Progressives and Prohibition:

A Progressive Constitution? (Part 2)

September 17, 2018

Logan Billingsley was a crook — in at least four states. Forgotten now, he was a notorious bootlegger, a purveyor of illegal spirits. He plied his underground trade in Seattle in 1916, before nationwide Prohibition in the 1920s. (Eventually he was caught and jailed. And escaped. And surrendered. And turned state’s evidence to testify that he’d bribed the sitting mayor. And did time at McNeil Island. Watch for the forthcoming biography!)

Alcohol had been banned in Washington state largely on the strength of women voters, who won the franchise in 1910, again in advance of the U.S. as a whole. In short, a century ago my city of Seattle was a pacesetter.

Seattle in 2018 is again in the throes of leading-edge innovation and wrenching growth and global reach.

A city on the edge — at the edge of a continent, at the edge of an ocean, at the edge of the future. A city being transformed by a flood of new arrivals, many from foreign lands, innovators and opportunists in quest of new ventures and new visions – but not always welcomed by current residents. A city basking in an almost smug progressive determination to fix everything that’s not right. A city struggling to reconcile what it has been with what it is becoming, to grow out of quaint but fondly remembered good old days, and grow into a future that may obliterate both the quaint and the good.

A city determined to be a pacesetter for the world.

Seattle Skyline

Just like Logan Billingsley’s Seattle. More specifically, the young but burgeoning city and the recently admitted state of Washington led the nation in two Progressive reforms: banning alcohol and enfranchising women. Well after adoption in the Evergreen State, they became amendments to the Constitution. That’s the story we return to on this Constitution Day 2018.

We continue an account, begun last September, of four transformative amendments to the U.S. Constitution approved within a mere eight years. They reflected different, and differently enduring, aspects of a vision its advocates called “progressive.” Two were adopted before World War I, two after. Viewed as a package, they show evolving understandings of “Progressivism” and its people-oriented reforms.

The Progressive impulse

Echoing the label claimed by leaders back then, historians refer to the first two decades of the 20th century as the “Progressive Era.” It was a time of energy and confidence, when Americans across the political spectrum worked to bring progress through both private and government actions. Self-styled Progressives (different from today’s, and quite diverse) applied traditional morality, often rooted in explicitly religious activism, to what they saw as destructive influences in modern industrial society. Their prime tactic was to marshal expanded federal authority to counterbalance the power of giant industrial corporations and to address an array of social problems stemming from the new industrial order. Among the instruments in their toolkit was amending the national Constitution: as detailed last year, a pair in 1913 authorized a federal income tax (16th) and mandated direct election of U.S. senators (17th).

Smith Tower Under Construction
Seattle’s Smith Tower, circa 1911

In a nutshell, Progressives sought to (1) engineer progress by (2) curbing exploitative corporations and corrupt politicians while (3) aiding the victims of corporate and political abuse. Their efforts transformed the role and reach of American government.

But it was a bottom-up movement as well. In the Pacific Northwest, just emerging from its pioneer years, many citizens joined Progressive causes. Seattle strove earnestly to clean up its dirt — both literal and moral: to get rid of the grime and the crime, to build symphonies and parks and tear down an obstructing hill or two (dumping the debris into Puget Sound). Activists dreamed of bringing in a new moral, economic and physical order. The city pursued its dreams on an unstable landscape of construction and destruction, hustle and humanitarianism, beautification and binges, reform and riot.

Often it was women who spearheaded the campaigns, especially after gaining the clout of the ballot box.

Of course, in the progressive culture of today’s Puget Sound region — home to my Seattle Pacific University for well past a century — women’s equality, including the right to vote and hold office, is a completely normal view. But in a place where recreational marijuana outlets are springing up like weed (er, weeds), banning alcohol seems incomprehensible.

So our task is to explain the nearly simultaneous adoption a century ago of the 18th (Prohibition) and 19th (Women’s Suffrage) Amendments to the Constitution — measures whose intertwining seems so surprising to us today. Each was innovative in its day; together they have had lasting impact on America’s legal and social environments. Pioneered in the Northwest, they embodied, as we have seen, early 20th century “Progressivism.” But more particularly their national acceptance stems from the First World War.

The war, the “Progressives,” and the Constitution

The Great War of 1914-1918 ended precisely a century ago this November 11. (Be alert to commemorations in your localities.) It transformed America in many ways. The upcoming anniversary of the Armistice should encourage us to probe not just its international but domestic impact. Among the legacies of the collective disciplines of wartime, coming after nearly two decades of Progressive reform, were these two Progressive amendments.

World War I offered the perfect laboratory for the United States, under the moral vision of the Progressive Presbyterian professor — President Woodrow Wilson — to lead the world toward the progress America stood for. Sadly, the War shattered Progressive optimism instead. But it did leave a legacy of constitutional change.

