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Movements for Change: Temperance and Prohibition

Movements for Change: Temperance and Prohibition


Temperance and the Prohibition Party. Alcohol use and abuse had long been a key issue for reformers when antiliquor activists turned to presidential politics to end what they saw as the degenerative effect of alcohol on the family and the moral fiber of the country. The Prohibition Party, formed in 1869, was a well-organized, vocal organization that had run candidates in every presidential election since 1872, reaching the peak of its influence in 1892. Unlike the Greenback and Populist Parties, the Prohibition Party did not work through coalitions. Although it also supported woman suffrage, prison reform, and the prohibition of gambling, the party focused on a single issue and pursued the dominant strategy of achieving the prohibition of alcohol by fielding a successful presidential candidate. Although no Prohibition presidential candidate was ever elected, they often received enough votes to influence the outcomes of the close presidential elections of the 1880s and 1890s. In these close contests Prohibitionists most often hurt Republicans more than Democrats.

The Antisaloon League. Some temperance supporters did not share in the presidential orientation of the Prohibition Party. In 1895 these reformers, many of them middle-class women, formed the Anti-Saloon League, which focused its campaigns on the disastrous effects of alcohol on families and the growing influence of corrupt politicians in urban political machines. Building on state prohibition successes in New England and the Midwest, the Anti-Saloon League worked for passage of a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages nation-wide. This movement eventually succeeded with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

A Broad Movement for Reform. The Anti-Saloon League attracted support from middle-class professional men and women who believed that widespread emigration from Ireland, Germany, and later Central Europe, was changing the political and social landscape of the country. Municipal political machines that relied on the

votes of recently naturalized immigrants and the poor often used saloons as informal gathering halls. Saloon keepers played key roles in the political machine, often by distributing the spoilsor jobsawarded to loyal supporters and by overseeing the fraudulent voting system that ensured the right people won local elections. For these reasons, the Anti-Saloon movement drew support from a much wider array of people than the largely one-issue Prohibition Party.


Ruth Bordin, Woman and Temperarnce: The Quest for Power and Liberty, 1873-1900 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990);

Norman H. Clark, Deliver Us From Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition (New York: Norton, 1976);

Robert H. Wiebe, The Search for Order, 1877-1920 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1967).

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