary, Wheeler left his wife alone so that he could travel to another state to participate in a debate on prohibition.

Although Wheeler frequently claimed to have essentially written the National Prohibition Enforcement Act (commonly called the Volstead Act), an assertion repeatedly denied by Congressman Andrew Volstead, it is clear that he was at least highly influential in drafting its contents, and he was continually called on to explain its complex provisions to Congress and others.

Many prohibitionists stressed the importance of education to bring about voluntary compliance, but Wheeler insisted on strict and vigorous enforcement as the proper course. He was a proponent of force, and "he desired the most severe penalties, the most aggressive policies even to calling out the Army and navy, the most relentless prosecution" (Steuart, p. 14).

The Prohibition Bureau added poisons to industrial alcohol to prevent its consumption as a beverage. Wheeler opposed the use of nonpoisonous denaturants such as soap or other noxious but harmless substances, arguing that "the government is under no obligation to furnish people with alcohol that is drinkable when the Constitution prohibits it. The person who drinks this industrial alcohol...is a deliberate suicide" (Asbury, 1950, p. 279).

According to his biographer,

"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 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 outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States" (Steuart, p. 11).

Wheeler often bragged about the many deceptions he used in promoting Prohibition, saying that they would fill a big book. By 1926, he was being criticized by members of Congress who were questioning the League's spending in some congressional races. He retired from the League shortly thereafter, although he continued to fight for prohibition.

Even though the cause for which he labored so tirelessly would soon be overwhelmingly repudiated by the American people as a dismal failure, Wheeler never wavered in his prohibition convictions and never rested in its pursuit. He died of exhaustion and kidney failure at his summer home in Michigan while attempting to regain his strength to continue the fight.

At Wheeler's funeral, League orators carefully phrased their eulogies, reflecting a cleavage between his policies and those of the nominal leadership. No sooner was he in his grave than the League abandoned his policies in favor of those of his long-time rival Ernest Cherrington, who stressed the need for education to bring about voluntary compliance.

Increasingly, League members openly criticized Wheeler's alignment with avowed racial and religious bigots and groups, his advocacy of illegal actions in enforcing prohibition, his deceptive practice of writing self-aggrandizing articles that he asked others to publish as their own, and is caustic, alienating personality.

Did you know?

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

Yet Wayne Wheeler played a major role in making the League the first major political pressure group in the United States and, by sheer force of determination and unrelenting drive made himself one of the most powerful leaders and promoters of prohibition in the country.

Although Prohibition was a dismal failure that created serious problems, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to exist.



  • Source: Hanson, David J. Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. In: Garraty, John A. and Cames, Mark C. (eds.) American National Biography, NY: Praeger, 1999, vol, 23, pp. 144-145.

Publications about Wayne Wheeler:

  • Anderson criticises (sic) Gov. Smith's plea that legislature act against amendment. New York Times, January 12, 1920.(Wayne Wheeler argued that ratification of a federal amendment by a state cannot be withdrawn or changed by a succeeding legislature. Note: Prohibition had not yet gone into effect.)
  • Cases differ, Wheeler says he defends the variation in questions to Cox and Harding. New York Times, September 27,1920. (Wayne Wheeler defended asking different questions of two different political candidates because of their past positions on Prohibition.)
  • Hanson, David. "Wayne Bidwell Wheeler." In: Garraty, John A. and Cames, Mark C. (eds.). American National Biography. N.Y.: Praeger, 1999, vol. 23, pp. 144-145.
  • Hogan, Charles Marshall. Wayne Wheeler: Single Issue Exponent. Cincinnati, OH: University of Cincinnati, 1986.
  • The purchase of liquors; proposes that local and state prohibition laws forbid it. New York Times, September 30, 1911. (Wayne Wheeler proposed that local and state dry laws completely forbid alcohol and also prohibit its transportation across their lines.)
  • Steuart, Justin and Dinwiddle, Edwin. Wayne Wheeler, Dry Boss: An Uncensored Biography of Wayne B. Wheeler. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1928.
  • Tinkham accuses "drys" of bribery; calls Wheeler "legislative corruptionist" and defies him to sue for libel. Callivan joins attack. Cramton retorts by criticising(sic.) war secretary Weeks for his anti-prohibition speech. New York Times, June 23, 1922. (Wayne Wheeler charged with violating Corrupt Practices act.)
  • Wheeler asperses this city's morals; general counsel for the AntiSaloon (sic) League quotes doggerel to show his opinion. "Dry" amendment valid. (Wayne Wheeler objected to efforts of state to withdraw its ratification of 18th amendment by criticizing morals of New York City.)
  • Wheeler says ships must not have liquor; may be temporary loss, he says, but eventually dry travel will win out. New York Times, January 17, 1921. (Wayne Wheeler opposed a bill to permit U.S. ships to serve alcoholic beverages beyond the three-mile zone.)

Publications by Wayne Wheeler:

  • Clarence Darrow and Wayne Wheeler. Wheeler-Darrow Debate. Question: Resolved that Prohibition of the BeverageLiquor Traffic is Detrimental to the Public Welfare. Westerville, OH: American Issue Pub.Co., 1927.
  • Clarence Darrow and Wayne Wheeler. Dry-Law Debate. Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius Publications, 1927.
  • Elton R. Shaw and Wayne Wheeler. Prohibition going or Coming? The Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act . Berwin, IL: Shaw Pub. Co., 1924.
  • Wayne Wheeler. Federal and State Laws Relating to Intoxicating Liquors. Westerville, OH: American Issue Pub. Co., 1921.
  • Wayne Wheeler. Is Prohibition Constitutional? New York, NY: Anti-Saloon League of New York State, 1919.
  • Wayne Wheeler. Is Prohibition a Success after Five Years? Westerville, OH: American Issue Pub. Co., 1925.
  • Wayne Wheeler. Is there Prohibition? And to What Extent? Westerville, OH: American Issue Pub. Co., 1925.
  • Wayne Wheeler. Laws of Foreign Countries Relating to Intoxicating Liquors. Westerville, OH: American Issue Pub Co., 1918.
  • Wayne Wheeler. How to Enforce National Prohibition. Wayne Wheeler. Rum Rebellions, Past and Present. Westerville, OH: American Issue Pub.Co, n.d.
  • Wayne Wheeler. Liquor in International Trade. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 1923, 109, 145-154.
  • Wayne Wheeler. Report of the Legal Department Anti-Saloon League of America, to the Executive Committee and the National Board of Directors, June 3, 1919. Westerville, OH: American Issues Pub. Co., 1919.
  • Wayne Wheeler. The Strength and Weakness of the Judiciary. Westerville, OH: American Issues Pub. Co., 1927.
  • Wayne Wheeler. The Newark Lynching: Its Causes and Result. Westerville, OH: American Issues Pub. Co., 1910.
  • Wayne Wheeler. The Eighteenth Amendment and Its Enforcement. Westerville, OH: American Issues Pub. Co., 1920.

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