The American Issue

When the Anti-Saloon League moved its headquarters to Westerville, Ohio in 1909, the national nonpartisan organization quickly became the most powerful lobbying force of the prohibition movement. Beth Weinhardt, Local History Manager at the Anti-Saloon League Museum, talks with Nathan about how the League launched a propaganda campaign that appealed to emotion and seized on anti-immigrant sentiment to promote the temperance cause and outlaw alcohol. Music: Way to Success by Michael Manvelyan

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

Nathan: The prohibition movement emerged after the Civil War when activist groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, began pinning family disfunction, poverty and disease, on the evils of alcohol. Today, the echoes of prohibition still ring out in Westerville, Ohio where the city recently erected a sculpture that recognized the divisions caused by the prohibition movement. Beth: The sculpture is called The American Issue. It was done by Matthew Gray Palmer, and it’s very interesting because at the bottom there’s a huge limestone boulder which represents the people of the United States, and that boulder is actually split. There’s a large granite wedge that rises out of that. So, it kind of is about wedge issues that split the United States. So it’s representative of that, and on either side of that granite wedge are quotes. On one side are quotes that are for prohibition, and on the other side are quotes that are against prohibition. At the very top is a barrel that is broken apart, and it actually has … it’s a water feature. Water comes out of that and runs on either side of the wedge. The two sides represent … the idea of legislating morality on one side, and that’s for prohibition. On the other side, it’s more about liberty and letting people choose for themselves. It’s a very interesting piece, and it is now there in front of our City building. Nathan: After the Anti-Saloon League moved to Westerville in 1909 it quickly rose to the forefront of the temperance cause. As a national nonpartisan organization the Anti-Saloon League pumped out propaganda, lobby politicians, and partnered with churches to pass legislation that outlawed alcohol, eventually resulting in the 18th Amendment in 1919. Beth: The other thing about the Anti-Saloon League is, they viewed big cities as places of vice- Nathan: That’s historian Beth Weinhardt. She says the Anti-Saloon League appealed to a motion and seized on anti-German sentiment during World War I to promote prohibition. Beth: … and they were nativists to a certain extent. They look at the immigrants that were coming into this country who were going to the cities, and many of them came from drinking cultures, your Germans, your Irish, your Eastern Europeans, your Italians, and this movement was made up of rural White Anglo-Saxon Protestants. What’s interesting is, they were not even for a constitutional amendment in the beginning. They felt that they could dry up the country precinct by precinct through the printed word and this nonpartisan approach. So, they looked at the census in 1910, and they’d taken local option as far as they could. If you look at a map of the United States or most states in the Union, which they looked at and they printed, the states in the rural areas were dry. In your big cities, that were the bastions of immigrants, they were wet, and they knew that they were never gonna get the city dwellers to use local option and dry themselves up. Beth: So, they chose, in December of 1913, to throw their lot in with the WCTU and the prohibition party who had been calling for a constitutional amendment all along. It’s at that point that there’s a big march on Washington. They march down Pennsylvania avenue, they march to the Capitol, they sing Onward Christian Soldiers, on the steps of the Capitol. They go into the gallery of the Capitol and they unfurl petitions with tens of thousands of names calling for a constitutional amendment. Nathan: So Beth, give us some sense of the kinds of print material that the Anti-Saloon League was distributing. Beth: They began to print 40 tons of anti-alcohol information and ship it from here every month. So, when you get to 1913 they are really at the peak of this printing. They have their own national and state editions of newspapers called The American Issue, they had their own magazine called The Patriot, and they have posters and fliers that are going all over the country, and actually eventually around the world. They printed in six foreign languages, and once this country was dried up, they formed something called The World League Against Alcoholism, to try to dry up the rest of the world. Nathan: Wow, nice small goals. Beth: Yeah, and they were very savvy because they looked at the census of 1910, and the country was about 46% urban, and the rest was rural, and they knew with the influx of immigrants into the country that by 1920 that was gonna flip. Now, they were already in control of congress, and a lot of the state legislatures, so this flip meant that when there was reapportionment that they might be on the losing end of this as congressional districts changed, and Purley Baker who was the superintendent of the League when they came to Westerville was very emphatic about cities, and I just want to read one quote, he says, “The vices of the cities have been the undoing of past empires and civilizations. It has been at the point where the urban population outnumbers