“The thing that sticks out clearly now is that for years our politics promises to be thoroughly saturated with this wet and dry stuff. It will warp the whole political fabric, prevent clear thinking—even by those who are capable of thinking clearly—and hide the merits of the men who run for office in a fog of feeling.”
—Frank Kent, Baltimore Sun, quoted in an
Anti-Saloon League reprint, circa 1922
PAULINE SABIN WAS in Paris when Warren Harding died. The president’s long-planned trip to the American West in the summer of 1923 had first made headlines in Denver in late June, when he delivered an uncharacteristically strong appeal for aggressive Prohibition enforcement. Even more surprising, it was on this same trip that he finally decided to stop drinking, a determination induced by the importunate pleadings of his wife, Florence, and his hovering conscience, namely Wayne Wheeler. When Harding suffered his fatal stroke in San Francisco on August 2, details of the Teapot Dome conspiracy and the other scandals that would forever soil Harding’s reputation had not yet become fully known. In her suite at the Crillon—the same suite, overlooking the Place de la Concorde, where David Lloyd George had lived during the Paris Peace Talks—Sabin wrote in her diary, “In his simple way Harding had many qualities which almost made him a great man.” Her friend Alice Roosevelt Longworth was more temperate in her appraisal. “Harding was not a bad man,” she said. “He was just a slob.”
No one could mistake Calvin Coolidge for a slob—or for a great man. Longworth said the Coolidge White House and the Harding White House were as different “as a New England front parlor is from the backroom of a speakeasy.” Coolidge was unlike his predecessor in nearly every way, skeptical where Harding was credulous, cautious where Harding was impetuous, circumspect where Harding was loquacious. Only in one key respect were the two presidents similar: even considering Harding’s belated conversion in Denver, neither man was particularly interested in enforcing Prohibition. In Coolidge’s case this was consistent with his general position on the role of government. “If the federal government should go out of existence,” he said, “the common run of people would not detect the difference in the affairs of their daily life for a considerable length of time.” It was as if he viewed government as a vestigial organ of the body politic. The president’s inclination toward inactivity, wrote Walter Lippmann, “is far from being indolent inactivity. It is a grim, determined, alert inactivity.”
Coolidge’s reluctance to strengthen Prohibition enforcement was sharpened by other impulses besides his devotion to stasis. He believed that government should keep its nose out of the lives of citizens. He so hated to spend federal money that in 1926, with the economy in the midst of a spectacular boom, he whacked the Prohibition Bureau’s budget by 3.5 percent. And though there’s every reason to believe he remained personally dry during his years in the White House, he was not a stranger to beer or wine in the years before and after. (In 1930, on finishing his second glass of a fine Tokay that William Randolph Hearst had offered him, a delighted Coolidge declared, “I must remember this!”) Apart from his support for an expanded Coast Guard, Coolidge’s most visible effort in behalf of Prohibition occurred at a state dinner in Havana, when he toasted Cuban president Gerardo Machado with a glass of water. His solution to all the vexing problems brought on by the Volstead Act and its profligate violation was either foolishly naïve or a conscious evasion: if people would only stop buying from bootleggers, he told a governors’ conference in 1923, “the rest would be easy.”
In at least one instance, though, Coolidge felt compelled to act. During the summer of 1924 he mobilized the full might of the federal government to crack down on a bootlegging operation that had provoked his concern. The investigation, initiated by the president himself, was conducted under the personal supervision of his closest friend in Washington, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, who had been his classmate at Amherst College. It was advanced through the efforts of the newly appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation,* J. Edgar Hoover; at least four members of Hoover’s staff; the agent in charge of the bureau’s New York office; and Stone’s brother-in-law, John D. Willard, a western Massachusetts clergyman. Convictions, the attorney general told Willard, “would be personally gratifying to the president.” Stone issued a series of personal directives. To avoid exposing details of the delicate inquiry to telegraph operators, alternative means of communication were employed. Stepping across a commonly recognized ethical line, Willard solicited privileged information about a criminal defendant from the defendant’s own attorney. Finally, four months after the operation was launched, indictments were issued. The defendants: four men in Holyoke, Massachusetts, who were found in possession of thirteen bottles of liquor and thirty-seven cases of beer—barely enough alcohol to keep a self-respecting speakeasy stocked for a weekend. But the Holyoke men had been selling liquor to students at nearby Amherst, specifically to the young men of Phi Gamma Delta. As Stone had told his man on the ground in Amherst, Coolidge had been “concerned about reports of bootlegging in his fraternity.”
AMBIVALENT ABOUT PROHIBITION, but absolutely devoted to the Republican Party, Pauline Sabin quickly lined up behind Coolidge to support his election in 1924. On the other hand, Gifford Pinchot’s absolute devotion to Prohibition stimulated his growing ambivalence toward the Republican Party. His roots in the progressive movement and his labors for the dry cause shaped the Pennsylvania governor’s lopsided public persona, sort of a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Savonarola. Pinchot was among a large number of drys who considered Coolidge a wimp and a closet wet, and in 1924 he flirted with challenging the president as the candidate of the Prohibition Party.