The two postwar amendments

In sum, America’s entry into the European war allowed two longstanding moral reform crusades, rooted in activist religious impulses in the early 1800s, to culminate in national constitutional mandates. To look at each in turn risks losing their symbiotic interconnectedness, so be alert to how each related to the other.

18th Amendment: prohibition of alcoholic beverages

Banning liquor has a deep history. A century-long effort began with a “temperance” campaign to moderate excessive drinking; it culminated, locally and nationally, in a push for total prohibition. Both bad motives and good impelled techniques ranging from “moral suasion” to legal proscription. Often an anti-immigrant tinge — against the whiskey-swilling Irish or beer-chugging Germans — tainted the rhetoric. But the initial movement clearly sprang from clear-headed concerns for public health and order. Alcohol was addictive, and alcohol-sodden individuals, often male, could wreak great social havoc. Indeed, women led both the early temperance efforts and the later campaign for outright prohibition because men drank away their paychecks, then came home drunk to beat their wives and children. This was sociology, not sensationalism.

As cities sprawled and slums festered in the late 1800s, a fringe Prohibition Party gained mainstream support, and soon headline-grabbing attacks on saloons, but most of all brilliant under-the-radar political maneuvering, bore fruit.

Founded in 1893, the Anti-Saloon League, under a tireless agitator, Wayne Wheeler, pioneered pressure-group tactics exploited to this day: targeting individual candidates for state office, while carefully choosing allies. The old, halting reformism caught fire, making common cause with other Progressive movements. Prohibitionists supported the income tax in order to offset the federal dependence on liquor taxes. They welcomed Susan B. Anthony’s calculated decision to tie her suffrage campaign to prohibition. Anti-immigrant Progressives responded favorably to the hints that a dry country would lure fewer foreigners.

Relentlessly, Wheeler’s highly organized techniques filled state houses and then the House and Senate with sympathizers. By 1900, five states plus many localities had voted themselves dry; by 1916, thanks to Wheeler, nineteen had done so. The Congress elected in 1916 was strongly dry, reflecting the Anti-Saloon League’s local politicking. The war added momentum, again for reasons bad and good. The enemy abroad was German militarism; the enemy at home, German brewers. But defeating the enemy “over there” required a new social discipline over here. If food czar Herbert Hoover could persuade a nation to support the doughboys and starving Europe by giving up meat on Mondays, advocates for the amendment could certainly make the case for conserving grain by banning beer. A Wartime Prohibition Act did just that before constitutional change could work its way through the system.

The actual Amendment, introduced as soon as the new Congress convened in 1917, easily passed both houses, then sailed through state ratification, officially joining the previous seventeen in January 1919.

But how do we rightly call Prohibition Progressive?

In our time, the privileging of moral libertarianism over most kinds of government policing of private behavior makes us recoil at the notion of prohibiting a free choice to imbibe. Prohibition a century ago hardly seems “progressive,” yet a coalition ranging from evangelical preacher Billy Sunday to the socialist Industrial Workers of the World thought it so.

Nevertheless, their hopes ran afoul of reality. The alcohol spigot was almost completely turned off in January 1920. But less than 14 years later the tap nearly completely re-opened. As Logan Billingsley’s Seattle enterprise foreshadowed, and the bootlegging and “speakeasies” and organized crime of the 1920s proved, the failures of enforcement and corruption of morals (to say nothing of paid-off police) outweighed the benefits the prohibitionists earnestly touted. Another instinct of the progressives, pragmatism, overruled their moralism.

The resulting 1933 repeal of Prohibition in the 21st Amendment can thus be seen, ironically, as a kind of Progressive second thought. The disdain some today might feel for those meddling moralists seems to me unfair. It was, as President Herbert Hoover famously said, an “experiment noble in motive.” It was, as many were saying by the Hoover administration, a failed experiment.

Just after Hoover exited the scene, so did Prohibition. Yet not entirely. A second section of the Depression-era repeal explicitly reserved to states the right to ban liquor. The sweeping powers granted to Congress under the constitutional power of regulating interstate commerce are restricted in the case of this one commodity. Hence the country did not immediately and fully go “wet,” nor can localities to this day be forced to admit liquor against their citizens’ vote.

Though the ban is long gone, the Progressive blending of democratic will and government regulatory power remains. Their activist technique of carefully orchestrated political mobilization continues to shape legal and social change. And once again the Pacific Northwest has been out front, with, as an ironic example, recent campaigns to legalize marijuana.

19th Amendment (1920): women’s right to vote

Three years ago, I examined women’s suffrage in the context of the long constitutional history of expanding democracy. Now we take a second look — in the context of mature Progressivism during the First World War.

Like the anti-alcohol crusade, the women’s rights campaign dates back to the comprehensive social reforms of the early 1800s, closely linked to the temperance movement and antislavery. Within the broader effort to empower women, the right to vote attracted an increasing number of leading voices.

