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Collection Woodrow Wilson Papers

“We must get busy and strike at the root of the evil—and strike hard:” The Debate over Prohibition in Letters to Wilson

Anti-saloon broadside "Daddy's in there", showing 2 ragged children outside saloon, ca. 1917, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. LC-USZ62-54501 (b&w film copy neg.)

File 144 in Series 4 of the Woodrow Wilson Papers chronicles the debate surrounding the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors. The amendment was proposed in Congress in 1917 and was ratified in January 1919. File 144 contains 825 images in two sections: May 1914 to June 1918 and July 1918 to 1920 and undated. Letters and telegrams came from individuals as well as organizations such as the Anti-Saloon League of America, National Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and United States Brewers Association. Many letter writers attached documents, including a reprint titled “Must There Be Liquor in the Trenches?” by Nolan R. Best. There are several petitions and form-letter campaigns in the file, including one from anti-Prohibition labor organizations. Also included is a series of pro-Prohibition petitions from women in Kansas and surrounding states. As part of that campaign, the women of the Chanute Methodist Episcopal Church urged Wilson to remove all liquor from the White House. Wilson responded to several letters, though he often directed his secretary to refuse requests for visits or statements. As Wilson stated, “it is literally impossible for me to see these people.”

Prohibition activists wrote Wilson of the evils of liquor, often sharing their personal stories. Katie Low Hall passionately described how liquor robbed her brother of his life: “O! if we had only been under National Prohibition when Ernest was growing up, what a noble citizen he would have been.” P. J. Maveely and I. Garland Penn of the Freedmen’s Aid Society Methodist Episcopal Church declared in their telegram that the “saloon business [is] in [a] class by itself because it is destructive to the individual, the family, and nation.”

Opponents of the “Bone Dry Amendment” pointed to its violation of property rights and the economic hardship of job losses. E. Bick, who presided over the United Liquor Dealers’ Association, argued that “such legislation confiscates property rights without compensation.”  William F. Gude, chair of the District of Columbia Referendum Association, agreed, declaring that Prohibitionists are fighting for property “to be condemned without compensation, where the individual liberty is to be invaded and all without an opportunity for consideration.” Confiscation of property was brought up as well by George W. Folsom, a mail order printer, who appealed to Wilson “man to man to temper your justice with mercy and heedless of clamor” and give people time to save money and get a different job. Folsom’s letter, as well as one from the Amalgamated Lithographers of America, represent the large number of related businesses and industries that lobbied against the amendment. For others, the economic impact of Prohibition was deeply personal. Mrs. Perch of Washington, D.C., wrote a stirring letter about its threat to her family: “I’m a hard working respectable Women [sic] . . . I would loose my Life Savings wich [sic] my Husband put in Saloon Business.”

In war or peace which needs it most? For the money represented by three ten cent drinks a day for a year..., ca. 1917-1918, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. LC-USZ62-118173 (b&w film copy neg.)

When World War I began in 1917, the debate shifted. Samuel Gompers declared that Prohibition would be the “greatest cause of dissension and discontent among our people,” especially in times of war “when it most essential that there shall be unity of spirit and action among the people of our country.” Wilson told his secretary to “please acknowledge and say I appreciate the very great weight of the argument he uses.” This sentiment is repeated by F. C. Finkle who stated that “we can readily see how such a thing will be used by the enemies of this country to refute and belittle the splendid utterances in your own messages in behalf of American Liberty and universal Democracy.”  Texas governor James E. Ferguson agreed.

Loyalty was itself in question as both sides hurled accusations against each other of being pro-German. Adrien Blanchard Herzog called Prohibitionists “incorrigible fanatics” who pushed “their very latest pro-German scheme to disgust and discourage the American people with the war and its further prosecution.” By contrast, W. G. Beasley, superintendent of the Missouri Anti-Saloon League, declared that “the German American Alliance has been nothing but the National Brewer association under another name and the most of the men who run the Brewers are Germans who are not citizens of this country.” Anti-German sentiment was rife, but a broader nativism entered some arguments as well. E. J. Larsen spoke of foreign labor that drinks to excess and which is “troublesome enough in a sober condition.” However, Arthur Brisbane asserted that “workers here as in other countries should be allowed to use in their discretion the stimulants which please them, which they think beneficial and to which they have the right as free men—regardless of the opinions of well meaning meddlers.”

After the war, Wilson debated with his cabinet on what to do now that the “problem therefore becomes purely one of temperance.” After hearing the arguments against, Wilson stated that “it may be that we are doing the brewers an injustice, but I must say I cannot see it . . . I do not believe that they have a convincing case.” James J. Fitzgerald pleaded that “there is a great difference between temperance and hysterical prohibition” as “doctors from all over Boston and greater Boston are prescribing liquors of all kinds to head off the terrible Influenza epidemic.” Ferdinand W. Peck blamed women’s suffrage for the popularity of Prohibition. Möerlbach Brewing Company treasurer M. S. McMahon accused the “paid prohibitionist or the dry Senators and Congressmen in Washington, who are very wet at home.” He called out the amendment for its censure of the working class stating that “the laboring man denied the personal privilege of a drink of liquor while the rich man has all he wants.” Joseph Proebstle, general financial secretary of the International Union of United Brewery, Flour, Cereal, and Soft Drink Workers of America, agreed, declaring that “under the provisions of the bill a rich man may hold in his cellar hundred thousand dollars’ worth of whiskey, brandy, and wine, for himself and his friends for the balance of his natural life; and a working man may not secure a glass of beer after his hard and arduous day’s labor.”

Check out the Records of the Bureau of Prohibition at the National Archives and the Library of Congress research guide on the Eighteenth Amendment. For educators, the National Archives has a resource guide on the Volstead Act and the Library of Congress provides Prohibition: A Case Study of Progressive Reform.

Title quotation from W. R. Calverley to Woodrow Wilson, June 7, 1918.