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)
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The ASL’s state-by-state campaign was reasonably effective, particularly in the South. But in 1913, two events led the organization to adopt a new strategy. First, Congress overrode President William Howard Taft’s veto of something called the Webb-Kenyon Act, which outlawed the importation of alcoholic beverages into a dry state. The stunning 246 to 95 override vote in the House of Representatives showed not just the power of the anti-liquor forces but also how broadly representative they had become.

The override was followed by enactment of a national income tax authorized by the recently ratified 16th Amendment. Until 1913, the federal government had depended on liquor taxes for as much as 40 percent of its annual revenue. “The chief cry against national Prohibition,” the ASL’s executive committee said in a policy statement that April, “has been that the government must have the revenue.” But with an income tax replacing the levy on liquor, that argument evaporated, and the ASL could move beyond its piecemeal approach and declare its new goal: “National Prohibition, [to] be secured through the adoption of a Constitutional Amendment.”

The ASL statement called this new policy “The Next and Final Step.” But the league could not take that step without extracting Wheeler from Ohio and sending him to Washington. Although that didn’t happen officially until 1916, Wheeler’s domination of the highest councils of the ASL began with the 1913 decision to push for a Prohibition amendment. Shuttling between Columbus and the ASL’s Washington office, he displayed the strategic savvy and the unstoppable drive that would eventually lead the editors of the New York Evening World to proclaim him “the legislative bully before whom the Senate of the United States sits up and begs.”

By the time Wheeler stepped onto the national stage, he had long since mastered his legislative parlor tricks. When Lincoln Steffens had visited Columbus several years earlier, Wheeler explained his tactics to the great muckraker. “I do it the way the bosses do it, with minorities,” Wheeler said. By delivering his voters to one candidate or another in a close race, he could control an election: “We’ll vote against all the men in office who won’t support our bills. We’ll vote for candidates who will promise to.” Wheeler, who had greeted Steffens amiably—“as a fellow reformer,” Steffens recalled— now “hissed his shrewd, mad answer” to those politicians who would betray ASL voters: “We are teaching these crooks that breaking their promises to us is surer of punishment than going back on their bosses, and some day they will learn that all over the United States—and we’ll have national Prohibition.”

A constitutional amendment mandating such a thing required a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress as well as legislative majorities in 36 states. Wheeler’s skill at achieving majorities by manipulating minorities freed the ASL from the more cumbersome referendum and initiative movement. When voters were offered a simple yes-or-no, dry-or-wet choice on a ballot measure, a minority was only a minority. But when two candidates in an election could be differentiated by isolating one issue among many, Wheeler’s minority could carry the day. A candidate with, say, the support of 45 percent of the electorate could win with the added votes of the ASL bloc. In other words, in legislative elections, the power of Wheeler’s minority could be measured in multiples.

A resolution calling for a Prohibition amendment had been introduced in nearly every Congress since 1876, but none had ever emerged from committee. And no version of a female suffrage amendment had gotten as far as floor debate in two decades. But in the congressional session of 1914, both were reported out of committee on the same day.

This was no coincidence. The suffrage movement had long shared a constituency with the anti-liquor movement. Frances Willard and the WCTU campaigned actively for both causes. Susan B. Anthony had first become involved in securing the vote for women when she was denied the right to speak at a temperance convention in 1852 in Albany, New York. By 1899, after half a century of suffrage agitation, Anthony attempted to weld her movement to the Prohibition drive. “The only hope of the Anti-Saloon League’s success,” she told an ASL official, “lies in putting the ballot into the hands of women.” In 1911, Howard Russell’s successor as the league’s nominal leader, Purley A. Baker, agreed. Women’s suffrage, he declared, was “the antidote” to the efforts of the beer and liquor interests.

This was not the only alliance that the ASL made with other movements. Though in its public campaigns it stuck to its single issue, the league had worked with Western populists to secure ratification of the income tax amendment. It made common cause with progressives who were fighting the political power of the saloons in order to bring about the “uplift” of urban immigrants. In the South, Prohibitionists stood side by side with racists whose living nightmare was the image of a black man with a bottle in one hand and a ballot in the other.

Such alliances enabled the dry forces to make their first congressional impact on December 22, 1914, when a version of a Prohibition amendment came up for a vote before the entire House of Representatives. The final tally was 197 for, 190 against—not the two-thirds majority the Constitution required, but an astonishing victory, nonetheless. Dry votes came from both parties and from every part of the country. Nearly two-thirds of the affirmative voters lived in towns with fewer than 10,000 people, but among the House members of the largely urban Progressive Party, 17 of the 18 who voted went dry.

The ASL’s assiduous attention to Congress had made wet politicians wobble, uncertain politicians sprint for dry shelter and dry politicians flex their biceps. Heading toward the 1916 elections, the league’s political expenditures exceeded the 2010 equivalent of $50 million in a single year.


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