Drink Reform in the United States


ARE we about to become an alcohol-free nation? Or must the long struggle against intemperance continue until mankind has reached a state of development in which its present weaknesses have been turned into strength? There is no lack of loud trumpetings in anticipation of an early and final victory over the alcohol enemy. The confident predictions impress the uninformed to a point of belief. More cautious observers are perplexed, while others rush into the fight for their own ends. The attitude of a very large portion of the public toward the present stage of drink reform in this country is one of drift, more or less marked by uneasy forebodings. Too many lack the bearings to be gained from the history of the temperance movement in its various stages, without which the present trend of things cannot be understood nor can any reasonable forecast be made for the future.

Moral suasion was the sole reliance of the temperance reform in its earliest manifestations. To create and sustain a desire for personal abstinence was the great aim. About a century ago enthusiasm for this virtue surged like a wave over much of the land. But when its force seemed about to wane, there crept into the minds of some men the belief that to pillory the drinker was not enough so long as the purveyor of drink remained unscathed. Then arose a demand for force where suasion appeared to fail, and the idea took root of compelling temperance by prohibiting the manufacture and sale of all intoxicants, which found its first full-fledged expression in the State of Maine about 1850. Many advocates of abstinence deprecated this recourse to the ‘strong arm of the law ’; but they were given a scant and hardly courteous hearing. And there was need of law, for the saloon, supplanting the old-time tavern, had in many places become a menacing institution. Gradually the battle for temperance shifted from the drinker to the drink-seller and those behind him. Old-style temperance revivals continued for many a year, to be sure, but the suppression of the saloon as the ultimate source of the drink evil became the vital issue. Within the decade of 1850-1860 twelve states followed the example of Maine and enacted prohibition,1 and in the next twenty years (1860-1880) Kansas and Rhode Island, and by 1890 the Dakotas, were added to those twelve. Thus in the space of forty years no less than seventeen commonwealths embraced the prohibition faith.

During the prohibition campaigns of the earlier periods, as now, the anti-saloon feeling was the mainspring of the agitation. In this detached students of the history of the prohibition movement concur without dissent. The saloon as we know it is distinctly the offspring of rough pioneer conditions, and whether one looked to the large urban centres or to the sparsely settled new states, it had not merely become a centre of inebriety and affiliated vices, but had reached corruptingly into political life. The legal measures for controlling the drink traffic were of the crudest sort — poor makeshifts, the results of political compromise rather than of statesmanship. But in training the heaviest fire so exclusively at the drinkseller, the appeal for personal abstinence became dangerously subordinated in the temperance campaigns. Earnest men and women bewailed this trend but were powerless to stop it. Yet to this blind reliance upon mere law to effect a moral change in the individual, we may trace the undoing of many a seemingly promising prohibition victory, won at great cost.

Of the seventeen states which between 1850 and 1890 had given their allegiance to prohibition, only three (Maine, Kansas, and North Dakota) have clung to it steadfastly until this day. We need not concern ourselves here with the history of the various enactments and repeals. The short life permitted prohibition in a number of states and their failure to renew the experiment after a test are, however, sufficient evidence that the majorities behind the law were more or less of a fictitious character, or that the benefits promised did not materialize. Two of the states under consideration compromised with their consciences. Iowa grew content to ‘mulct’ liquor-dealers and Ohio to ‘tax’ them, — a distinction in terms but not in fact, both methods being in contravention of constitutional law. Meanwhile, the states that continued to uphold prohibition did so largely in name. Spasms of enforcement alternated with periods of open violations of the law.

Yet the struggle of these twenty years had by no means been barren. In spite of obvious failures of prohibition exemplified by repeals of the law, laxity of enforcement, and other troubles, the temperance movement up to this period, aside from any influence on individual lives, had one great achievement to its credit: men began to realize as never before the political as well as social perils of an uncurbed liquor traffic. A return to ante-prohibition conditions was unthinkable. One result of the search for some constructive remedy was the high-license law of Nebraska, enacted in 1881, which automatically reduced the number of licensed places and thus was expected to secure better control. This device was eagerly adopted by a certain class of reformers, and, variously expanded, for instance by the statutory limitation of the number of saloons and a host of minor restrictive measures, it has remained the foundation stone of those laborious structures, the modern license laws.