Would that it were so clear for Wayne B. Wheeler. He could neither give his unqualified support to the inconstant Coolidge, nor could his familiar array of electoral threats intimidate a very popular president. But Wheeler was not so constrained in his dealings with Congress. Influence on Capitol Hill was calibrated regularly in roll calls, and he owned those no less than he owned his own name. He bragged that he could unseat any senator or representative who was an “enemy of the Constitution,” and joked that he would have them “shot at sunrise on the next election day.” In the congressional elections of 1920, 1922, and 1924, the Anti-Saloon League continued to dominate by controlling the margins, handing its 10 or 20 percent of the electorate to candidates willing to lash themselves to the dry mast. Senatorial wets like Atlee Pomerene of Ohio and Augustus Owsley Stanley of Kentucky fell to ASL-sponsored candidates who had little in common other than an enduring obligation to the angels of their electoral deliverance—Wheeler and the league.* Pomerene lost to Simeon D. Fess, “the Driest of the Drys,” who considered anyone who would violate the Volstead Act “an anarchist and . . . an enemy of the government”; Stanley fell to Frederic M. Sackett, an aristocratic Republican from Louisville who was known to brag about his richly stocked cellar but who promised not to drink a drop so long as Prohibition lasted. Some people may have believed him.
To Wheeler, who dispatched his top assistant to Kentucky to guarantee Stanley’s defeat, Sackett’s personal habits were of no consequence. “Prohibition was not voted into existence by total abstainers,” Wheeler said, nor was the abstinence of elected officials essential to its maintenance. What mattered was Sackett’s vote on the Senate floor, and had he (or any other dry) been inclined to wander during the nose counting, it would not have been for lack of discipline. Wheeler’s baleful presence in the Capitol Building was a visible manifestation of his muscle. Morris Markey, in The New Yorker, called him “the frowning Nero in charge of local destinies [who] sits heavily in the gallery,” offering a definitive thumbs-up or thumbs-down during Prohibition-related debates. Representative John Philip Hill of Maryland, a leader of the wet forces in the House, called Wheeler the “generalissimo” whose every order could muster an instant majority.
Because Wheeler was their ticket to reelection, compliant drys had a more benevolent view. Representative Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma spoke for many of his colleagues when he wrote Wheeler to say, “[I] beg to advise you that I shall be pleased to support any bill which you recommend.” Without Wheeler as both enforcer and lodestar, the dry caucus on Capitol Hill might have degenerated into riot—progressives at war with reactionaries, Republicans battling Democrats, country populists assaulting representatives of the mercantile elite. It’s difficult to imagine a coalition that could accommodate, say, both Morris Sheppard of Texas, the passionately earnest, liquor-hating author of the Eighteenth Amendment, and Cole Blease of South Carolina, who openly reveled in the pleasures of drink. Sheppard and Blease were opposites in ideology, in manner, in their very essences. The courtly, Yale-educated Sheppard, whose support for progressive legislation prefigured the New Deal, rose each year on January 16 to commemorate the anniversary of the amendment’s ratification with speeches layered in Shakespearean eloquence and brightened by his sunny optimism. The reactionary, hate-filled Blease, who opposed schools for black people because education could “ruin a good field hand and make a bad convict,” drew on an oratorical armory of insult and attack, among its frequently used weapons such epithets as “pap-sucker,” “belly-crawler,” and, of course, “nigger lover.” Yet Wheeler’s coalition was as ample as his discipline was firm, and the dry caucus on Capitol Hill could accommodate both men.
It was the same outside Congress: the house of Prohibition had many rooms. A sample of the dry rolls circa 1924 would have included the Methodist evangelist Bob Jones, whose catalog of evils extended beyond liquor to dancing and the movies, and the indicted (for bribery) lawyer Thomas B. Felder, a chronic alcoholic who had written Georgia’s Prohibition law—and then acquired a small fortune representing wholesale liquor dealers and rumrunner Bill McCoy. Prohibition made allies of the earnest reformer Dr. Clarence True Wilson of the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals, whose other favored cause was Simplified Spelling, and “the bootleggers’ terror,” Federal District Judge John F. McGee of Minnesota, who so delighted in locking up Volstead Act violators that he once issued 112 sentences in 130 minutes, an orgy of retribution that required the impressment of a fleet of sightseeing buses to ferry the miscreants to jail. The profoundly pragmatic Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch was a dry (“I believed you could legislate against the abuses of liquor,” he wrote years later in his memoirs, disbelievingly), as was the chronically spacey Henry Ford, who expected Prohibition, in its final triumph, to “have made prosperity universal and . . . [have] abolished poverty.” There may be no clearer demonstration of the drys’ pragmatic acceptance of every variety of ally than a comment made by Mabel Willebrandt—a federal official, a feminist, a progressive—when she was asked about the faithfully dry Ku Klux Klan: “I have no objection to people dressing up in sheets, if they enjoy that sort of thing.”
THE UN-DRY HAD a cobbled-together alliance of their own. By 1924, a vocal wet caucus had formed in Congress. Its numbers were small but the personalities who dominated it were enormous. The untamable leader of Senate wets was James A. Reed, a Democrat who had emerged from Kansas City’s notorious Pendergast machine. When Reed likened Andrew Volstead to “burners of witches” and “executioners,” he was drawing on the milder entries in his vocabulary of abuse. A Senate colleague said that when Reed spoke of an opponent, “it was as if he had thrown acid upon him”—for instance, when he charged that Prohibition was enacted by “half-drunk legislators” suffering from “the leprosy of hypocrisy.” Reed called suffragists “Amazonian furies” who chanted “in rhythmic harmony with the barbaric war dance of the Sioux.” Supporters of the League of Nations, he said, were evidently prepared to submit to the rulings of “black men from Liberia and voodoo worshipping Haitians . . . wearing rings in their noses as well as ears.” To his friend (and drinking buddy) H. L. Mencken, Jim Reed was “for our time, the supreme artist in assault.” Given Mencken’s own skills, this was like Babe Ruth praising someone for his hitting ability.