the rural people that wrecked republics have gone down.” Nathan: Give me some sense of the general themes that can be teased out of the Anti-Saloon League’s propaganda, like the kinds of emotional appeals, or patriotic sentiment they try to tap into. Beth: There’s some amazing things they’ve done. There’s one that says … the full father. It shows the father out drinking in the saloon with his cronies, and then below him in another image is a young girl at home. She has tattered clothing, waif thin legs, the plaster’s off the wall in the room, a pane in the window is patched, and there on the mantle is a very empty stocking. So, the whole saying on the cartoon is, “The full father and the empty stocking.” It’s very heart wrenching. There’s another one that says, “Daddy’s in there, and our shoes, and stockings, and clothes and food are in there too, and they’ll never come out.”, and it’s showing a young girl and boy standing outside the saloon doors. So, they are excellent at framing that kind of appeal to our emotion, and one of the sayings they had leading into World War I is, “Kaiserism abroad and booze at home must go.” Nathan: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Why were German-Americans specifically targeted as one of the main culprits behind this supposed scourge of alcohol. Can you give some specific examples? Beth: There’s a lead up to the war, and of course we enter World War I in April of 1917. You start to see a lot of cartoons in their American issue newspaper that address their feelings about Germans, and they tie the Germans to the brewing industry. So, for example, there is one cartoon that has … the title on it is, Killing Two Birds With One Stone. It has two buzzards sitting in a tree on a branch. One is labeled “brewer”, and right next to him is another labeled “kaiser”, and then it has a man who has a slingshot, and he is labeled “all of us”, and he is picking up a rock that is labeled “war-time prohibition.” So, they make the link between the German brewers, and of course if you look at the names of the brewers in the United States, Miller, Schlitz, Anheuser, they’re all German. So, it’s easy to make this link. Nathan: So, this approach of bundling concerns for the business sector, anti-immigration sentiment, by thinking about rural America versus urban America, all of this together proved successful, right? The 18th Amendment was passed in 1919, and alcohol was outlawed for over a decade. You have to tell me, how did things start to unravel for prohibition? Beth: The Anti-Saloon League was very persuasive in their printed word and their nonpartisan approach, however I don’t think we really know that the majority of people were on board with what ended up as the total prohibition of both distilled products and brewed products. I mean, even the brewers were thinking they would be exempt from the 18th Amendment, they thought they’d be able to produce three-two beer. So, they did not join together with the distillers to fight this in the way they should. So, I think right from the beginning it may have been doomed because you needed buy-in from a lot of people in order to have this kind of legislation. Beth: Initially, I think people thought, “Well, this may be good for our children. It may make for less drunks on the street.”, all of these things, but very quickly what they began to see is that organized crime entered the vacuum that was left by the removal of the saloon. So, saloons were simply replaced by speakeasies, and a lot of the people who were for this in principle, because it sounded good, could see when it began to criminalize activities that a lot of people were engaging in that really were not harming anyone, they began to have second thoughts. So, when you get to the mid-1920s you have a movement against this. Nathan: When prohibition was finally repealed in 1933 I have to imagine that a place like Westerville might have opened up a bar or a saloon right away. Beth: In November 1933 before repeal had actually taken effect we voted ourselves dry again here. The final vote- Nathan: Wow. Beth: Yeah, we wasted no time. The final vote was 1,063 against alcohol to 400 citizens who wanted it. That continued until January 2006. Nathan: Oh my goodness. How did the locals react to this? Beth: Well, someone was Johnny on the spot to buy that first beer so … some people were happy about it, some … longtime residents saw this as a point of pride. We had kept this dry tradition going for so long, so it was heritage as much as anything. They would go outside the city and buy alcohol to bring in to serve in their homes, so it wasn’t like no one here drank, because they did, but they liked the idea that there weren’t businesses in our uptown business area selling it. I’m not quite sure how many establishments we have in our business district now that sell alcohol, but we have two wine shops, we have our own brewpub where they brew alcohol, and actually that establishment is called Temperance Row in honor of the homes that were built by the Anti-Saloon Leaguers when they moved to our community. Nathan: Beth Weinhardt is the local history coordinator at the Anti-Saloon League Museum in Westerville, Ohio. Ed: You know, Joanne, Nathan, you can’t pick up the newspaper or look at your phone without seeing evidence and worry about divisions in the country. This recent election seemed to really dramatize one more time just how divided we are. It’s hard to get some kind of historical perspective on that, but