But a far more important and valuable heritage of the earlier temperance movement was the status secured for the principle of local option. While local prohibition was applied both in Europe and the United States prior to the state-wide experiment of Maine, the distinction of legally recognizing the principle that the local community has the right to license or veto the drink traffic belongs to this country.

For more than a decade subsequent to 1890 the usually troubled waters of temperance reform remained comparatively unruffled. The prohibition propaganda had perceptibly weakened, notwithstanding the advent of the prohibitionists as a political party. Meanwhile, a mass of new liquor legislation crept into the statute books, though for the greater part of a trivial nature except as it afforded the local-option principle freer play. There was, however, one notable departure from the routine temperance propaganda. The State of South Carolina established its dispensary system, whereby the state assumed supreme control of drink-selling for public account. In time this experiment, now practically abandoned, became the entering wedge which eventually rent the solidarity of the liquor traffic in the Southern states. The dispensary system was copied locally by Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina, bidding fair to spread widely. Meanwhile the seemingly dormant prohibition forces had slowly gathered new strength. In the Northern and Western states the responses to their pleas had become fitful and of less promise. But the South was now ready to lend a willing ear. Several circumstances combined to make it so. The saloons, purveyors of distilled spirits almost exclusively, had grown notoriously lawless; drunkenness was rampant, and behind all loomed the spectre, partly imagined, partly real, of danger from the uncontrolled elements among the Negroes. The dominant religious forces of the South, peculiarly fitted to be a vehicle for temperance propaganda, lent their full strength to the movement against the saloon. Perhaps more important still, there had come into being an organized force, manned by professional temperance reformers, who took command of the fighting line, — namely, the so-called Anti-Saloon League. Victories soon came apace. In the space of a few years Oklahoma, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi outlawed the manufacture and sale of intoxicants. Alabama later recanted her faith for a time, but has once more turned to prohibition.

The wash of the rising prohibition wave soon reached beyond the South. There the ground for prohibition had been sedulously prepared by a liberal application of the local-option principle. The modus operandi was unconcealed and simple: first, to lay ‘dry’ as much territory as possible by local veto and then to follow up with state-wide prohibition. This method of working toward state-wide prohibition by means of county-option laws has been pushed vigorously and in some places with notable success.

Long ago national prohibition could be discerned as the ultimate aim of the extreme and commanding element of the temperance forces. But now it has become the issue; it has indeed entered into all the campaigns of the last few years. Still, it would be hasty to declare that this issue was the decisive factor in the most recent victories for prohibition, which have brought to its ranks the states of Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, and West Virginia.


Such, in broad outline, is the history of the temperance movement in the United States so far as it is reflected in legislation. Of its minor manifestations — the campaign for compulsory temperance teaching, the innumerable restrictive enactments whereby it has been sought to curb excesses of the licensed traffic or to enforce prohibition — there is not space to write. When it is asked what has been the actual gain for temperance from the ceaseless agitation, exhortation, and forced legislation, an adequate answer is far from being simple. On turning to the Year Books of the Anti-Saloon League or of the Prohibitionists, we find the case blandly set forth thus: ‘So many states brought under prohibition rule; so many square miles of “dry” territory in license states; and so many million inhabitants living in areas from which the saloon has been banished,’ and so forth. Such superficial if pretentious evidence is unsatisfactory and hardly merits analysis. One need not rehearse the oft-told sordid tale of persistent, gross violations of prohibition law enduring in some states from one generation to another; nor point to the vast populations nominally living in ‘dry’ territory but having abundant facilities for obtaining intoxicants when they desire. Over against the extravagant claims that more than half of the population of the United States has for several years experienced the blessings of prohibition in some form, stand the irrefutable official figures of the production of alcoholic liquors. By successive stages the output of spirits, beer, and wine has risen almost without a halt, and more than kept pace with the growth of population, as shown in the following statement in round numbers:

Years Spirits withdrawn Production of beer for consumption (million barrels) (million gallons)

Years Spirits with drawn for consumption (million gallons) Production of beer (million barrels)
1900 93 39
1905 115 49
1910 126 59
1914 136 66

What the actual per capita consumption is in this country no one can tell. To measure it by the total number of inhabitants, with no allowance for nondrinkers, — abstainers, children, rural communities, and so forth, — is not only ignorant but absurd as a test of the status of temperance. There is, however, one undeniable inference which must be drawn from the official statistics: the steady upward movement in the production of intoxicants could not have taken place during these years had both state and local prohibition been truly effective. With more than one half of the people alleged to live in dry territory, one would logically expect consumption to be reduced, or at least to fall behind the growth in population; but the contrary has happened, leaving entirely aside the increase in illicit distillation and the growing use of alcoholic home brews. Common sense, no less than experience, discards the explanation that the unquestioned inincrease in consumption is attributable to the license states alone. It is even less creditable to blame the influx of immigrants, especially when one recalls that those of recent years belong largely to the abstemious races of Europe.

