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Thursday, March 2, 2023

March 2, 2023: Temperance Milestones: The Anti-Saloon League

[400 years ago this week, the first temperance law in American history was passed. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that 1623 law and four other milestone moments in temperance history!]

On one important innovation and one troubling interconnection for America’s most influential temperance organization.

Each of the posts in this series has moved between more individual and more collective and organizational temperance activisms, and I don’t think that’s just due to my own choices and focal points: it seems to me that any social movement that endures and achieves significant successes likely needs both groundbreaking leaders and widespread communal support. Similarly, the final push toward Prohibition (on which more in tomorrow’s concluding post) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries relied on both the individual presence and prominence of yesterday’s subject Carrie Nation and the social and political connections of the Anti-Saloon League. Founded in 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, the League certainly featured its share of impressive individual leaders, from founder Howard Hyde Russell to the hugely influential lawyer Wayne Bidwell Wheeler among others. But it was precisely the League’s organizational presence that made it so effective in shifting national conversations.

The League utilized a number of strategies to achieve those aims, including creating its own American Issue Publishing Company in 1909; that publisher produced and mailed so many pamphlets that its hometown of Westerville, Ohio became the smallest town to feature a first-class post office in the period. But by far the most influential element of the Anti-Saloon League’s activist efforts was a strategy that the organization seems to have created (and which was certainly related to those ubiquitous publications): pressure politics, the concept of using a variety of interconnected means, from mass media and communication to intimidation and threats, to pressure political leaders to support and pass particular legislation and policies. There’s no doubt that it was the successful application of such political pressure by the League and its allies (but most especially by the League) that convinced enough national and state politicians to support Prohibition (after well more than a half-century of unsuccessful temperance movement efforts toward that specific end), leading to the Congressional passage and state-level ratification of the 18th Amendment in 1919.

I’ll have a lot more to say about that specific League legacy tomorrow. But it’s important to add a troubling layer and contemporary context, particularly to the application of pressure politics: the other organization which used that strategy with particular effectiveness in the 1920s was the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. Moreover, this wasn’t a coincidence or even just a parallel—as historian Howard Ball has discovered, in a setting like late 1910s and 1920s Birmingham the two organizations were closely connected, to the point that a local journalist wrote, “In Alabama, it is hard to tell where the Anti-Saloon League ends and the Klan begins.” And it wasn’t just Alabama—throughout the 1920s the two organizations were allies not only in enforcing Prohibition (although I’m sure the League would say that was their only goal) but in achieving their political and social goals on multiple levels (an alliance, to be clear, that dated back decades by that point). The ties between white supremacy and American social movements are far from unique to temperance, of course—but that doesn’t excuse in any way this most influential temperance organization’s symbiotic relationship with white supremacist domestic terrorists.

Last milestone tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. On Twitter, Peggy Ann Brown adds, "And, of course, part of that interconnection was through the Southern Publicity Assn. which had the KKK + ASL as clients. Edward Young Clarke + Mary Elizabeth Tyler became rich off their KKK recruiting scheme, which successfully brought in members during the 1st part of the 1920s."