Reed’s counterparts in the House hadn’t quite his aptitude for vituperation but they were not without verbal resources. In addition to John Philip Hill, who once said the Anti-Saloon League was in business “to protect the American Bootleggers’ Union,” House wets were led by Fiorello La Guardia of New York and, toward the end of the decade, James Montgomery Beck of Pennsylvania. Knowing that legislative success on Prohibition issues was probably unattainable, Hill and La Guardia chose to conduct their campaign against the drys in the press. (“He lives by headlines,” Time said about Hill. “If newspapers were abolished, he would curl up and die.”) La Guardia, like Hill, tried to get himself arrested for making illegal booze (he failed because the New York cops ignored him; Hill succeeded, but was acquitted by a genially wet Baltimore jury). La Guardia would do whatever he could to goad, frustrate, and mortify his dry colleagues, most notably when he proposed a hundred-million-dollar increase in the Prohibition Bureau’s budget, which at that point had not yet topped three million dollars. This legislative gambit forced tightfisted drys to vote against beefed-up enforcement, and at the same time underscored the hopelessness of the government’s underfunded efforts. La Guardia also loved to publicize the bureau’s chronic corruption, at one point suggesting that 150,000 Prohibition agents would not be enough to enforce the law—for “you will have to have 150,000 agents to watch the first 150,000.” La Guardia was fond of this trope. A few years earlier, as president of the New York City board of aldermen, he had said that it would take 250,000 policemen to enforce Prohibition in the city, and 250,000 more to police the police.
Although a Republican like Hill and La Guardia, Beck was a different species of public figure. The first two men were raucous, demonstrative characters, and La Guardia in particular veered leftward on most issues. The formal and forbidding Beck was virtually a Royalist, archconservative in politics and style. Looking grimly at the world through his pince-nez, he saw “incredible frivolity and selfishness” everywhere, except when he found himself “in a dark and sombre wood.” The Dante quote was out of character for Beck. He usually relied on Shakespeare, his speech filled, wrote biographer Morton Keller, with “quotations which came cascading forth to edify—or plague—dinner audiences, courtrooms, and readers of his books.”
Keller called his Beck biography In Defense of Yesterday, and “yesterday” covered a lot of ground. Beck was an eighteenth-century man adrift in the twentieth century, a self-invented aristocrat loose among the rabble. Before entering Congress he had resigned as solicitor general because he found even the laissez-faire Harding administration too willing to expand the role of government. Two years later Philadelphia’s corrupt Republican machine handed him a dismal congressional district in South Philadelphia, overwhelmingly comprised of blacks and immigrants. That did not mean he represented their perceived interests. Beck disdained any legislation that was even remotely progressive. He opposed woman suffrage, child labor legislation, the League of Nations, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the income tax, even Morris Sheppard’s bill to reduce infant mortality.
The eastern Protestant elites who controlled so much of the nation’s wealth in the 1920s divided themselves on wet/dry issues along the same lines that divided them on most political issues. Improve-the-masses progressives like John D. Rockefeller Jr. and Gifford Pinchot, who saw Prohibition as a logical undertaking for activist government, were arrayed against wet conservatives like Beck, who believed government existed only to preserve order and protect private property. Pinchot’s wife, Cornelia, an outspoken progressive who had devoted most of her energies to suffrage and improved conditions for factory workers, joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union only after “I found out that the wet lobby was against everything in which I was interested,” including child labor laws and woman suffrage. When she said “the reactionary movement as a whole is 95% wet,” she was not far wrong.
Prohibition stirred conservative members of the privileged classes as had no issue since they had been steamrollered by the populist-powered income tax amendment. For all of Fiorello La Guardia’s antic showmanship and parliamentary razzle-dazzle, it was Beck and other men of wealth and stature who had first begun to mobilize an organized political opposition to the Anti-Saloon League. The Association Against the Prohibition Amendment announced its birth late in the ratification process in 1918, when an admiralty lawyer named William H. Stayton sent a solicitation letter to the six hundred men in his address book. Among the AAPA’s earliest members were men whose very names conjured up money and social position, including Stuyvesant Fish, Kermit Roosevelt, Marshall Field, and Vincent Astor (not to mention John Philip Sousa). One of its earliest fund-raising efforts took place at the New York Yacht Club. But the AAPA failed to establish meaningful traction until it won the attention, in 1926, of Pierre S. du Pont—chairman of his family’s chemical colossus; chairman of the du Pont–controlled General Motors Corporation; and soon the dominant figure in an invigorated AAPA.
Before that happened, though, the AAPA’s fumbling efforts in electoral politics would demonstrate to many of the wet Tories that effective opposition to the dry regime would not come from the voting public. Following the Anti-Saloon League model, in 1922 the association endorsed a roster of wet candidates for Congress, whereupon everyone on the endorsement list received a letter from Wayne Wheeler freighted with warning. It was a measure of Wheeler’s might that year, and again in 1924, that many of these candidates ran the other way, rejecting the AAPA’s blessing for fear it would guarantee their defeat.
This would not have troubled Pierre du Pont, who believed he and his friends might foster good government if only they would “refuse to contribute to any party that tries to promote indiscriminate voting.” As he told a Republican colleague, “It is futile for people to dictate government by committing representatives to certain policies, or to know the qualifications of candidates.” Voters, he explained, “must learn to leave these matters to those who do know, trusting them to carry out their work.” In the context, “them” really meant “us.” By the end of the decade du Pont would put his money, his friends, his friends’ money, and their collective reputation where his euphemism was.
