The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) was the leading organization promoting National Prohibition in the U.S. It was a non-partisan political pressure group that began in 1893. A single-issue lobbying group, it had branches across the country. It worked with churches in marshaling resources for the prohibition fight. The League’s main base of support was among Protestant churches in rural areas and the South.
I. ASL Leaders
- Ernest Cherrington
- Purley Baker
- William H. Anderson
- Bishop James Cannon, Jr.
- “Pussyfoot” Johnson
- Wayne B. Wheeler
II. Decline of ASL
Before the Civil War (1861-1865) temperance groups had promoted voluntary abstinence from alcohol. The War diverted national attention. Hence, the temperance movement fell into abeyance.
After the War, the movement resumed. Moral suasion had proved to be difficult and frustrating. Increasingly activists called for government to prohibit drinking.
The country was rapidly industrializing and urbanizing. Crime, poverty and disease increased.
Tens of millions of immigrants were arriving in the U.S. They tended to settle in large cities. Most immigrants were Catholic or Jewish. And they tended to come from Eastern and Southern Europe.
Existing citizens were largely Protestant. They tended to live in small towns and rural areas. Their ancestors had come largely from northern Europe. The new, culturally different immigrants threatened the existing order. Thus, a cultural war was emerging.
I. Anti-Saloon League Leaders
The temperance movement was the main tool of this cultural war. The ASL was basically a Protestant church movement.
Ernest Cherrington, an ASL leader, said it was “the united Church Militant engaged in the overthrow of the liquor traffic.” It promoted “Saloon Field Days.” These were Sundays when churches periodically appealed for contributions to the League.
The League also used churches more directly. For example, it arranged for pastors in over 2,000 churches in Illinois to discuss a pending temperance measure. They asked congregations to urge their representatives to support it.
Its leaders insisted that the ASL was not simply another temperance organization. They said it was not in competition with them. Rather, it was a league of temperance groups and a clearinghouse for them.
The primary purpose of the Anti-Saloon League was to unify and focus anti-alcohol sentiment to get 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 company employed 200 people and it printed 24 hours per day. Within the first three years of its operation, it was producing about 250,000,000 (one-quarter billion) book pages per month.
Its head, Ernest Cherrington, was proud of its productivity. All the pages it printed over a twenty year period 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. And unlike democratic organizations, it operated from the top down. Finally, unlike the Ku Klux Klan, it did not engage in illegal enforcement of prohibition laws.
was a major supporter of Prohibition.
The Anti-Saloon League stressed its religious character. It acted for churches and, therefore, was working for God. Anything it did was moral 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, it consisted of swarming into a contested area and bringing every imaginable sort of pressure to bear upon the candidates and officeholders. Of 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.1
In the minds of many leaders of the 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. So Baker said that Germans “eat like gluttons and drink like swine.”2 League posters vilified the “Huns” 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.
William H. Anderson
When the U.S. entered the war, Anti-Saloon League leader William H. Anderson equated the dry crusade with patriotism. The League insisted that “The challenge to loyal patriots of America today is to demand the absolute prohibition of the liquor traffic.”3
The New York Times expressed concern over Anderson’s bigotry. One pamphlet attacked “the un-American, pro-German, crime-producing, food-wasting, youth-corrupting, home-wrecking, treasonable liquor traffic.” It 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.”4
Anderson attributed resistance to Prohibition in New York City to “unwashed and wild-eyed foreigners.” He said they “have no comprehension of the spirit of America.” He also attacked Jews, Irish, Italians and others whose cultures generally included drinking alcohol.
But 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.”5
A Catholic newspaper argued that the New York Anti-Saloon League, under Anderson, was worse than the Ku Klux Klan. It had become the leading anti-Catholic organization in the state. Anderson said that the growth of the KKK was a natural and welcome response to Catholic opposition to Prohibition. And to “the aggression of these wet anti-Protestant forces.”
In 1924, a jury held Anderson guilty of embezzling money from the League. So he went to prison for forgery.
Bishop James Cannon, Jr.
The Legislative Superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League was Bishop James Cannon, Jr. He hated Catholicism almost as much as alcohol. He called it “The mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance, and sin.”6 The presidential campaign of 1928 was between Catholic Al Smith and Protestant Herbert Hoover. Cannon “launched extremely personal attacks on Smith that shocked even many seasoned political observers.”7
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.”8
Scandal destroyed the reputation and power of Bishop Cannon. Both civil and church courts charged him with numerous crimes. He illegally used church funds to support a political candidate. The bishop engaged in shady or illegal stock market manipulations with a corrupt firm. He illegally hoarded flour during World War I and sold at great profit. Cannon embezzled a substantial fortune. And he had a sexual affair with his secretary while his wife was ill. These revelations destroyed the reputation and influence of this once powerful dry leader.