I guess that’s what our podcast is about, so we’ll go ahead and try to do it. Joanne, I’m curious, would this be a surprise to the founders that the country seem to be coming apart at the seems like this? Joanne: Well, I mean, I suppose I’d say yes and no. On the one hand, they expected faction, they expected conflict. They did not assume that the nation would waft its way cloud like with no division at all. They assumed that, and they experienced that as we’ve talked about in the show, but what would have surprised them, and what actually began to surprise them even within the first 10 or 15 years of the government was the likelihood of there being national political parties. That just wasn’t on their radar screen. Ed: So, what did they think faction would look like? Joanne: There’d be lots of them. There’s be lots of factions. There’d be lots of ideas, and people, and groups bouncing against each other, and that out of all of that bouncing around, and debating, and compromising, would come policy, but the idea of a national party … first of all parties at all, organized parties made them nervous, because in their mind a party was out for itself and not out for the good of the nation, which we could debate if that’s true or not, but the idea of having a national party with the power, and discipline, and control that we’re seeing today, and then as a result of that the impact that that has on the nation as a whole, that definitely would have given them pause. Ed: So, the idea seemed to be though that it was a temporary division, a temporary fight, and that you’d be able to kinda shake hands, come back out the other side and move on. Was the example of the Loyalists that we saw in South Carolina a precursor of things to come, or a history left behind do you think? Nathan: Well I mean, I think the one big piece about the Loyalist story obviously, which is that in many cases when you have a place like South Carolina with a black slave majority, some of the concerns about who gets to vote, and who gets to belong to the citizenry becomes pretty clear, you want to make sure that you have your property owning class of white males all working it out ultimately, ’cause there’s a lot more at stake if they don’t. I wonder about the extent to which even a division like that between Loyalists and Patriots is easier to paper over if you have other kinds of division around disenfranchisement, who gets to be a freeholder, those kind of things. It’s almost as if there’s an inverse relationship where the more political participation is possible, the more these divides become almost irreparable. I’m not sure. Ed: Yeah, if you look at the maps in how people voted in [inaudible] America you don’t see the Civil War coming into pretty soon before it does. I mean, in the 1830s and ’40s the patterns are party and they’re national, and it looks like the parties are actually helping hold the country together along one axis as much as they are dividing it across another. Joanne: Right. Exactly. Nathan: So obviously, the Civil War is the big granddaddy of all divisions- Ed: Right. Nathan: … [crosstalk] sitting right here in the middle of all this. I wonder about the extent to which we can look at the Civil War and the fault lines that to sharpens as a way to explain what happens in the later part of the 19th and early 20th century. In other words, is there something about the restarting of who has power, who gets to count as a citizen, the way in which the country was redefining any number of variables about who got to, again, belong. How do we understand that to have set the terms for what becomes the political divisions of the late 19th and 20th century? Ed: Yeah, that’s a great point, Nathan. I think what happens is that, for maybe 10 years after the war, everything seems up for grabs. Formerly enslaved men become citizens, new constitutions written across the United States, the 14th Amendment redefines what it means to be an American. All those things happen in just a few years with the war and its immediate aftermath, but then it’s almost as if a gravitational pull of white privilege and of the two party system reasserts itself, and despite the war you have those same two parties that have been there at the beginning of the war back in control of everything, and African American people marginalized more with each passing decade to the beginning of the 20th century. Ed: So, it’s almost as if, to go back to your original point Joanne, about the parties emerging to the surprise of the founders, the parties survive everything else, even when the constitution seems to be failing, and then when the constitutions remade the two parties are still there, containing, and channeling, and amplifying the division. So, on one hand as the saying goes that, American voted the way they shot, after the Civil War. The Democrats stay the part of the South by and large, the Republicans stay the part of the North by and large, and so the war maintains its imprint, but the two parties are constantly changing, adapting to immigration to Western migration, to all these different kinds of things. Depending upon your point of view they’re the great flywheels that kind of give stability to American history, or they’re the great engines of division that keep dividing us. Joanne: What’s fascinating about that is early on when parties were first coming into being, people realized, and they had felt the absence of an organization that allowed you to corral all kinds of people, and spread a