OF THE TWO structural elements that shaped the dry regime, only the Volstead Act was flexible. By general acknowledgment, the Eighteenth Amendment was both inelastic and indestructible. Any amendment to modify or revoke the Eighteenth would require ratification by three-quarters of the forty-eight state legislatures, just like the original. “Thirteen dry states with a population of less than that of New York State alone can prevent repeal until Halley’s Comet returns,” Clarence Darrow said. (As of the 1920 census, the total population of the thirteen smallest states was 5.1 million; of New York, 10.4 million.) The great defense lawyer, who was as wet as the Flood, believed “one might as well talk about taking his summer vacation on Mars.” But every provision of the Volstead Act was vulnerable to the whim of congressional majorities—and, to some degree, to the mood swings of voters in specific districts. This became clear in 1922 when Andrew J. Volstead, seeking his eleventh term in Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District, was defeated for reelection.
Volstead once imagined the perfect epitaph: “He naturally made many enemies, but we love him for the enemies he made.” Some of those were the southerners he attacked in his righteous, unyielding, and futile campaign for an antilynching law. Many more, though, reviled Volstead for his eponymous connection to Prohibition enforcement: for instance, the Milwaukee man who blamed him for the spread of poisonous liquor and believed he should be “convicted of murder in the first degree and punished by death”; or the Philadelphian who said “You made a Bolshevik out of me”; or the New York cop who suggested that “a perfectly good bullet” would be wasted on Volstead. “You are not worth it,” he wrote on New York Police Department stationery. “Even the nit that preys on a cootie’s testicles has a greater sense of shame, of honor and of self-respect than has Andrew J. Volstead!”
Yet the politician who vanquished the author of the Prohibition enforcement laws was himself a dry—dryer, he claimed, than Volstead himself. O. J. Kvale was a Lutheran minister who in a contested Republican primary in 1920 had accused Volstead of atheism. (The evidence: one Sunday morning, while the God-fearing residents of Granite Falls gathered in church, Volstead was seen tending his garden.) Running as an Independent the next time around, the desert-dry Kvale won with the support of Prohibitionists more wrathful than the cautious Volstead. But he had another group in his corner as well: wets eager to display the symbolic scalp of Prohibition’s symbolic enforcer—and to see the next-ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, a Republican wet from Pennsylvania named George S. Graham, assume supervisory responsibility for any modification of the Volstead Act.
To the ASL, this was no small matter. Alterations in the act could be sown by the sympathetic Graham, conceivably to blossom in the benign inattention of the complacent Coolidge. Following Graham’s ascension, Wheeler and his allies were obliged to turn their efforts toward the construction of a fortress around the Volstead Act and the sacred words inscribed at its center: the quantification of “intoxicating” at one-half-of-one-percent alcohol. Dry strategists were wise enough to understand that the American political system did not accommodate the idea of a permanent majority in Congress, which was what they would need to protect the Volstead Act. They consequently chose to change both the qualifications for voting and the way the votes were counted. Just as the pre-1920 drys had strengthened their hand by encouraging the woman suffrage movement, the post-1920 drys enlisted in a new crusade designed to change the composition of the American electorate. Suffrage had expanded the franchise, but this time the drys and their allies sought to constrict it. Their apparent weapon was ethnic bigotry, their subtler one an unprecedented—and successful—effort to subvert the first article of the Constitution.
LONG BEFORE Kenneth L. Roberts became a celebrity with the publication of his blockbuster historical novels (Northwest Passage, Rabble in Arms), he tried his hand at journalism. In his fiction Roberts treated Benedict Arnold as a hero and painted British loyalists as victims of the Revolutionary War. As a journalist he had been no less provocative. Traveling through Europe on assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, he rendered his postwar surveys of the political landscape in a froth of racial invective. He described “streams of undersized, peculiar, alien people moving perpetually through consulates and steamship offices and delousing plants, on their way from the slums of Europe to the slums of America.” He said the immigrants heading to the United States “are the defeated, incompetent and unsuccessful—the very lowest layer of European society.” Polish Jews, he said, were usurers and liquor dealers; Slavs “have been brought up to break the laws of the people who govern them.” Immigrants from the eastern reaches of Austria-Hungary “wear clothing that seems to have ripened on them for years, and they sleep in wretched hovels with sheep and cows and pigs and poultry scattered among them.” His occasional efforts to dilute this flood of acid provided opportunity for yet further insult: “Even the most backward, illiterate, dirty, thick-headed peasants of Southeastern Europe have their good points.”
Roberts’s articles were influential less for their putative revelations than for their vivid articulation of what was already on the American mind. Between 1900 and 1915 more than 6.2 million people from southern and eastern Europe had arrived on U.S. shores. The 1915 publication of The Passing of the Great Race, by the Manhattan patrician Madison Grant, had given an academic gloss to the theory of what its proponents called “racial hygiene” (and what later came to be known to more temperate scholars as “scientific racism”).* World War I had aggravated the chronic American xenophobia, and by the early 1920s it had become acute, as nativists seized on a new reason to hate the immigrants: their apparent refusal to obey the law. Roy Haynes, the Prohibition commissioner, attributed 80 percent of the liquor law violations in New York City to aliens. Imogen B. Oakley of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs wrote that “those who ought to know” said 75 percent of bootleggers were aliens, and most of those were Italians or Russian Jews. A Prohibition Bureau official testifying before Congress invoked a similar figure, this time citing his source as “general information,” which was either more or less reliable than “those who ought to know.”
