The Dry Crusader: Wayne Wheeler’s Quest for Prohibition

‘My childhood was an idyllic time in the most beautiful country. The sun shone brightly every spring and summer, making the great fields of wheat and corn glow brightly as they sway in the gentle breeze. I was so fond of working in those fields and doing such valuable work in God’s land. That is, until one day, a vagabond who worked on our farm was so besotted, he carelessly thrashed about his scythe and injured me greatly. His drunken misconduct taught me a valuable lesson: alcohol is the root of dangerous acts. Had he not been drunk, my idyllic childhood would not be tarnished with such a sorrowful stain.’

Sounds quite traumatizing does it not? Would hearing this story convince you to throw out all the alcohol in your house and campaign on this single issue until alcohol was totally banned? Well, the above story is only a fictionalized version, but a similar anecdote was shared by the leader of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) in the early 20th century. He worked tirelessly to advocate a single issue policy: the prohibition of alcohol. The efforts of the Anti-Saloon League pushed for passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act. They did so with such ravenous lobbying that many U.S. Representatives and Senators caved to their pressure for fear of losing their seat in the next election cycle. The man who oversaw all these political operations was Wayne Bidwell Wheeler. 

Wayne B. Wheeler, executive director of the Anti-Saloon League (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Before delving into Wayne Wheeler himself, it’s vital to understand the history and mission of the Anti-Saloon League within the larger story of Prohibition. Since the early 1800s, various temperance groups such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union advocated for the reduction and strict limitations of alcohol production and consumption. These early groups included alcohol temperance as part of their many causes to improve society, such as changing child labor laws, public sanitation, women’s suffrage, and urban housing. In 1893, the Anti-Saloon League was founded in Oberlin, Ohio and they adopted a different approach from preceding groups. The ASL advocated for a total ban on the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcohol and pursued it as a single issue platform. The total ban of alcohol was the organization’s only mission. The group exploded in membership and in a couple of years, they became a powerful national lobbying group whose influence stretched from local city government to the U.S. Congress. The league published thousands of pamphlets, leaflets, news articles, and gained a massive following with local churches so Wheeler utilized those connections to great advantage. The ASL was different from previous popular movements due to their bureaucratic, corporate structure and building departments dedicated to a certain aim of the organization. The publishing department wrote to thousands of newspapers and at one point, the ASL had whole page stories and columns in nearly every major newspaper in the United States. Enter Wayne Wheeler and his crusader zeal. 

Wheeler began his work with the ASL campaigning from door-to-door and sharing the anti-alcohol message. Wheeler joined the ASL shortly after their founding and quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the executive director in 1904. Wheeler earned his law degree from Western Reserve University while working for the ASL and along with his teacher background, he was the organization’s most effective organizer and lobbyist. He embarked on a special brand of political lobbying (selfishly labeled Wheelerism) that became his trademark. he heavily pressed on the issue of prohibition and did so through any means to get a vote from elected officials. If they did not support prohibition legislation, Wheeler mobilized ASL followers to vote against them. The best case example was with Myron T. Herrick in his re-election for Governor of Ohio. Herrick supported local option laws that were backed by the ASL, but when he tried to modify them slightly, Wheeler used the publishing arm of the ASL to denounce him, and it worked. Herrick’s defeated was a monumental victory for the ASL which now demonstrated their political power. 

Political cartoons were effective in drawing attention to the issue of alcohol and the evils of the saloons (image courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Wheeler’s leadership model focused on achieving national prohibition by any means necessary. He was known on occasion to work with wet (pro-alcohol) politicians who were willing to vote on dry (anti-alcohol) legislation. This horrified some within the ASL, but Wheeler’s die-hard lobbying and cult-like followers were able to get results in every local and state election in passing dry laws. As more dry politicians were elected to office, the prospect of enacting a constitutional amendment banning alcohol became more of a reality. Single issue lobbying was forcing many legislators to choose a side as prohibition became a wedge issue. Wheeler also took the approach of focusing on the margin electorates. This meant that he needed to convince the small number of undecided voters to push them into choosing a side. This was accomplished by constantly pushing for change until they were worn down. 

Anti-Saloon League supporters turned up in large numbers at every election and by 1910, their political influence was unparalleled in Washington D.C. Despite this, they were still unable to garner enough votes to pass national prohibition or even a constitutional amendment on alcohol. The federal government relied heavily on alcohol tax revenue, but that changed in 1913 when Congress established an income tax with the 16th Amendment. Now with the government’s primary source of revenue coming from the general population instead of one industry, the economic argument for keeping alcohol collapsed. Wheeler quickly advanced upon dry legislators to pass the 18th Amendment and he himself was involved in drafting the Volstead Act, setting the draconian rules for alcohol’s usage. After years of political pressure and advocating, Wheeler and the ASL finally achieved their goal of national prohibition. 

The story of Wayne Wheeler doesn’t end with the passage of the 18th Amendment. The height of the league’s power in the 1920s now required them to constantly press home the need to prohibit alcohol, but the lobbying strength needed to do so was beginning to fade. Intent on keeping the issue of alcohol in the national spotlight, Wheeler sought to influence the Bureau of Prohibition and monitor the selection of agents to enforce the Volstead Act. Throughout his tenure with the Bureau, he entered a dark phase of condemning those who consumed tainted alcohol. Wheeler didn’t feel sympathy for those who died from tainted alcohol (tainted sometimes by the government’s orders). This callous, cold attitude turned off many political supporters from Wheeler who started to change their dry positions. Wheeler was also an uncompromising individual who refused to change his stance on prohibition, which ended any prospect of adjusting the Volstead Act in order to reduce the number of violations. The public outcry surrounding his comments on the victims of tainted alcohol forced him into an early retirement from the ASL, but he never ceased his prohibition lobbying. Wheeler suffered a series of personal tragedies; his wife and father-in-law died from a house fire and heart attack respectively within hours of each other and on September 5, 1927, Wayne died from a chronic kidney disease. 

Wayne’s legacy doesn’t only encompass Prohibition, but also the effectiveness of pressure politics that force people to choose sides on a wedge issue. We can see it today in a variety of political arguments surrounding immigration, abortion, LGBTQ rights, drugs, and more where groups tirelessly campaign for a single issue. We can learn from these lobbying tactics and see how they impact our government today. There is so much we can learn from the history of Prohibition; it’s not all speakeasies and gangsters, but a moral quest that battled for America’s soul. 

Detroit police inspecting equipment found in a clandestine underground brewery during the prohibition era (Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 – 2003, National Archives and Records Administration)

 

 

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