Fortunately the claims for temperance reform rest on a solider basis than the one commonly vaunted. In the face of the larger and more widely distributed use of alcoholic beverages, particularly of beer, one may confidently assert of our country as a whole: —

(1) That there is a growing tendency toward personal moderation and practical abstinence, partly as a result of a keener appreciation of the evils of alcoholism and partly through the amelioration of social standards and habits.

(2) That the public attitude toward intemperance has undergone profound changes which are reflected in social intercourse, in the demands of transportation and commerce and industries, and more and more in legislation against inebriety.

(3) That the temper of our people as a whole does not support the saloon of to-day as a desirable institution; many who vote against prohibition contend that the saloon must be removed from the country villages and crossroads, and they find support even within the ‘trade’ itself.

Contrasting these conditions with those of two or three decades ago, we note a measurable progress toward sobriety and cleaner living.

To whom belongs the credit? Doubtless much, very much, is due the general temperance propaganda, which, however, is by no means synonymous with the battle for prohibition. To lay dry so much territory legally is not necessarily to be counted as an achievement for temperance reform when intemperance remains as rampant as under license, and the illicit traffic gains a hold on the community quite as dangerous as that of legalized traffic. To attribute the advance made wholly to a movement which finds its chief expression in denouncing the iniquities of the purveyor of intoxicants and in preaching an ideal nowhere obtained, — an ideal to be gained by force where persuasion fails, — is to deny the potency of other forces making for betterment: religion, education, the demands of industry and commerce, better conditions of living, and so on. And surely these forces are quite as markedly active in license as in no-license communities. If it be given no man to apportion accurately the effect of the manifold factors that contribute to more sober living, one can at least point out the grievous error of ascribing it entirely to a single factor.

However gratefully improvements must be acknowledged, contentment with the present state of temperance reform were but gross indifference. Usually high planes of living are reached by many a faltering step; but we are told now that temperance will become an inevitable virtue by the simple means of national prohibition. The vociferous clamor for it is a logical outgrowth of the temperance movement under its present generalship, yet it compels the admission openly made by a few of its candid adherents that state-wide prohibition has not fulfilled the rosy expectations of its sponsors. The superficial reasons for this lie at hand. In defiance of ‘ironclad’ statutes, federal regulations concerning interstate shipments, the limitation of quantities that may be imported for private use, the fidelity in policing, and so forth, intoxicants have always found their way into forbidden territories in sufficient bulk to frustrate the object of prohibition completely, or in greater part, through illicit sales. For confirmation one need but turn to the sinister figures published annually by the United States Commissioner of Internal Revenue, of the persons who pay the federal tax as liquor-dealers in prohibition states — let alone the numbers who avoid such risk—and of the immense growth of illicit distillation which the Federal government seems unable to check.

At times and in places a periodic degree of success attends enforcement. Kansas has recently demonstrated this after failures extending over thirty years. West Virginia just now is making its first effort to the same end. One lesson has come home from the bitter warfare, — namely, that liquor-selling can be effectually suppressed in rural districts and small urban communities — and this quite independently of the state-wide law — by means of local option. But even in the happier instances of prohibition the willingness to exclude the saloon is largely conditioned by the opportunity to secure liquor for private use. In truth, nowhere and at no time has absolute prohibition been exemplified in this country. In forecasting the possibilities of absolute prohibition, the committee of the Swedish Medical Society officially deputed to study the question (1912) simply dismisses the American prohibition experiments as wholly inconclusive and therefore valueless as a guidance to other countries. Indeed, impartial and authoritative observers from abroad, like Messrs. Rowntree and Sherwell, Professor Axel Holst, and many others, have been impressed throughout their personal investigations chiefly by the extent to which prohibition is being violated and circumvented.


