by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the long march of the temperance movement in America, among the most active of the forces fighting against alcoholic beverage manufacture, sale and consumption were religious figures. When Prohibition was enacted by the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and put into effect in January 1920, a century ago this year, the “great social experiment” was a test for the influence of churches, their ministers and laypersons in directing secular activities.
California’s temperance movement was led by, among other groups and individuals, The Anti-Saloon League of California, and tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is the August 1908 edition of The Searchlight, subtitled “Official Organ of the Anti-Saloon League of California” and published in Los Angeles.
The feature article in the publication carried the headline “From Siskiyou to San Diego” and the subhead of “The People of the Golden State are Marshalling for Anti-Saloon War.” As evidence of this brewing (!) conflict, the piece reported that five ministers, W.E. Perry, D.M. Gandier, T.H. Lawson, I.B. Bristol and W.M. Burke, canvassed a large area of the state holding meetings from 20 June to 28 August.
Despite the alliterative allure of adding San Diego to the title, the quintet got no further south than the Bay Area, focusing its work on the thinly populated areas of the far north, including such communities as Santa Cruz, Lakeport, Grass Valley, Alturas, Napa, Oroville, Red Bluff, Redding, and Yreka, to name a few. “As illustrative of the vastness of this work,” it was pointed out that Burke traveled to remote Modoc County, putting in hundreds of miles for his work there.
The article stated that the five clergymen “found the people alive to the subject of temperance reform and ready to cooperate” with the League “in a movement for the election of [County] Supervisors favorable to local anti-saloon legislation” and to those in the state legislature “who will give to the people State enactments making effective the local option provisions of the constitution.” This “local option” meant securing ordinances and laws at the municipal level.
Finally, it was averred that “from every part of this great field come to us tidings of a constant increase of this popular interest in the anti-saloon movement” and the League was, it was claimed, unable to meet “the requests for assistance coming from all parts of this great field.”
Another major article concerned the statement of the Committee on Temperance and the Prohibition of the Liquor Traffic of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s general conference at Baltimore from 6 May to 1 June. The committee minced no words in proclaiming that “the Methodist Episcopal Church is a temperance society” and it quoted from the conference’s general address:
There must not be any reaction from the wrath with which all good and Christian citizens pursue this law-breaking and murderous traffic. It deserves neither charity nor mercy. There is no law it will keep, no pledge it will honor, no child it will not taint, no woman it will not befoul, no mat it will not degrade. It falsely claims to be a great public interest because it employs thousands and pays heavy taxes. But no money in the pockets of employers and no taxes in the treasury of the city, county, State or nation can balance the monetary losses of the nation through this traffic. No profits, however real or immense, can compensate for the corruption of our politics, the emptiness of the drunkard’s home or the fullness of prisons and graves.
The dealing in alcohol could not be reformed and “an enlightened citizenship and a vital piety demand the utter destruction” of it. The clarion call was for its extinction and “our battle cry, ‘A saloonless country, a stainless flag.'” There were nine elements to the platform, including: personal abstinence, the abrogation of licensing, prohibition through the local option as preparatory to state and national efforts, calling on the federal government to ban alcohol in the District of Columbia and other federal entities, education and an anti-alcohol pledge, continued support of the church’s temperance society, support for the national Anti-Saloon League, assisting other organizations such as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and political action.
Notably, the committee observed that a “divine law of absolute right, which is the source of all human law” was the grounds for civil government being able to force absolute prohibition on its citizens. In this, it proclaimed that “we are in favor of reclaiming, never to be surrendered, every foot of territory which can be wrested from the liquor traffic as an additional base of operations for further aggression, which shall not cease until the world shall know no more this crime-breeding traffic.”
Another remarkable statement is that “we recognize that the Church as an ecclesiastical body may not properly go into partisan politics nor assume to control the franchise of the citizens, yet we maintain that the time has come when the responsibility rests upon every Christian voter not only to oppose the saloon as a matter of abstract principle, but to cast his ballot in the manner which will be most effective against the saloon and tend soonest to put the liquor traffic in ‘the course of ultimate extinction.'”
Politicians could not expect the support of “Christian men so long as he stands committed to the liquor interests or refuses to put himself in an attitude of open hostility to the saloon.” Therefore, “it is the duty of every Christian voter to vote for a reputable, qualified, temperance candidate . . . to the end that righteousness, temperance and morality may become the normal activity of government everywhere.”
