Most Americans know that the prohibition of alcohol was a historic aberration from the 1920s and 1930s. Americans know much less about the prohibition era of the 1850s when thirteen states passed “dry” laws.
The crusaders of the 1840s and 1850s wanted government to take the lead in enforcing their religious agenda. They also organized themselves into large national organizations like the American Temperance Society. That the various temperance societies were able to become as large and powerful as they did is a testament to the passion of their rank-and-file membership. By 1836, the American Temperance Society claimed 1.5 million members, 10 percent of the country’s total population. The Society campaigned hard, telling employers that alcohol made workers less productive and telling women that alcohol made their husbands less reliable.
Technology Forwards the Prohibitionist Cause
Simultaneously, cities improved their drinking water, making it safer and better tasting. Previously, urban water sources were polluted and unhealthy. In New York, for example, many people drank spirits because the local water supply was so foul. Then New York began bringing water in from Croton, forty miles away, via a newly constructed aqueduct. A combination of the religious zeal and technological improvements helped the “cold water warriors” make headway. By 1845, Americans drank only about one quarter the amount of alcohol as 15 years earlier. Nevertheless, there was no sign that the state governments were preparing to impose and enforce prohibition.
Nativism as a Political Force
In the late 1840s, world events gave evangelical prohibitionists the answer to their literal prayers. A failed revolution in Germany and the Potato Famine in Ireland brought immigrants from those two countries to America. Both groups were known for their drinking habits. With the influx of hard drinking immigrants, the prohibitionists had what twenty-first century political analysts would have called “an issue.” Temperance became a patriotic issue. Germans and Irish were viewed as foreign and un-American. They lived in ethnic communities, celebrated different holidays, and flew their native flags.
The reactionary response came in the form of the American Party, or the Know-Nothings. The Know-Nothings were a political party whose platform was based completely on nativism, the mistrust of foreigners. They latched onto prohibition as a way to show the cultural differences between immigrants and natives and also as a way to shut down the Irish tavern and German biergartens, which had become key to incipient immigrant politics. The Know-Nothings’ apogee came in 1855, when they had six Governors elected.
The First Prohibition
The combination of well-organized religious enthusiasm and nativism was enough to gain what the prohibitionists sought. Maine was the first state to enact prohibition, in 1851. Finally, the people who worked so hard to stop the evils of drinking in America had a victory.
From 1852 to 1855, 12 more states passed prohibition laws. Not coincidentally, this time period matched precisely with the time in which the Know-Nothings enjoyed their rapid rise. In every state where the Know-Nothings gained a measure of power, a prohibition law was passed. The Know-Nothings and their nativist, prohibitionist message seemed to be gathering momentum, but events overcame them. We know that there was very little in the way of education of what alcoholism was or how to treat it. Certainly there was no “cure” for it as some people claim pills like Antabuse and others are.
The Civil War and the End of Prohibition
The idea of a unified, culturally monolithic America could not survive the Civil War. The Northern armies were reliant on immigrants to achieve the numerical superiority necessary to win the war, and once the Irish became comrades in arms it was difficult to demonize them. Moreover, the army followed in the tradition of American armies, and drank to excess. This helped revive the drinking culture, and lead to the repeal of prohibition in all but three New England states. Even there, it was largely ignored by the drinking masses. The Civil War ended the first era of prohibition in American history.