Habitually, the venders and makers of intoxicants are blamed for such unwholesome conditions. They are guilty in a degree; and we justly pour out upon them a full measure of wrath. No condemnation too severe can be visited upon men who for the sake of filthy profit defy constitutional and statutory law, spreading corruption and misery wherever they go. Yet that they usually find open markets beckoning them, that otherwise decent citizens become their partners in lawbreaking by purchase, argues not so much an irrepressible demand for drink as indifference to the enforcement of prohibition.

Here is the festering sore spot which prohibition so far has failed to heal. It is caused by the presence of large hostile minorities (sometimes turning into majorities), some of whose members may believe in prohibition to the extent that they frown upon the legalized saloon while demanding a supply of liquor for private use. Unfortunately, prohibition rarely, if ever, as enacted nowadays, is the expression of an untrammeled public conviction. The methods of the ordinary prohibition campaign do not require this. The paid propagandists who have assumed leadership are content to cajole where they do not persuade, through threat of social and trade boycott, or of political extinction, and by a hundred other devices not necessarily calculated to instill conviction but effective in gathering votes. They seldom fail to recruit strength from self-seeking politicians who would ride to preferment and office on the ‘water wagon,’ although they secretly despise it. This blunt but truthful speech by no means ignores the very many men and women who vote and work for the extinction of the liquor traffic with perfect single-mindedness. We are merely seeking adequately to explain why prohibition victories are usually such short-lived triumphs for temperance.

Everywhere stands out the ugly fact of substantial minorities opposed to prohibition, exclusive of persons whose creed permits them to vote for it without any intention of helping to secure enforcement of the law. Instances of states repealing prohibition after a trial are numerous; but its complete vindication by the voters after a satisfactory trial is still wanting. The State of Maine furnishes an illuminating example. When a few years ago its citizens were called upon to declare for or against the resubmission of the constitutional prohibition amendment, only a bare majority could be mustered against it; and had not the issue been clouded by political considerations, — above all, had not the illicit traffic, aided by wholesale liquor-dealers outside of the state, rallied to the support of prohibition, — Maine would certainly have shown a popular vote in favor of a license law.

The mere desire to extirpate the saloon, although professed by a majority of voters, does not suffice to uphold prohibition; for it is a question fundamentally involving the attitude of the individual toward the use of intoxicants. Until the mass of men in any state have become convinced (of which there is no evidence) that so far as they are personally concerned the temperate use of liquor is wrong, or are impelled to personal abstinence through solicitude for weaker brethren, prohibition must continue to suffer from what for the present appears to be an insuperable limitation. Human nature will not take seriously a ban upon an indulgence regarded as personally permissible. The drink question is not a plain moral issue; therefore we submit it to popular vote, a thing never done with matters involving inherent rights and wrongs. We do not debate whether various forms of crime and vice shall be suppressed, but only the methods of doing so. No one, for instance, challenges the wisdom of forbidding by legislation the sale of habit-forming drugs except for medical use. But prohibition against drink is in no sense analogous, for it denies the liberty to indulge in things which, if used moderately, are not necessarily open to condemnation.

Were the line of cleavage what absolutists contend, the numberless evasions and violations of the law which otherwise straight-walking persons permit themselves, would be unthinkable. The writer well remembers witnessing a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States persuading a black railway porter to break a state prohibitory law because he felt, or imagined, the need of something stronger than water, while passing through ‘dry’ territory. The much perplexed Negro offered this defense: ‘ What could ah say wen de co’t compel me to?’ The elevated personage in question is but a type of untold numbers in humbler walks who without compunction break the one law against drink while they implicitly obey others. Patrons of kitchen bars or the more pretentious saloon drugstores in forbidden places are not guilty alone in this attitude. It is shared commonly by men whose standing no one would challenge. Even the great institutions of learning have been known to make exceptions (perhaps for the sake of obviating a greater evil) when confronted with the question of strictly enforcing liquor legislation within their own domain. This compounding with wrong is facilitated by the law itself, which visits its whole strength upon the vender of the forbidden goods, although he be in fact but their hired custodian, while the purchaser goes scot free.