There was anti-immigrant prejudice in this game of bobbing for numbers, but the results were not wildly inaccurate. Although the figures weren’t authoritatively quantified for several years,* it had been clear from the stroke of midnight on January 16, 1920, that the bootlegging racket was an industry custom-made for immigrants. It was a quick-turnover business that had no entrenched establishment, required little capital, demanded no particular training, and could exploit ready markets within the various ethnic communities before branching out into society at large. The outstanding (and sympathetic) historian of early-twentieth-century immigration, John Higham, said Prohibition created “dazzling opportunities” for the children of the immigrant slums.
For drys, demonizing the immigrant had been part of their playbook since Frances Willard asked Congress to keep out “the scum of the old world.” Now, with Prohibition in place, they leapt at the opportunity to further their cause by throwing gasoline on the anti-immigrant bonfire. They were not content to rely on the phenomenon reported in the New York Times—a reverse diaspora that had immigrants returning voluntarily to their European homelands “because, they declare, America has gone dry, which they consider tyranny.” Instead, the ASL’s agents in Congress tried to push unwilling immigrants back across the Atlantic with a measure mandating immediate deportation of any alien found in violation of the Volstead Act. “In many places,” Wheeler wrote in a letter to House drys, “most of the offenders against the liquor and narcotics laws are aliens.” The members responded with a resounding 222–73 vote to launch the deportation program.
A distracted Senate never got around to voting on the alien deportation law, but it was a sideshow in any case. The expulsion of even several thousand bootleggers would have done nothing to further the much more important dry goal, which was the preservation of dry congressional majorities. One tack pursued by southern and western drys would have excluded aliens from the census figures used to determine representation in the House. Under the Constitution, House districts are based on total population, noncitizens included—a situation, Representative Homer Hoch of Kansas once said, that “gives aliens an influence upon legislation to which they are not entitled.” His fellow Kansas dry, Representative Edward C. Little, was less delicate: “It is not best for America that her councils be dominated by semicivilized foreign colonies in Boston, New York, Chicago.” Cotton Tom Heflin, always unwilling to be topped, said “lawless, criminal aliens” were “gnawing at the vitals of this American Government,” and failure to act would “increase the political power of the Pope of Rome in the United States.” Hoch, in particular, beat this drum for years, at one point complaining, “It is not fair that New York should cast four extra votes on important issues affecting the whole country, because 1,600,000 aliens happen to congregate there.”
But this line of reasoning was doomed. Using the same logic, northern wets argued that disenfranchised blacks should not be included in computing the number of House members allotted to each southern state. Dry southerners and their allies, trapped by their own logic, found their way out of the corner by bolting the doors to the country itself. Their vehicle was the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which established annual quotas based on the national origin of people already in the United States. The ceiling was set at 2 percent. Thus, if there were, say, 100,000 Americans of Spanish origin, then 2,000 more Spaniards would be allowed in each year. A similar, temporary measure had been enacted in 1921, using 1910 census figures to determine the baseline. This time out, Congress did not disguise its bigoted intent; instead of using four-year-old numbers from the 1920 census, it elected to turn the clock back to 1890 and use a thirty-four-year-old census as the measuring stick. This eliminated from the equation 4 million Italians, 2 million eastern European Jews, 1.5 million Polish Catholics, and millions of other Slavs, Greeks, Hungarians, Romanians, and other non-“Nordics” whose forebears hadn’t had the foresight to reach American shores by 1890. More than three decades later, under the new law, 34,007 immigrants from Great Britain would be allowed through the golden door of liberty each year—joined by fewer than 4,000 Italians, barely 2,000 Russians, and not even 500 Hungarians. It was a result that seemed to have been traced from a stencil provided by Kenneth Roberts in his very first anti-immigrant article in the Post: of southern and eastern Europeans, he wrote, “It is no more possible to make Americans out of a great many of them than it is possible to make a race horse out of a pug dog.”
From the Prohibitionists’ point of view, the Immigration Restriction Act was particularly endearing because they didn’t have to expend any political capital to get it passed—it had the support of a coalition so broad you would think Congress was voting to endorse motherhood. House sponsor Albert Johnson of Washington was dry enough. But his Senate cosponsor, David A. Reed of Pennsylvania, was a thoroughgoing wet who said he wanted “to preserve the racial composition of America.” The Ku Klux Klan—at this point in its history more concerned about the rising economic and political clout of Catholics and Jews than with any threat from powerless blacks—was of course a strong backer of the act, its leaders ranting about “inferior races” and “European riff-raff.” Detroit Klansmen set up an auxiliary organization called the Symwa Club, its ungainly name an acronym for Spend Your Money With Americans. But the American Federation of Labor, led by its wet (and immigrant) president, Samuel Gompers, backed the law as well, in an effort to block the competitive threat of new workers pouring into the American labor market. So did most progressives, both dry and wet (“a great many,” wrote historian Arthur S. Link, motivated by their chronic anti-Semitism). In fact, only six senators voted against the Immigration Restriction Act. Such broad support for national quotas enabled Wayne Wheeler and the ASL, who left no legible fingerprints on the legislation, to stay true to their pledge: they were interested only in the single issue of Prohibition. (The ASL had been able to justify its support of the futile alien deportation effort because Prohibition was overtly at its center—violation of the Volstead Act, after all, was the trigger for the measure’s penalties.)
But in another legislative struggle that would last the entire decade of the 1920s, involving a clause in the Constitution that had been drafted 130 years before the Eighteenth Amendment, the ASL could not pretend to be above the fray. It was well enough that the Immigration Restriction Act would pay off in the years ahead, as the waning of southern and eastern European immigration would eventually change the complexion of the House of Representatives. A new campaign to block congressional reapportionment after the 1920 census was more urgent: it was designed to protect the dry fortress at that very moment.
