Prohibition and Progressive Reform

I didn’t fall in love with Boardwalk Empire, but it did persuade me to start reading Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. So far, I’m still in the “rise” part where his narrative makes the point that even though we know Prohibition was doomed to fail, its proponents were in many ways on the right side of history:

[Frances] Willard’s second principle, which blossomed as her fame and influence grew, was “Do Everything.” Perceiving that the energies of the [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] could be harnessed for broader purposes, Willard urged her followers to agitate for a set of goals that stretched far beyond the liquor issue but harmonized with the effort to improve the lives of others. Her “Protestant nuns” (as Willard sometimes called her followers) campaigned for suffrage, of course, but also for prison reform, free kindergartens, and vocational schools. After reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards in 1899, Willard declared herself a “Christian socialist” and broadened the WCTU’s agenda once again, agitating for the eight-hour day, workers’ rights, and government ownership of utilities, railroads, factories and (she was nothing if not eclectic) theaters. Along the way she took up the causes of vegetarianism, cremation, less restrictive women’s clothing, and something she called “the White Life for Two” — a program “cloaked in euphemism,” wrote Catherine Gilbert Murdock in Domesticating Drink, that “endorsed alcohol-free, tobacco-free, lust-free marriages.”

As exceptional as Willard was, her determination to connect Prohibition to other reforms was neither original with her nor uncommon. In its first national campaign, in 1872, the Prohibition Party endorsed universal suffrage, public education, and the elimination of the electoral college, and would soon take up a range of issues reaching from federal control of interstate commerce to forest conservation. Dio Lewis was a harvesting machine of causes and campaigns. At the moment he took the abstinence pledge in 1845, Frederick Douglass had said, “we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery,” partly because “all great reforms go together.”

I think this is a great illustration of what’s wrong with ideological moderation as conventionally implemented. It’s tempting to look at the agitators for reform and their opponents and sort of heuristically reason that the truth must be somewhere in between. But a 21st century person looking back on the 19th century reform agenda sees a hodge-podge of things they were totally right about, things that look totally eccentric in retrospect, and ideas that would come to be discredited.