Prejudice and Prohibition of Alcohol in the U.S.

Background

Beginning in the 1880s, tens of millions of immigrants poured into the U.S. They largely came from eastern and southern Europe. A large proportion of them were Catholics and Jews. They tended to settle in large cities in the northeastern part of the country. This set the stage for the link between prejudice and prohibition.

Most members of the existing population were northern European in origin and were Protestants. They generally lived in rural areas or small towns and cities. They tended to feel threatened by this major demographic shift. The stage was set for a cultural war.

Cultural War

A major component of this cultural war was prohibition. To a large degree it was symbolic. Existing ways were to prevail over newer lifestyles. It was also seen as a way to ‘Americanize’ this influx of people and their unfamiliar ways.

Mary Hunt

Leader Mary Hunt of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) expressed this concern. She was distressed over “the enormous increase of immigrant population flooding us from the old world, men and women who have brought to our shores and into our politics old world habits and ideas [favorable to alcohol].’ Her writings made frequent references to this “undesirable immigration” and “these immigrant hordes.”1

James Cannon. Jr.

Episcopal Bishop James Cannon, Jr. was one of the most powerful prohibition leaders in the entire country. He told voters that wet candidate Al 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.”2

Bishop Cannon called New York City ‘Satan’s Seat.’ Anti-Saloon League leader William H. Anderson shared that view. He attributed resistance to Prohibition in the City to ‘unwashed and wild-eyed foreigners who have no comprehension of the spirit of America.’3 He attacked Jews, Irish, Italians and others whose cultures generally included drinking alcohol.

Others

Purley A. Baker was a high-ranking leader in the Anti-Saloon League. Most brewers were German immigrants or of German origin. Baker asserted that Germans “eat like gluttons and drink like swine.’4

Clarence True Wilson was a major temperance leader. Before Prohibition was approved, he ‘sounded the alarm that German Jews had taken control of the liquor traffic.’ By his words and actions, Wilson was ant-Semitic, anti-Catholic, and anti-immigrant.

Robert P. Shuler was the Prohibition Party candidate who received the highest vote of any prohibition candidate ever. He attacked Catholics, Jews and African-Americans for drinking. He also attacked their alleged dishonesty, corruption, and immorality.

KKK
prejudice and prohibition

KKK: Defender of Prohibition

Prohibition attracted those who wanted to preserve the status quo. It was a major reason for the growth of a new Ku Klux Klan  (KKK) of the 1920s.  Hiram Wesley Evans, head of the Klan, wrote The Menace of Modern Immigration, published in  1923. The Klan enforced Prohibition, sometimes violently.

But Prohibition also appealed to idealists. They thought laws could be imposed to create an almost perfect society. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Ku Klux Klan cooperated with the idealistic WCTU. In fact, tke  KKK and WCTU were partners in Prohibition.

Anti-Catholicism

Bishop Cannon hated Catholicism almost as much as alcohol. He called the Catholic Church ‘The mother of ignorance, superstition, intolerance, and sin.’5

After Prohibition was achieved, William H. Anderson said Catholic leaders were ‘indignant over what they consider a Protestant victory.’ Therefore, he said, the Church was engaged in ‘efforts to destroy [the Prohibition] victory and bring back the saloons.’6 Anderson later formed what he called the  American Prohibition Protestant Patriotic Protective Alliance.

The Anti-Saloon called itself  “The Protestant Church in Action.”

A Catholic newspaper claimed that the New York Anti-Saloon League, under Anderson, had replaced the Ku Klux Klan as the leading anti-Catholic organization in the state. 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.’7

The KKK existed throughout the country. Indeed, most members lived outside the states of the former Confederacy.

Unfortunately, these anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and anti-Black prejudices permeated the entire Prohibition movement. Indeed, the movement was largely an expression of those prejudices.

References for Prejudice and Prohibition

1   Hunt, M. An Epoch of the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Foster, 1897, p. 63.

2.   Winkler, J. What we say, what we do. Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church, April 22, 2007.

3   Anderson, W. Catholics and Prohibition. Lit Digest, 1920,  65, 44.

4   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.

5   Burns, E. Spirits of America. Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 2004, p. 177.

6  Anderson, ibid.

7  Lerner, M. Dry Manhattan.  Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2008, p.119.