I. Prohibition in the U.S.
Was prohibition conservative or liberal? National prohibition existed in the U.S. from early 1920 to late 1933. That’s almost 14 years. It’s also been tried in many countries. For example, in Russia under Lenin and in Finland, Norway, and India.
Columbia University’s Richard Hofstadter published Age of Reform in 1955. It received a Pulitzer Prize. And in 1963, University of California (San Diego) professor Joseph Gusfield published Symbolic Crusade.
In essence, both argued that prohibition resulted from a struggle for a certain moral order. That is, a vision for society. It also was a result of a struggle for status, wealth, and power. In short, prohibition was the result of a cultural war. Some consider that to be a conservative view.
Liberals of the Progressive Era (1890-1920) sought an ideal world. In it, people would protected from each other. And also from themselves. They thought drinking caused poverty, crime, corruption, disease, disease and death. So prohibition was a major goal of the progressive movement. In fact, James Timberlake detailed this fact in Prohibition and the Progressive Movement in 1963.
Of course, any social movement has internal conflicts. There are also those who support it for different reasons. And there are often strange alliances.
This was also true of the prohibition movement. For example, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) opposed drink. So it often cooperated with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). (In fact, the Klan of the 1920s was founded in 1915 to defend Georgia’s new state-wide prohibition.)
Thus, progressives were often supported by those who were not progressives at all. Established protestants often feared the influx of millions of Catholics and Jews, who regularly drank. Rural residents often resented the growing influence of cities. That, along with their crime, poverty, and alcoholics. And the list goes on.
As a result, some view prohibition as a conservative movement. But was it really?
II. Prohibition as Progressive
Mark Schrad recently argues that prohibition was progressive. In so doing, he reflects Timberlake’s Prohibition and the Progressive Movement. In his Smashing the Liquor Machine, Schrad extends his analysis around the world. Additionally, he writes that most people falsely believe that prohibition was a conservative idea. In fact, he says that “Everything you know about prohibition is wrong.”
Schrad writes that “all great reforms go together.” Over time, prohibition was associated with these movements.
- Socialism (which he prefers to call social democracy)
- Liberation Struggle
- Labor Protection
- Increasing Social Welfare Payments
- Peace Movement
- Class Struggle Activism
- Social Christianity
- War Against Corporate Greed
- Increasing Federal Power
- Economic Justice
- Indigenous Rights
- Prison Reform
- Dress Reform
- Power to the People
So was prohibition conservative or liberal? The history of prohibition strongly suggests that it was a liberal movement. That’s not to say that conservatives sometimes didn’t side with prohibition. They clearly did. But prohibition was clearly the culmination of a progressive ideal.
IV. Resources: Was Prohibition Conservative or Legal?
Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. New York: Doubleday, 1950.
Burt, E. The Progressive Era. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.
De Witt, B. The Progressive Movement. New Brunswick: Transaction, 2013.
Folsom, B. No More Free Markets or Free Beer: the Progressive Era. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999.
Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: Putnam, 1965.
Krout, J. A. The Origins of Prohibition. New York: Knopf, 1925.
Cortazar, R. Prohibition politics created groundwork for modern liberalism. Harvard Gazette, Feb 8, 2007.