Alcohol Struggle Influence of National Politics During the Gilded Age
Anytime an issue hits in the heart of the people it will make its way into the political circles. Alcohol in the Gilded Age was no exception. It was an issue that impacted every area of society.
Too many households were feeling the negative impact of alcohol. Many men had taken to the bottle to deal with their troubled lives. That did not spill over into the family life very well. As it grew worse, the cry for prohibition increased.
Defining the Prohibition
What was Prohibition? It was a major time period in American history centered around the fact that alcohol was made illegal to make or drink. It was a period where alcohol was blamed on the woes of the nation.
Due to strong influence, the US government put a constitutional amendment on our establishing document that would ban the production and the sale of alcohol in the US. It appeared to be a victory for many people, but it would turn out to be a devastating decision for the nation.
Support of Women
Women were the largest proponents of prohibition and carried the flag proudly, crying out for the destruction of alcohol. Though they technically had no political say, their voices were loud enough to push into politics and bring about changes. They used the power of their voice along with the written word to convince lawmakers to make alcohol illegal. They also used their influence on the men in their own lives.
Men joined them across the nation in their stance. Most followed the women more on a religious basis as they saw how alcohol was leading many to corrupt lives. Many had seen firsthand family members who had become addicted. They were content to help the women change the world.
The voices became louder and reached out to Washington, but they started out in the state governments which helped build the momentum. From there, it reached into the highest rooms in the land.
Use of the Law
The temperance movement used the legal system to get their ultimate goal of banishing alcohol. It was a legitimate way to get their goals accomplished and one that would hopefully have lasting influence. By the start of 1914, they had only fourteen states swayed to their side. That was not enough to get the legal statue behind them. By the end of 1915, they brought nine more states in. (1) The power was leaning in their favor.
The interesting statistics comes from the fact that most of these ‘conversions’ were from the West and the South. The North and Northeast remained steadfast against the dry movement. The stance was decidedly lopsided.
Why Northern Struggle?
One of the reasons for the struggle in the North was the number of breweries which were a source of income for a large number of citizens. Alcohol was a business that kept much of the northern economies surviving. Where did the rest of the country get its alcohol? These breweries. They had a lot to lose if alcohol was banned since there was basically no other use for it but to drink it.
The legal and political fight became more than just a moral issue. It became a public campaign in which both sides called for attention. This reached far beyond an issue about drunkenness. It reached into the economy which in turn reached into politics.
The advantage the brewers had was the vast amount of wealth they had to push their agenda on the public and the politicians. (2) That made them a formidable foe against the ones asking for alcohol to be banished. But in the end, the temperance movement won out as the various prohibition organizations banded their resources together in order to fight the propaganda. They found the right political powers to help them.
Growth of Movement
They were victorious and began adding more and more states to their side. As the brewers fought back, it became evident that the nation was not completely behind the temperance movement. Too many people were siding with the temperants.
The unsettled dispute then moved up to the Supreme Court and demanded attention from all the federal politicians. (3) Washington could not ignore the issue. It had become more than just a group of disgruntled wives or religious fanatics. It had become a cultural issue that hit every aspect of society.
(1) John Milton Cooper, Jr., Pivotal Decades: The United States, 1900-1920, (WW Norton: New York, 1990), 127.
(2) “The Ohio Campaign of 1918”, Ohio Status University, http://ehistory.osu.edu/osu/mmh/ohiodry/Default.cfm.
(3) Cooper, 128-130.