unified message, and do all these concrete things that now we associate with party politics. So, it’s those very things that I think initially people were excited at because it allowed them to pull people together just as we’re saying here, those are the precise things that the founding folk were afraid of being able to pull people together, and at the same time push people apart. So, if you’re talking about belongingness, which is where you started us off Nathan, talking about belongingness, and talking about who has power and who doesn’t, I suppose it helps to be part of an organization that has long roots and a lot of pull. Nathan: Yeah, I mean, on the face of it at least, it seems very challenging because, again, as with the party structure, there’s also structures of propaganda in communications and media. So I mean, you can tune into FOX news or MSNBC, and the information is gonna be curated based on the political party that’s behind that operation, and it does leave a lot of people unrepresented and unspoken for. Ed: Overall as we look at the grand arc of American history, are you folks optimistic or chastened, or worried, or something else? I mean, should we take comfort from the fact that we’ve always been at each others throats, or do we feel that we’re in some new era when the divisions are just too deep, too entrenched, too inflamed to overcome? Joanne: Given the book that I just wrote- Ed: Yeah, right. Joanne: … I’ve been thinking a lot about divisions, and I’ve been thinking a lot about other times in American history when we’ve been driven to really polarized extremes, and there have been a number of them, and we’ve pulled out. Now, on the one hand that’s encouraging, we’ve pulled out of those moments, often the political process, and whether that’s an election or a supreme court decision, or a piece of legislation has helped pull us out because people have agreed that the process, if they don’t like the answer they can at least agree that the process has validity, so that in and of itself is encouraging, but I mean, it’s a cliché but I’ll say it anyway, history doesn’t repeat. It teaches, but it doesn’t repeat. So, we’re in an interesting moment. I’m personally as a historian, I’m watching very closely to see how the political process is playing out after this election. I think that will matter a lot. Ed: So to what you just said, as long as we maintain faith in the structure and the process that we can withstand it. It’s when we lose faith in the very integrity of the courts, or of the parties, or of our leaders that things get really dangerous. Nathan: Yeah, I mean, I would say, two things that might be kind of surprising coming from me as a 20th century person which is that, we have to actually put down our 20th century thinking on this, and again, not think in terms of election cycles, but think in the way that the founders did in terms of the long view or even the way our forebearers under reconstruction, and the end of reconstruction had to think, which was in terms of generations, not simply election cycles, and again, not to say to be patient by way of being inactive, but to really understand that, like you said, the deep structures require a tremendous amount of work conducted over decades, and decades, and decades. I think one of the things that we have as a nation to really work on is our patience in terms of building a cohesive country and what that really does require. Ed: That’s gonna do it for us today. Do get in touch. You’ll find us at, or send us an email at Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @BackStoryRadio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger. Nathan: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University, and The National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional support is provided by The Tomato Fund cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment. Male 4: Brian Balogh is professor of history of the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the Humanities, and president emeritus at the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams associate professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University. BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for Virginia Humanities.

View Resources

Divided America Lesson Set

Download the Divided America Lesson Set

According to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center[1] the idea that America is more polarized than it has been in recent years is supported by the data that Democrats and Republicans view each other with anger and see each other more negatively than they have in the past. Polarization and division, however, has been a theme of American history since its conception. As the episode discusses, Loyalists and Patriots represented this division over the colonies’ relationship with Great Britain. The election of Andrew Jackson pitted the “common man” of the south and west against the urban, cosmopolitan elite of the Northeast. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the caning of Senator Charles Sumner provides an example of unprecedented partisan violence and vitriol.

This lesson set considers aspects of the divisions in the 1920s and helps students grapple with the following questions: Should America pursue a policy of prohibition? Is America a Christian nation? What is the role of women in modern America? What is the role of America in the world? What role do African Americans have in shaping American culture?