The common lack of whole-hearted acceptance of the very essence of the principle of prohibition is not merely a firm obstacle to rigid enforcement, but proof that men habitually distinguish between the obligations imposed by prohibition and other laws which the community conscience insists shall be respected. Men who speak and vote for prohibition in Congress or in state legislatures do not lose caste in society because they violate the very statute to which they have subscribed as soon as it happens to inconvenience them. Yet the same persons would be condemned for ordinary criminal acts. The strict moralist cannot justify this attitude. We are here purely concerned with the fact that it exists and that it accounts for the inherent weakness of the efforts to change habits and points of view by statutory enactment. Perhaps no more disquieting illustration of the point to be driven home can be found than the frequent political contests in prohibition states centring in the question whether the law against drink-selling shall be enforced or not. Governors, state legislatures, and numerous local officials are frequently elected on a platform of non-enforcement. It would be shallow-minded to blame such exhibitions of callousness to the dictates of law solely to the machinations of those pecuniarily interested in drink-selling, or to the degradation of this or that political party. No, it is rooted in the fact that so many differentiate between violation of prohibition and ordinary transgressions. In passing, it may be said that we touch here upon one of the fundamental ills engendered by unenforced prohibition, namely that it focuses political thought and activity of the community, not upon policies for civic advancement, but, mirabile dictu, upon the question whether constitutional and statutory enactments shall be respected!2

There is, then, no real analogy between the violation of prohibition and that of other laws which by common consent have become dead letters. In the course of time we slough off considerable legislation without formal repeal, because we have outgrown it, but the fact does not necessarily argue disrespect for law. On the other hand, there is at least a constant pretense of enforcing prohibition, and it cannot be openly flaunted without the connivance of officials.

To some extent conspicuous evils accompanying unenforced prohibition, such as the corruption of the police and other officials, the schooling of entire generations in obtaining a livelihood through violation of law, and the constant presence of alcoholism, are admitted even by the sponsors of this method of temperance reform. Naturally, the blame for such lamentable conditions is laid upon the liquor traffic in other states, as ultimately responsible; and there follows the argument: ‘Forbid by national law the manufacture and importation for purposes of sale of all intoxicants, break up the legalized liquor traffic, and these ills will disappear; the Federal government has stamped out slavery and polygamy, and will soon put an end to the drug traffic; it can do the same with liquor.’ Thus runs the speech, and hardly a day passes without its repetition in some form from the pulpit and platform.


Let us examine a bit closer this ultimate panacea for the drink evil, not in the spirit of belittling its honest advocates, but as those who would sound for possible shoals upon which temperance reform may yet be stranded. The procedure by which national prohibition might become a reality is pretty well known. The Congress must by a two-thirds vote in both its houses submit an amendment to the Constitution forbidding for all time the manufacture and importation for sale of intoxicants of every kind; then the amendment must be accepted by three fourths of the states. Already sixteen states are counted in the prohibition column, and that the twenty others necessary for the required majority can be won over is of course possible.

But let us note that the sixteen prohibition states are mainly agricultural communities, only twenty-seven per cent of their populations being urban, and that they have outlawed the drink traffic through the rural vote; that is, the areas which under normal conditions would not be encumbered by saloons have held the balance of power. The large cities invariably reject prohibition; thus in recent elections otherwise successful, Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, Portland, and Denver voted against prohibition. The likelihood of winning over the greater centres of population elsewhere is far less. In short, the more urban a state is, the greater the probability that it will oppose in particular national prohibition. Now comparatively few states contain an overwhelming or preponderating urban population and one somewhat generally distributed. Among them must be counted Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, and California; also the District of Columbia. These states, sixty-eight per cent of whose population is urban, with the District of Columbia, contain more than forty-five million inhabitants, or very nearly one half of the total number in the United States, as against twenty-six million in the avowed prohibition states. Yet, under the rule governing the acceptance of a constitutional amendment dealing with a matter of public morals, these twelve ‘sovereign’ commonwealths might be coerced to accept prohibition, and that principally by a more or less remote rural vote!

Moreover, it may conservatively be assumed that even in the prohibition states one third of the population is opposed to forced abstinence, and that the same proportion holds good in the twenty states which it is necessary to win over to secure national prohibition. These thirds, added to the number in the states one must anticipate as opposed to prohibition, would equal sixty-three millions of the total population. Thus a constitutional amendment might be secured against the expressed will of a large majority of the citizens of the United States. This is by no means a fanciful speculation, but a condition confronting the intelligent voter which should lead him to ask whether such temperance reform by compulsion does not carry the germ of its own destruction.