THE DRY REFUSAL to allow Congress to recalculate state-by-state representation in the House during the 1920s is one of those political maneuvers in American history so audacious it’s hard to believe it happened. In its disregard for constitutional principle and its blatant political intent, it would almost rank with Franklin Roosevelt’s Supreme Court–packing plan of 1937—that is, if anyone remembered that it even happened. The episode is all the more remarkable for never having established itself in the national consciousness.
The roots of the drys’ reapportionment strategy were embedded in the warnings sounded by Ernest Cherrington and Richmond Hobson as far back as 1915, when they had recognized the need to enact a Prohibition amendment before the 1920 redistricting, which would inevitably favor the cities. Since the Cherrington-Hobson strategy was not an example of democracy at its best—let’s change the Constitution before Congress becomes more representative—it’s no wonder that both men had kept their communications on the subject private. But in 1917, just days before Congress prepared to vote on the Eighteenth Amendment, Wayne Wheeler went public. “We have got to win it now,” he told twenty-five hundred delegates to the ASL’s annual convention, “because when 1920 comes and reapportionment is here, forty new wet Congressmen will come from the great wet centers with their rapidly increased population.”
Never in American history, not even during the tumult of Civil War, had Congress disregarded the constitutional mandate, enunciated in Article 1, Section 2, to reapportion itself following completion of the decennial census. In each of the three most recent opportunities—1890, 1900, and 1910—the process consumed less than nine months. As late as January 1921, Wheeler himself believed that reapportionment was imminent and warned the ASL faithful to “be on guard.” But a threatened majority, like a threatened animal, will do what it can to preserve itself. Between 1921 and 1928, forty-two separate reapportionment bills were introduced in the House. Not one became law.
The principle that bound the foot-draggers together was the obvious one: members from the underrepresented states wanted reapportionment, and those from the overrepresented did not. This of course lined up very neatly with the dry-wet divide in the House, which continued to reflect a rural-urban split. (The same held true in the Senate, where by the chamber’s very definition rural states had disproportionate power, Nevada’s representation no different from New York’s.) The dry congressmen who blocked reapportionment offered arguments dressed in varying degrees of candor. The 1920 census was flawed, said Oscar Bland of Indiana, because men from the farms had been drawn to the big cities during World War I and had not yet returned. James G. Strong of Kansas said he didn’t want to “transfer a representative of our form of Government from an American state like Iowa to one where so many do not speak the English language.” In 1927 Democratic minority leader Finis Garrett of Tennessee dismissed a nearly successful reapportionment bill as “silly.” But it was Representative Ira G. Hersey of Maine who provided a forthright summary of all the prohibitionist objections: he said the failure to pass a reapportionment bill was “simply a silent consent of Congress that they are satisfied with the present apportionment.”
“Satisfied with the present apportionment”! It was the equivalent of a jewel thief who’d been sentenced to jail saying he was satisfied with his room at the Ritz. The dissatisfied were those who represented urban America, where, thanks to immigration and increased birth rates, cities were growing even faster than the farm population was shrinking. Detroit provided an outstanding example of the inequities. Its population had doubled between the 1910 census and the unacknowledged 1920 census, but its congressional representation had remained constant; as a result, its two House members represented 497,000 people each, while in the House as a whole the average congressman stood for 212,000. As the decade stretched on, the imbalance only grew worse. By 1929 one of those Detroit districts was home to more than 1.3 million people, while at the same moment ten separate districts in Missouri contained fewer than 180,000 people each. “The situation grows more and more menacing,” said Representative Emanuel Celler of Brooklyn, and though this did not trouble the drys, they could not disagree with Celler’s conclusion: “It is the city versus the country.” That is, the wet versus the dry.
Throughout the decade these egregious imbalances distorted the shape of a legislative body charged with determining the definitions in the Volstead Act, shaping the structure of the federal court system, appropriating funds for a wide range of enforcement agencies, setting penalties for Volstead violators, and otherwise governing the way the Eighteenth Amendment brushed against the life of every American. Shortly before reapportionment was finally enacted in June 1929, effective with the 1932 elections, the editors of the Washington Post defined the issue with unimpeachable clarity. “The Constitution can not be violated in this fundamental matter of equal representation,” their editorial read, “even at the behest of the Antisaloon League.” But it had been, for an entire decade.
IN 1904, when Alfred Emanuel Smith arrived in Albany from the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side as a newly elected state assemblyman, he was thirty-one years old. His formal education had stopped when he completed the eighth grade, and his working career had largely consisted of the sort of patronage jobs that New York City’s Tammany Hall Democratic organization handed out as generously as modern political organizations hand out bumper stickers. Smith did not win his appointment to the committee responsible for banking legislation or to the one charged with writing laws relating to the state’s forests because of his experience. “He had been in a bank only once in his life, to serve a jury notice,” wrote historian Oscar Handlin, “and he had never seen a forest.”
Smith never left the Lower East Side very far behind him. He couldn’t lose the accent, which marked his origins as effectively as a neon sign around his neck, and he wouldn’t lose his affinity for the slap-on-the-back clubhouse bonhomie that he wore as comfortably as his trademark brown derby. Even when he had to go to one of the black-tie events he was expected to attend after he was elected governor, the famous hat went with him. “Sure, it’s my brown derby,” Smith told a surprised constituent at a glittery Manhattan theater opening. “Why not?”