William E. (“Pussyfoot”) Johnson
Leader William E. (“Pussyfoot”) Johnson developed some of the tactics used by the ASL. For example, he wrote to wet leaders, claiming to be a brewer. He 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.” Pussyfoot wrote this in “I had to lie, bribe and drink to put over prohibition in America.”9 (Ananias was a notorious liar in the New Testament.)
Wayne B. Wheeler
Wayne B. Wheeler was the highly talented and skillful de facto leader of the ASL for decades. He often bragged about the many deceptions he used in promoting Prohibition. With the strong organization 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.10
By 1926, however, members of Congress were criticizing and investigating Wheeler. They were questioning the legality of the League’s spending in some congressional races. He retired shortly thereafter.
II. Decline of the ASL
The failure of National Prohibition (1920-1933) became apparent as time passed. The massive problems it caused also became painfully apparent. With this, the power of the Anti-Saloon League quickly eroded.
Organizations calling for Repeal proliferated and grew quickly. Many major supporters of Prohibition came to oppose it. They included John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Henry Ford. They believed that Prohibition wasn’t simply ineffective. These leaders saw it as counterproductive. Worse than nothing. And they publicly called for its repeal.
From 1948 until 1950 it was the Temperance League. From 1950 to 1964 it was the National Temperance League. Since then it’s the American Council on Alcohol Problems. Of course, the current name disguises its neo-prohibition and, ultimately, prohibition agenda.
Repeal occurred in 1933. Yet today, almost one in five U.S. adults supports making drinking illegal. Many more support neo-prohibitionism. And they defend the remnants of Prohibition that still exist.
The best single source of information about the League is Peter H. Odegard’s Pressure Politics. NY: Columbia U. Press, 1928, rep 1966. Also excellent is Austin Kerr’s Organized for Prohibition. A New History. New Haven: Yale U. Press, 1985. Finally, Justin Steuart’s Wayne Wheeler, Dry Boss. NY: Revell, 1928, is very good.
The League’s archives and other materials are at the Anti-Saloon Museum.
Burke, W. The Anti-Saloon League as a political force. Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci, 1908, 32, pp. 27-37.
Chalfant, H. The Anti-Saloon League – why and what? Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1923, 109, pp. 279-283.
Cherrington, E. History of the Anti-Saloon League. Westerville, OH: Am Issue, 1913.
Clapp E. Secret Records of the Anti-Saloon League Exposed. Washington, DC: Joint Legislative Committee on Modification of the Volstead Act, 1927.
Cumberland, W. Walking straight. Claud McMillan and the Anti-Saloon League. Palimpest, 1988, 69(4).
Donovan, B. Framing and strategy. Explaining differential longevity in the WCTU and the Anti-Saloon League. Sociol Inq, 1995, 65(2), 143-155.
Ewin, J. The Birth of the Anti-Saloon League. Washington, D.C., ASL, 1913.
Hanson, D. Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. Am Nat Bio. NY: Oxford U. Press, 1999.
Jackson, J. The work of the Anti-Saloon League. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci, 1908, 32, 12-26.
Kerr, K. Organizing for Reform. The Anti-Saloon League. Am Q, 1980, 32(1), 37-53.
Lamme, M. The “Public Sentiment Building Society”: the Anti-Saloon League of America, 1895-1910. J Hist, 2003, 29(3), 123-132.
Pegram, T. Temperance Politics and Regional Political Culture: the Anti-saloon League. J South Hist, 1997, 63(1), 57-90.
Pegram, T. The Dry Machine. Ill Hist J, 1990, 83(3), 173-186.
Ware, H. The Anti-Saloon League Wages War in Phoenix, 1910. J Ariz Hist, 1998, 39(2), 141-154.
1. Kerr, K. Organizing for reform. Am Q, 1980, 32(1), 37-53.
2. Ellis, M. German-Americans in World War I. In: Fiebig-von Hase, R., and Lehmkuhl, U. (Eds.) Enemy Images in American History. Oxford, Eng: Berghahn, 1997, pp 183-208.
3. Going Dry.
4. Lerner, M. Dry Manhattan. Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 2009, p. 32.
5, Anderson, W.H. Catholics and Prohibition. Lit Digest, 1920, v. 65, p. 44.
6. Burns, E. Spirits of America. Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 2004, p. 177.
7. Rose, K. American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition. NY: NYU. Press, 1996, p. 60.
8. Winkler, J. What we say, what we do. Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, April 22, 2007.
10. Steuart, J. and Dinwiddle, E. Wayne Wheeler, Dry Boss. NY: Revell, 1928, p. 1 (One very long sentence broken into smaller ones.)