There are, however, more obvious barriers to the success of national prohibition. Under it the now legal manufacture of liquor for sale would automatically cease. The seal placed upon the distilleries and breweries of to-day by the Federal government would not be broken. Customs inspectors would guard against the illicit importation of liquors through the usual channels. Yet should we thereby overcome the evils for which the legalized liquor traffic is cursed—corruption and political graft, and above all else the scourge of alcoholism?

Other tremendous factors are to be reckoned with in every community that is hostile or even lukewarm to national prohibition. In the first instance there is the ease with which alcohol is produced and the consequent extraordinary temptation to make ‘easy money’ through its sale. The material for the production of alcohol is well-nigh universal. At the cost of a few cents a gallon of alcohol can be obtained from peat. Nothing is simpler than to make and operate home apparatus for distilling spirits from potatoes or grain. The fruits of the orchard and the inexhaustible supplies of berries of the woods and fields, plus sugar, will yield alcoholic beverages of deadly strength. And let us bear in mind that the home manufacture of alcohol would be legal under the proposed amendment to the Constitution so long as the product is not placed on sale. The Federal government has already proved its inability to suppress ‘moonshining,’ especially in the prohibition states; and to assume that, at a time when even fiscal interest in preventing illegal distillation would be lacking, it could close the million avenues through which alcohol in its most noxious forms might find the way to the consumer, requires an optimism born of sheer ignorance. The era of home distillation was the period of the greatest intemperance Sweden ever knew. It was in part to prevent the ever-growing home manufacture of vodka and the consequent appalling drunkenness that Russia undertook the monopoly of the manufacture of this drink, which it has lately abandoned only to find that the illegal production is once more becoming a menace.

The great issue is to prevent alcoholism; and this is not to be accomplished simply by allowing consumption under a different form. The present acquiescence in so-called prohibition in certain states is largely conditioned by the fact that alcohol has always been accessible through private importation, state liquor agencies, patent medicines, and so forth, not to mention illicit selling. Imagine the now legally accessible sources of supply cut off, but with every facility for home production of intoxicants left,and one can easily forecast a disaster to actual temperance reform which could hardly be repaired.

Under national prohibition the illicit sale of alcoholic drinks would be proportioned to the ease with which they are produced. The lure of gain is stronger than fear of an unpopular law. Certainly the Federal government could not employ an army vast enough to prevent illegal selling, even if it had authority to usurp the police power of the local community or state. The local police would prove a vain dependence in the hundreds of municipalities opposed to the law. They, too, would be set upon by temptation or cease activity in the face of juries hostile to conviction. This is not a fantastic picture of probable conditions, but one drawn from long experience of prohibition under circumstances much more conducive to fair success.

The demand for stimulants is not amenable to a fiat of the law; and whenever demand lags, one can trust the illicit vendor artificially to stimulate it. He will not depend solely upon the cravings of the alcoholic, which — contrary to the popular conception — quickly cease in the absence of what they feed upon. The young and the weak would be found as ready victims to the seductions of alcohol as they are now; and these seductions would reach them under forms far more tempting and dangerous than at present.

Were the habitual or occasional demand of millions for alcoholic stimulants merely fictitious, it could be made to disappear by legal magic and the battle would have been won long ago. But the affair is not so desperately simple. Physiologically as well as psychologically, it is unthinkable that the transition of millions from the habitual consumption of alcohol to sudden abstinence, can be effected without revolutionizing not only social customs but the very mode of life. This is a condition that defies law. There lies in this consideration no plea for the continuance of bad habits, but simply a question as to the means by which they can be abated without inviting greater evils.

Still another uncontrovertible item in the catalogue of ‘outs’ about national prohibition must be mentioned. The real warfare over it would begin with the efforts at enforcement. We should then witness, on a nation-wide scale, the spectacle that we have already observed in miniature locally, — the blighting power of avowed disobedience to law dominating political battles. The paralyzing influence that overtakes a community when it condones the violation of fundamental laws, the utter demoralization of public officials, and the corroding of the social conscience, are inevitable evils under prohibition not enforced; and it is for the conscientious voter to weigh how far they offset any measurable gains for temperance.