Locally, The Searchlight looked to the Los Angeles County Republican Convention for its promotion of three candidates for county supervisor, including Henry D. McCabe, Clarence Nellis, Jr., and Richard W. Pridham. Notably, though, there was no mention of temperance advocacy in the piece, merely a statement, for the most part, about the process of how the trio were nominated, though Nellis did get a very favorable review of his character and a prediction that he would have “a prolonged and brilliant public career.” In fact, all three men were elected, though Nellis and McCabe served just one term, while Pridham managed to secure reelection and served two.
Elsewhere there was a piece headed “Law and Logic” concerning John D. Fredericks, then in his second term as Los Angeles County’s district attorney. The Searchlight reached back two years to reprint a letter sent by him to the Rev. Erwin S. Chapman, the magazine’s editor as a reply to Chapman’s query about the DA’s authority in obtaining evidence for crimes. While Fredericks’ response was that “this authority must be so apparent from the nature of the office that it would hardly need any special citations in support thereof,” Chapman thought it important to reprint the answer, which does not specifically address temperance or the trade in alcohol.
The following page, however, reprints a celebratory article from the August 1906 edition of The Searchlight which noted that the District Attorney, when first elected in 1902, “warned all who were engaged in the illegal sale of liquor to desist” and that this drew “the wrath of the liquor legions,” though legal alcohol production and sale was not the issue. There were, however, social clubs that sought to serve liquor to its members, but were prohibited by ordinance as not being licensed specifically for that purpose and this brought forth the ire of proponents of liquor.
The article noted that “in three years [under Fredericks’ administration] there were 133 convictions for the illegal sale of liquor, with penalties amounting to 20 imprisonments and $18,593.00 in fines.” Though “the cohorts of hell were plotting and preparing to prevent the renomination” of the DA, the piece continued, “this strong, brave and faithful public official” found no foe in his campaign, which seemed “like a dream” to his fervent supporters.
If it was not for overwhelming public support, the story went on, “he would have been slaughtered by the liquor forces and their criminal allies” who “sought to bind this modern Samson” but only had “cobwebs when he chose to move.” With this the article concluded by declaiming that “the People, the mighty mighty People, had risen up and none dared to withstand them or deny their demands.”
In fact, there was only a Socialist Party opponent as the Democrats declined to nominate a challenger. Fredericks won again, though narrowly, in 1910 against Thomas Lee Woolwine, later a DA, and then suffered a resounding defeat in 1914 trying to unseat the governor, Hiram Johnson. Fredericks returned to a private law practice, but did serve two terms in the House of Representatives in the mid-1920s.
Much of the rest of the publication concerned reports of temperance movements in other parts of the United States, but there is a very interesting article with the headline, “A Heathen Nation Ahead of a Christian Nation” and the subheading of “China More Active in the Prohibition of Opium Than America in the Prohibition of Rum.” While it seems pretty obvious that blanket comparisons like that are inherently problematic, the attempt was to paint a portrait of an empire (which, in reality, was rapidly crumbling) aggressively eliminating opium usage among officials and in places like Shanghai.
The focus, however, was on officialdom and the author, the Rev. Louis Agassiz Gould, asserted that “whatever may be the weaknesses of the Empress Dowager, she appears to be immovably firm in her determination to eradicate the opium evil from the empire.” New regulations purportedly required all officials above a fairly low rank to prove that they were not smokers of the drug and it was said that stronger punitive laws were being drafted. With this, all that was said about America and alcohol was “it is not a particle more impossible to eradicate the drink habit from the United States, than to eradicate the opium habit from China,” as if social, political and economic differences had nothing to do with the matter!
This issue of The Searchlight is a fascinating document about the state of the temperance movement in Los Angeles and more broadly, especially from the viewpoint of The Anti-Saloon League of California and from the Methodist Episcopal Church, which played a powerful role in the movement. It was another decade or so until the goal of national Prohibition was finally achieved amid hopes that the crusade would not only bring a permanent end to almost all production, sale and consumption of alcohol in the country, but be a springboard for global Prohibition.
Instead, the types of crime the publication railed against among the “liquor legions” grew by leaps and bounds and boosted organized crime. Initial reductions in alcohol consumption were followed by massive growth in illicit manufacturing, sale and consumption and the federal government’s ability to enforce the provisions of the Volstead Act, the enabling legislation for Prohibition, was always woefully inadequate and couldn’t be expected to be enough given available resources. While it was fourteen years before Prohibition was repealed, the tide was turning long before that and it took far less time to end the social experiment than to work to enact it.
Still, the Prohibition Party of that era still exists and many of the problems that were discussed by temperance leaders have continued with other substances, notably illegal hard drugs, though the explosion in highly addictive and legal prescription painkillers has added tremendous suffering and destruction. So, the battle against intoxicants of various types carries on and the lessons of the temperance movement still have relevance.