“Prohibitionism, with its focus on the saloons and the immigrants who populated them, was propelled by no small amount of ethnic nationalism”

Prohibition was a profoundly Christian movement, delivering its message in the language of revivalism. But there were Christians on both sides: where many Baptists and Methodists saw Prohibition as a strike against depravity, Catholics perceived it as an attack on their communities, not to mention their Communion wine. Southern states were drier than Northeastern ones, middle classes were drier than working classes, and Americans with deep roots were drier than recent arrivals. These disparate factions were held together by a relentless lobbyist named Wayne Wheeler, the leader of the Anti-Saloon League, who realized that politicians’ fear of Prohibitionist anger might outweigh their disinclination to act decisively on an issue that divided both parties.

Prohibitionism, with its focus on the saloons and the immigrants who populated them, was propelled by no small amount of ethnic nationalism. (McGirr notes that in 1910 more than four in ten residents of New York City were foreign-born—slightly higher even than today.) McGirr is unsparing in her analysis of the preoccupations that underlay the resistance to alcohol. She quotes Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, who was convinced that “alcoholism threatens the destruction of the white race.” Elizabeth Tilton, a wellborn and influential suffragist and Prohibitionist, was particularly concerned about the price that alcoholism exacted from poor immigrants, who “thought little but acted rashly.” In Tilton, McGirr diagnoses a barely disguised and mean-spirited status anxiety. She writes that Tilton, and others like her, “sought to buttress their previous easy dominance against an ever more pluralist, urban, and proletarian nation.” And it is true that most Prohibitionists supported the 1924 Immigration Act, which set national quotas designed to limit the number of new arrivals judged undesirable—but then so did nearly everybody else. In the meantime, many of the Prohibitionist leaders expressed an earnest—and characteristically Progressive—desire to help those who seemed, to them, insufficiently progressed. William Allen White, a paragon of Progressivism, stated the movement’s credo memorably, and revealingly: “We believed faithfully that if we could only change the environment of the under dog, give him a decent kennel, wholesome food, regular baths, properly directed exercise, cure his mange and abolish his fleas, and put him in the blue-ribbon class, all would be well.”

At times, the Prohibitionists permitted themselves to express their frustration in less conciliatory terms. McGirr quotes Frances Willard, the W.C.T.U. president, who sometimes described her political opponents as crude invaders. “Alien illiterates rule our cities today,” she wrote. “The saloon is their place; the toddy stick their scepter.” McGirr cites this, persuasively, as proof that Prohibition was “imbued with a deeply antidemocratic impulse.” In the Presidential campaign of 1928, Al Smith, the anti-Prohibition governor of New York, lost in a landslide to Herbert Hoover, in an election that functioned partly as a referendum on Smith’s Catholic faith—opponents accused him of supporting “rum and Romanism.” In many cases, the high-minded Progressives and anti-“alien” sloganeers weren’t merely awkward allies, but the same people.

Kelefa Sanneh, “Drunk With Power” The New Yorker (21 & 28 December 2015), 107.