The contrast to be kept in mind is not between possible shortcomings of prohibition and the outrages of the existing drink traffic, but between unchecked intemperance plus the evils of non-enforcement and the employment of new effective principles of restriction. One can join heartily in the anathemas against the saloon and decry alcoholism as a world-disease, while conscientiously rejecting the proposed cure-all. For this reasonable state of mind the extremists show pitying contempt or even suspicion. And now that the question has become a firebrand in national politics, its consideration upon its actual merits grows increasingly difficult. Daily we observe political fortune-hunters, whose belated conversion to temperance advocacy is not altogether convincing, befogging the real issues at stake. They trade upon the pleasing fiction that the demand for national prohibition springs from the people as a whole because it no longer thirsts; they misconstrue the very real outburst of indignation against the saloon, as if that alone provided a suitable foundation for absolutism.

It is not easy, of course, to differentiate the genuine from the spurious or manufactured sentiment underlying the agitation, since all its motive power is not clean from self-seeking and since its methods in large part have become coercive.

This much is certain: any sudden enthusiasm for reform is apt to lack depth. The alleged ripeness of the country for national prohibition is not the fruition of physiological-statistical teachings about the effects of alcohol. The masses are not moved by scientific conceptions. Happily, sound instruction in principles of hygiene has become a powerful weapon in fighting intemperance; but this fact does not reduce the drink problem to a physiological basis, much less excuse the palpable exaggerations and the confusion of values put out in the name of science. It is a social, not a physiological, question, and to be solved not by sifting the conflicting dicta of scientists, not as a matter of abstract morals, but by a gradual progress backed at each forward step by an enlightened public sentiment. To insist that in a space of years a hostile attitude will become reconciled to national prohibition is to beg the question, for then the mischief to be averted will already have been done — a too frequent experience when legislation outstrips public conviction.

These elementary observations are naturally repudiated by the type of reformer who regards the mere act of supplying intoxicants as immoral, and therefore refuses it legal sanction under any condition. And yet he would permit others to drink; for one sees that the proposed constitutional amendment aims to preserve this ‘personal liberty,’ as well as the manufacture and importing for private use of the most noxious beverages. Or is this merely a ‘joker’ intended to make the amendment more palatable, and to be got rid of by subsequent perfecting amendments? The distinctions made in the case are curious. Since at bottom the question is of stopping the sources of intemperance, how can those who brand as immoral the manufacture for sale of all alcoholic drinks consent to their uncontrolled and unlimited production for home use? The professional temperance agitator must perforce take an extreme stand. Fulminations against the inherent sinfulness of making and selling drink are part of his stock in trade, and for him to admit the possible morality of supplying liquor of any kind under any legal auspices would for self-evident reasons be a disastrous face-about.

There are, of course, other significant aspects of national prohibition which, however, must be passed by as they are not essentially basic, — such as its economic bearings, the eventual compensation to a dispossessed trade which in some lands is accepted as an obligation, and the like.


It has been necessary to dwell thus at length upon the prohibition issue because it is the present storm-centre of temperance reform and held by many to be its beginning as well as its consummation. Perhaps, in a far-away future, society will outgrow the menace of alcoholism. Practically universal prohibition may be in store for the world. Meanwhile it behooves us to inquire for a safer, shorter road to the hopedfor millennium than that which crosses the pitfalls of national prohibition, and along which men are to be driven when they refuse to go willingly.

It is not true that we have exhausted the means for an effective control of drink-selling and the suppression of alcoholism, and that, therefore, national prohibition is the only alternative. We have merely woven into our statutes a fabric after the crazy-quilt pattern which does not hold together because it lacks a body of sound principles. The need is not for more law, but for a radically different law, the controlling motive of which must not be solely to end the present unholy alliances of the drink traffic and sweep away all the rottenness of the saloon, but gradually to dry up the real sources of intemperance — a law that recognizes an inexorable demand and meets it under conditions leading away from, not to, excesses. We need not become pathfinders in the wilderness of temperance reform in order to establish this; but it is necessary that we should see things as they are, divested of prejudice, and clearly, as in a glass without a wrinkle.

The next article in this series will be on “Drink Reform in Europe.” Subsequent papers will deal with principles and methods of effective legislation in the United States.

  1. Illinois, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and New York.
  2. A valuable discussion of this problem may be found in the Atlantic for July last. It was written by Mayor Baker of Cleveland, who has had large practical experience with the problem. — THE EDITORS.