Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps

Prohibition couldn’t have happened without Wheeler, who foisted temperance on a thirsty nation 90 years ago

This Detroit scene was repeated across the nation, January, 16, 1920, as shoppers stocked up on the last day before Prohibition took effect. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 3)

By Election Day, the ASL’s leadership, its publicists and its 50,000 lecturers, fund-raisers and vote counters had completed their work. While the rest of the nation remained in suspense as the votes in the 1916 presidential balloting were counted in California—the state’s 13 electoral votes would re-elect Woodrow Wilson—the managers of the ASL slept comfortably.

“We knew late election night that we had won,” Wheeler would recall a decade later. The league, he wrote, had “laid down such a barrage as candidates for Congress had never seen before.” Every wet measure on every statewide ballot was defeated. Four more states had voted themselves dry, including Michigan, the first Northern industrial state to make the leap. Some form of dry law was now on the books in 23 states. And, wrote Wheeler, “We knew that the Prohibition amendment would be submitted to the States by the Congress just elected.”

Shortly after that Congress was sworn in, Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas introduced the resolution that would become the 18th Amendment. Sheppard was a Yale man, a Shakespeare scholar and one of the Senate’s leading progressive figures. But all that mattered to Wheeler was that Sheppard also believed that the liquor sellers preyed most dangerously on the poor and uneducated.

In fact, Wheeler’s devotion to the dream of a dry America accommodated any number of unlikely allies. Billy Sunday, meet pioneering social worker Jane Addams: you’re working together now. The evangelical clergy of the age were motivated to support Prohibition because of their faith; reformers like Addams signed on because of the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sentiment was rooted in its hatred of the immigrant masses in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor.

After the Sheppard amendment passed both houses of Congress with gigantic majorities in late 1917, Wheeler turned to what most political figures believed to be a much tougher battle, a state-by-state ratification campaign. The drys would need to win over both legislative houses in at least 36 states to reach the three-quarters requirement.

To the shock of many, ratification would come with astonishing velocity. For years the ASL’s vast national organization had been mobilizing its critical minority of voters to carry legislative elections in every state. But what really put across ratification in an eventual 46 states (Connecticut and Rhode Island were the only holdouts) had nothing to do with political organizing. The income tax had made a Prohibition amendment fiscally feasible. The social revolution wrought by the suffragists had made it politically plausible. Now Wheeler picked up the final tool he needed to wedge the amendment into the Constitution: a war.

A dry Wisconsin politician named John Strange summarized how the ASL was able to use World War I to attain its final goal: “We have German enemies across the water,” Strange said. “We have German enemies in this country, too. And the worst of all our German enemies, the most treacherous, the most menacing, are Pabst, Schlitz, Blatz and Miller.” That was nothing compared with the anti-German—and pro-Prohibition—feeling that emerged from a Senate investigation of the National German-American Alliance (NGAA), a civic group that during the 1910s had spent much of its energy opposing Prohibition.

The Senate hearings were a disaster for wets. At a time when most Amerians reviled all things German—when the governor of Iowa declared that speaking German in public was unlawful, and playing Beethoven was banned in Boston, and sauerkraut became known as “liberty cabbage”—the NGAA was an easy target. When the hearings revealed that NGAA funds came largely from the beer barons, and that beer money had secretly secured the purchase of major newspapers in several cities, ratification proceeded, said the New York Tribune, “as if a sailing-ship on a windless ocean were sweeping ahead, propelled by some invisible force.”

“Invisible” was how Wayne Wheeler liked it. In fact, he had personally instigated, planned and materially abetted the Senate inquiry—inquisition, really—into the NGAA. “We are not willing it be known at present that we started the investigation,” Wheeler told a colleague. But he added, “You have doubtless seen the way the newspapers have taken up the German-American Alliance. They are giving it almost as much attention as the Acts of Congress itself.”

The Senate hearings had begun on September 27, 1918. Less than four months later, Nebraska ratified (by a 96 to 0 vote in its lower house), and the 18th Amendment was embedded in the Constitution. From the moment of submission, it had taken 394 days to meet the approval of 36 state legislatures—less than half as long as it had taken 11 of the first 14 states to approve the Bill of Rights.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus