The Truth About Prohibition

The temperance movement wasn’t an example of American exceptionalism; it was a globe-spanning network of activists and politicians who tilted not against sin but against economic exploitation.

Prohibition agents examining barrels on boat, c. 1925.
Library of Congress

The Prohibition era, which for most Americans conjures images of “untouchable” lawmen, tommy-gun-toting gangsters, and jazz-filled speakeasies, is easily one of the most romanticized periods in U.S. history. It’s also one of the most misunderstood. We now vilify the temperance activists who promoted public welfare and excuse corrupt and murderous gangsters such as Al Capone as “legitimate businessmen” who only wanted to slake the thirst of paying customers. The whole concept is topsy-turvy.

How did that all happen? What caused Prohibition? The real answer might surprise you.

In pop-culture portrayals and serious academic histories, the usual explanation boils down to what one author called “a political crazy quilt”: Bible-thumping American conservatives legislating morality, temperance and women’s-rights busybodies meddling in the world of male leisure, the Ku Klux Klan “disciplining” Black people and immigrants, and all of them whipped into an irrational anti-German, anti-beer frenzy by World War I.

But the temperance movement wasn’t an example of American exceptionalism; it was a globe-spanning network of activists and politicians who tilted not against sin but against the economic exploitation of trafficking in highly addictive substances. In the early 20th century, scores of countries restricted the liquor trade in the interest of public well-being. Outside the United States, a dozen countries, including the Russian empire, Norway, and Turkey, as well as expansive swaths of colonial Africa and India, adopted prohibition.

With so many global experiences to examine, it’d be foolish to extrapolate the causes of prohibitionism from just any single case study, even the well-known American one.

In Russia (the first country to introduce a version of prohibition), critics of the imperial autocracy—which included the great writer Leo Tolstoy and the revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky—condemned the czar’s vodka monopoly, which funded royal splendor on the drunken misery of the masses. Social Democrats in Sweden pushed for a government monopoly on the liquor traffic so that profits would benefit the whole society, not just the ultra-wealthy. Belgian Social Democrats drew parallels between the liquor subjugation of the working classes and the brutalized Africans in Belgium’s Congo colony. In the autocratic German and Austro-Hungarian empires, social democrats were joined by liberals—such as the Czechoslovak founding father Tomáš Masaryk—who saw a sober and uplifted population as a precondition for political independence and democratic self-government.

Soviet Russian propaganda poster against the risks of alcohol. A river begins with a small stream! 1929.
A Soviet Russian propaganda poster against the risks of alcohol. A river begins with a small stream! 1929.

Throughout the far-flung British empire—which was partly built by peddling opium to China and liquor everywhere else—temperance was also linked to national liberation. “Ireland sober, Ireland free” was the rallying cry of generations of nationalists, from the United Irishmen to Daniel O’Connell to Sinn Fein, who understood that it was the English who profited from selling liquor, leaving the downtrodden Irish in drunken poverty. In Bechuanaland—present-day Botswana—the dry King Khama III stood against the alcoholic incursions of Cecil Rhodes and his British South Africa Company, who saw only profit in exploiting Khama’s native land and people. Mahatma Gandhi was a prohibitionist in India for the same reason: He understood that liquor revenues were vital to the British Raj, and abstinence would starve the British occupiers of that money. And when the British and European powers carved up the former Ottoman empire after World War I, even the heavy-drinking Kemal Atatürk turned to prohibition to prevent the Europeans from capitalizing on his people.

This broader global context makes clear that prohibitionism was not conservative; it was progressive. It was not a culture clash of the propertied classes trying to “discipline” the have-nots. Just the opposite: Temperance was a weapon of the weak against imperialism, against predatory capitalism, and against an autocratic state that promoted and profited from ordinary people’s subordination to an addictive substance. Prohibitionism wasn’t reactionary; it was revolutionary.

Bringing this understanding back to the United States lays bare uncomfortable truths about American history. Namely, it shows that American temperance history—from Lyman Beecher’s pioneering Six Sermons on Intemperance (1826) to the Twenty-First (repeal) Amendment—is usually taught as white people’s history. African Americans, Native Americans, and immigrant groups have been mostly excluded from our temperance history. At most they are portrayed as disempowered communities with no agency of their own. This is surprising because—as it turns out—the most vocal proponents of American prohibitionism have always been its minority populations.

America’s first prohibitionists were actually its first people. From their initial contact with European settlers, Native Americans were decimated by mind-bending industrial liquors to which they’d had no prior exposure. Native American leaders such as Little Turtle, Red Jacket, Tecumseh, and Black Hawk fought strenuously against the depredations of “the white man’s wicked water” decades before white activists took up the cause.

When white reformers finally embraced the temperance cause, in the early 19th century, it was inexorably tied to abolitionism. William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Martin Delany, and Abraham Lincoln were all temperance men. Perhaps the most famous temperance orator of the day was Frederick Douglass, who vowed “to go the whole length of prohibition” to ensure that Black Americans “support by voice, vote, and co-operation, the grand Prohibition movement.” Generations of civil-rights activists—such as Ida Wells, Booker T. Washington, and W.E.B. Du Bois—took up the temperance banner for the betterment of both Black communities and white.

The movement for women’s rights also originated in temperance. Women bore the brunt of men’s drunken addiction but were economically, legally, and politically powerless. Securing equal political rights was the only way to confront the entrenched political power of the corrupt liquor machine. The equal-rights stalwarts Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Frances Willard all began their political work as temperance activists. Suffragism, abolition, and temperance together proclaimed that no individual has the right to exploit another for their own profit.

The outmoded culture-clash explanation of Prohibition always struggled to account for how the Eighteenth Amendment—the crowning achievement of this supposedly “reactionary” movement—came at the height of the Progressive era, or how it was supported by legislative supermajorities in Congress and ratified nationwide. It shouldn’t be a head-scratcher. Prohibitionism was a fundamentally progressive movement aimed at reining in the excesses of capitalism and corruption. Democrats like William Jennings Bryan and Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt all agreed that good governance meant breaking up powerful monopolies and corrupt political machines, and that by spreading misery and poverty, the so-called liquor trust was by far the worst offender.

The history of American prohibitionism that we’ve been told for generations is not only flat-out wrong but overlaid with all sorts of latent historical biases. The conventional wisdom fundamentally misportrays both the aims and scope of the temperance movement as being about “sin” rather than predatory capitalism, disingenuously vilifies generations of benevolent reformers, and dismisses or obscures the importance of nonwhite political actors throughout American history.

Overly narrow historical accounts are like blinders on a horse. Taking them off by situating the American experience in a global, comparative context shows us the richness of the broader world around us, and lays bare our biases, shortcomings, and blind spots. A true people’s history of prohibitionism reveals not some moral crusade of fringe crackpots but a vital reform movement that is fundamentally consistent with America’s founding principles, and reflective of the amazing diversity of the American people. Even today, as we engage in a reckoning with our nation’s history, taking a second look at prohibitionism can highlight that our popular understanding of the past is often wrong.