But Al Smith rose to the governorship of the nation’s largest state on winds more substantial than his easy manner. He was whip smart and leather tough, and though he was steadfast in his support for progressive social legislation and muscular, effective government, Smith also believed those muscles weren’t meant to break the bounds of privacy. He did not consider it “the function of law to jack up the moral tone of any community.” That, he said, was “the function of the home and the church.” In 1923, four months into his second term as governor, he acted on his convictions by ramming through the legislature a bill repealing New York State’s “little Volstead” law, the Mullan-Gage Act, which had turned the federal violations spelled out in the original into state crimes as well.
In New York City, at least, Mullan-Gage had been an utter failure. Violations were so rampant, wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in Collier’s, “that jurymen would have to be drawn at the rate of 18,000 per day to keep up with the rate of arrests.” For the judicial system the strain was unbearable; for the police the distraction from more pressing responsibilities was deplorable. The repeal of Mullan-Gage did not legalize alcoholic beverages in New York, for the Volstead Act remained in force. Repeal only meant that New York police and New York courts, no longer bound by the state to enforce federal antibooze laws, could hand full responsibility over to Washington—“where,” said Smith, “it rightfully belongs.” If speakeasies kept the racket down and didn’t disrupt the peace of the neighborhood, city police left them alone. A sign went up over the bar at Leon & Eddie’s, on West Fifty-second Street: “The bar closes at three o’clock. Please help us obey the law.”
Other states had already told the feds they would have to go it alone. Massachusetts voters had rejected its state enforcement law. Symbolically, at least, the Maryland Free State remained forever free, its legislators never once approving an enforcement law, its police and courts thumbing their noses at the feds. But New York was different—not just because it was the nation’s largest state, but because the repeal of Mullan-Gage was the first time a legislature and a governor eliminated enforcement laws already in place. For all the virtue inherent in the rule of law, Smith had seen plainly that this law, by this time, did not in fact rule, except on paper. “Al is really a very stupid man,” an admirer once said. “All he can see is the point.”
AS THEIR QUADRENNIAL national convention was about to begin in New York in June 1924, the Democratic Party called upon its faded knight, William Jennings Bryan, to draft a formal tribute to the Republican president who had died the previous summer. “Our party stands uncovered beside the bier of Warren G. Harding,” Bryan’s memorial statement began—until he realized how that would sound when read aloud. In Bryan’s next draft, “bier” became “grave.”
Bryan had been brought into discussions of the impending convention by his party’s 1920 vice presidential candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt. In 1923 Roosevelt wrote Bryan about the “hopeful idiots who think the Democratic platform will advocate repeal of the 18th amendment” and wanted to hold the convention in soaking-wet New York. The hopeful idiots won on the geography but hadn’t a chance with the platform. Nor did Bryan, who wanted a ringing endorsement of Prohibition nailed into place. Four years into the reign of constitutional Prohibition, the Democrats were so evenly, ferociously, and irretrievably divided over the subject that it turned the convention into a nightmare, the party’s presidential chances into dust, and, for the first time since ratification, the debate over Prohibition itself into live political ammunition.
New York, awash in booze, was the perfect place for the story to play out. In his memoirs Izzy Einstein said he and Wheeler discussed plans to keep the convention dry, but such an outcome was hardly likely. The city’s taps had been opened wide, warned the federal Prohibition director for New York and Northern New Jersey, “in anticipation of the convention and the expectation of resulting appetitive demands.” The director, Palmer Canfield, added another decorative element to his baroque phrasing when he said the increased “liquoral humidity” was inevitable. Canfield also said, “It will be no better and no worse, no wetter and no dryer.”
That was certainly true. Official “reception committees” could direct the visiting delegate to Manhattan’s five thousand speakeasies; unofficial hosts—hotel bellmen, cabbies, prostitutes—knew where to get a bottle a delegate could enjoy in his room. “Good rye is hardly obtainable,” Variety had said in one of its regular market reports, so Democrats made do with lesser merchandise. Wet operatives kept dry leaders entertained at endless social events, almost as if trying to seduce them with the wonders of Sodom. The favored presidential candidate of the drys, former Treasury secretary William G. McAdoo, complained to a friend, “Some of my best men have been hopelessly drunk since they landed in New York.”
But none of this got in the way of the speedy resolution of the Prohibition plank in the Democratic platform. True to his pattern, Wayne Wheeler opposed Bryan’s wish for a strong dry statement and enlisted the support of his emissary to the Democrats, Bishop Cannon. Neither man was willing to risk the possibility of losing in a direct confrontation with the wets. The platform committee quickly agreed on an anodyne promise to “respect and enforce the constitution and all laws.” What some feared would blow up the party had turned out to be a hiccup. The heavy artillery was instead expended on another platform issue and on the presidential nomination—two inevitable battles between wet and dry that had led one journalist to say that the Democrats could avert disaster only if they could keep the convention from starting. “Old wounds will be torn open and new ones will be inflicted,” Stanley Frost wrote in Outlook. “The battle will have a violence and deadliness which may lead to almost any result the most active imagination can conceive.”
The volatile platform issue, at least nominally, was the Ku Klux Klan. After the founder of the modern Klan, William J. Simmons, had been expelled from the secret order for chronic drunkenness (he spent his later years in an Atlanta movie house, smelling of bourbon and cloves, as he watched Birth of a Nation over and over), the next Imperial Wizard, a Dallas dentist named Hiram M. Evans, ushered in a new emphasis on the anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish parts of its program. This enabled the Klan to break out of the race-obsessed South and spread its influence across the map. The Klan of the 1920s “enrolled more members in Connecticut than in Mississippi, more in Oregon than in Louisiana, and more in New Jersey than in Alabama,” wrote historian Stanley Coben. Over half a million Klansmen lived in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Klan-backed candidates, all running on platforms both dry and xenophobic, were elected governor in Oregon, Colorado, and Kansas. In Detroit a Klan candidate whose name wasn’t even on the ballot was nearly elected mayor in an avalanche of write-in votes.