The post-Civil War 14th Amendment secured both state and national citizenship for everyone “born or naturalized” in the United States (including, of course, former slaves). But just to make sure, a 15th amendment specified that African-American citizenship conferred the right to vote. To the disappointment of some it did not simultaneously enfranchise women. Advocates for women’s suffrage would have to intensify their longstanding campaign.

It was men, of course, who had to let them in.

Intriguingly, suffragists first found success in the West. Women’s right to vote swept eastward to older regions from the recently settled western jurisdictions. Wyoming Territory led the way, in 1869. Mormon-dominated Utah Territory followed the next year. Despite “manly” stereotypes of the “Wild West,” men of the West were the ones voting to give the vote to their women. By 1900, four states enfranchised women; by 1916, 11 states had.

This proto-Progressivism of the frontier finally reached the East. The Progressive impulse carried the movement farther. Women activists were the ground troops for many of the reforms that Progressives sought, from curbs on child labor to, yes, the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Presidential candidates Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and both Democrat Woodrow Wilson and Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916 came out for women’s suffrage.

Again mirroring prohibition, the suffragist wave engulfed the rest of the nation as a byproduct of the First World War. With the U.S. at war in 1917, the House approved a constitutional amendment. Wilson, honoring his pledge, turned staunch advocate. “We have made women partners in the war,” he proclaimed. Shouldn’t we “admit them ... to a partnership of privilege and right?”

When the Senate balked, women’s organizations persuaded the mostly male electorate to oust three hostile senators in the 1918 election. That sent the message. The amendment cleared Congress in June 1919 and received sufficient state ratifications to let all women vote in the 1920 presidential election.

Recap: Four Progressive Amendments

Ponder this: the Constitution of the United States has been amended just 17 times since adoption of the Bill of Rights (Amendments I-X) in 1791. And as we have seen, two cancel out: the 21st repealed the 18th. So that leaves just five in the 1800s, including three in the aftermath of the Civil War. In the last century eight more have been added (reiterating: one to repeal Prohibition), half of them further expanding voting rights. Thus, in the relatively brief two decades of Progressive reform, nearly a quarter of all the changes to the Charter as it stood in 1800 were instituted.

Curiously, they were adopted with an odd symmetry. They came in two pairs: two in the middle of the era (income tax and direct election of senators), two late (Prohibition and women’s suffrage). They illustrate both new tools for expanded federal power (16th and 17th) and new social concerns brought under federal mandate (18th and 19th).

The first two were procedural, the last two substantive. The first pair stemmed from recent priorities arising from demands to place democratic constraints on wealth and power. They had far-reaching consequences, fundamentally altering the way the nation is governed.

The second pair culminated from sustained passion for the moral and social improvement of the republic. They were embraced for their radical changes to improve society, but would not be supported by the same groups today, and had relatively subdued impact. Prohibition reduced alcohol consumption (and abuse) somewhat, but so failed in both acceptance and enforcement that it was repealed. Women voted, doubling the electorate, “but the effect was otherwise slight,” observes a constitutional historian: women’s choices divided on issues and candidates about the same as men’s. (More recently, of course, women can be distinguished as an influential voting bloc.)

Finally, paired differently, two (the income tax and Prohibition) greatly extended the government’s power; two (direct Senator election and women’s suffrage) greatly extended the people’s power.

And three of the four gained initial impetus in the Pacific Northwest. Ironically, the concept not pioneered in the Northwest, the tax on incomes, has been rejected in Washington, where a state income tax is constitutionally banned.

A Progressive (and conservative) recommitment?

The tale of Logan Billingsley’s entrepreneurial activities in 1916, and the widespread circumventing of national Prohibition in the 1920s, remind us of a story told by Abraham Lincoln. When a group lobbied him to prescribe an unenforceable edict, he asked them, perplexingly, how many legs a sheep would have if he called the tail a leg.

“Five,” they replied.

“That’s where you’re wrong,’ said the President. “Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one.”

And so it happened that women’s equality in the electoral sphere, the people’s right to elect senators directly, and yes, income taxes, are now fully accepted “progressive” initiatives of long ago. But history has treated Prohibition more harshly. Calling it the law of the land didn’t make people stop drinking.

Logan Billingsley
Photo courtesy of Robert Billingsley

By the time of its repeal, ironically, Logan Billingsley had gone legit, becoming a pillar of the New York City business establishment, as my friend Robert Billingsley, Logan’s son and biographer, informs me.

So in the spirit of the partnership of suffragists and prohibitionists, and instructed by Billingsley’s personal reformation, I am bold to wonder if, in these contentious times, each of us — woman or man, teetotaler or responsible imbiber, president or newly naturalized immigrant, right-wing “patriot” or left-loving “progressive” — might firmly recommit to the rule of law and the honor of our federal Constitution.

Now that would be an amendment!

William Woodward

By William Woodward, PhD

Professor Emeritus of History
Seattle Pacific University

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