Nativism could find no better running mate than Prohibition. In many towns there was little distinction between membership in the Klan and in an ASL-affiliated church. At the national level the Anti-Saloon League did not overtly incite religious prejudice; Wheeler in fact worked to develop alliances with dry Catholics and Jews, and Ernest Cherrington made a conscious effort to keep the ASL’s public communications ecumenical. But to men like Roy Haynes, the Wheeler acolyte who headed the Prohibition Bureau, the Klan’s vigilant dryness was an exploitable asset.
This became tragically clear in 1923 and 1924 when Williamson County, in southern Illinois, saw its law enforcement apparatus taken over by a vigilante army of between twelve and thirteen hundred Klansmen. Through the intervention of dry congressman Edward E. Denison, the Klansmen had been deputized by Haynes to clean up the county, which had been in the grip of bootleggers. The vigilantes were led by S. Glenn Young, who had earlier been drummed out of his position in the Prohibition Bureau as “a distinct and glaring disgrace . . . unfit to be in government service.” After midnight on February 1, 1924, Young’s marauders raided the homes of immigrant Italian mineworkers, terrorizing women and children, and, if they found wine in the house, hauling their husbands and fathers off to jail. Rev. A. M. Stickney of the Marion Methodist Church provided ideological support, declaring that Catholics and Jews controlled America’s newspapers and insisting that only the Klan could protect America from disaster. Stickney also took pains to note that the assassins of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley had all been born Catholic. Marching behind Young, who carried a submachine gun, Klansmen briefly seized control of the local government. Riots punctuated the ensuing war between Klan vigilantes and bootlegger-supported local officials; by its end, twenty people were dead.
As wets at the Democratic convention in June 1924 prepared to introduce a platform resolution condemning the Ku Klux Klan, they did not have to cite the events in “Bloody Williamson.” Although the religious, ethnic, and racial prejudices of the Klan were enumerated in the condemnation resolution, there wasn’t a soul on the hot and crowded convention floor in Madison Square Garden who didn’t know that the fight over the resolution was really a struggle between wet and dry. Southern wets supporting the presidential candidacy of Oscar W. Underwood—the race-baiter who had vanquished Richmond Hobson in the Alabama senatorial primary ten years earlier—voted to condemn the Klan; western drys backing the progressive McAdoo lined up in its support. There were no anomalies, however, in the anti-Klan position of the large cadre of delegates—urban, heavily ethnic, utterly soaked—supporting the third major candidate, Al Smith. But there were not enough Smith and Underwood delegates to carry the day, and the resolution failed by one lone vote, out of 1,085 cast. Asked to explain how the Klan had survived the censure resolution, Imperial Wizard Evans, who had spent the convention monitoring the proceedings from a heavily guarded suite in the McAlpin Hotel, was triumphantly smug: “They were afraid of what we might do.”
Al Smith had come to the convention in his hometown as McAdoo’s main opponent for the presidential nomination. His repeal of the Mullan-Gage law had made him, as it was expressed in the heaven-rattling testimony of the Reverend Bob Jones, “the worst-hated man in America”—except insofar as the same action had made him, among the wet half of the Democratic Party (and among not a few wet Republicans as well), one of the best loved. The same knife edge on which the Democratic Party was balanced during the vote on the Klan resolution split it asunder during the presidential balloting. A two-thirds majority was required to win the nomination, and neither side would, or could, give in to the other. For sixteen sweltering, contentious days, while wet delegates rose to sing “The Sidewalks of New York” whenever Smith’s name was mentioned, and dry delegates wired home for more cash to pay for their hotel rooms, and exhausted newspaper reporters sought relief and distraction in Manhattan’s speakeasies and cabarets—during these murderous two-plus weeks, the Democrats went through 103 excruciating ballots before settling on corporate lawyer John W. Davis, a former solicitor general. This was the same man who had once called Wayne Wheeler’s predecessor in the ASL’s Washington office “a goggle-eyed, weasel-faced lobbyist,” but who had also vowed to Wheeler that the Eighteenth Amendment was “a fixed fact” that “has passed beyond the reach of profitable discussion.” John W. Davis was neither dry nor wet, nor remotely capable of defeating Calvin Coolidge in November.
From the perspective of a conservative Republican like James Montgomery Beck, the disorganized and disorderly proceedings had proved that the Democrats were “more of a mob than a party.” The convention led the genial Will Rogers to famously declare, “I’m not a member of any organized political party, I’m a Democrat.” But it was a prophetic and oddly poetic phrase uttered a year earlier by William H. Anderson, an outspoken New York ASL leader, that summarized the lesson of the 1924 convention and simultaneously suggested the future of both the Democratic Party and the Eighteenth Amendment.
“Governor Smith,” said Anderson, “is just the kind of man wanted by those who want that kind of man.”
* The “Federal” prefix was not added to its name until 1935.
* Stanley’s grandson and namesake, Augustus Owsley Stanley III, made his own contribution to the free exchange of banned substances as the first large-scale distributor of LSD, in the 1960s. He later became the soundman for the Grateful Dead.
* Grant’s theory held that northern Europeans—he called them “Nordics”—were “a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers” whose very existence was threatened by intermarriage with the lowly “Alpines” and “Mediterraneans.” And even these lower castes could be corrupted, as “the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew.”
* A study in the late 1920s established that roughly half of the professional Bootleggers were eastern European Jews, another 25 percent Italian, and the remainder a mix of ethnicities, including Polish and Irish.