The United States is a nation of immigrants. We have the largest immigrant population of any country in the world. One of the most iconic symbols of the American democracy is the Statue of Liberty with its inscription “give us your tired, your poor….” In 2015, 13% of our population was foreign born. According the Census Bureau, one out of every four children under 18 in the U.S. has at least one foreign born parent.
And yet time and again we have proven ourselves to also be a nation of immigrant haters. One need only watch the campaign of any present day right wing politician to see how he or she tries to scare up votes by fanning the flames of xenophobia. That is led by the president. His campaign promises emphasized things like building a wall on the Mexican border and banning Muslins from entering the country.
This type of immigrant hatred has at times been a significant influence on government policy in the United States. Prohibition was one of those times. In my previous post I noted that there were a lot of reasons why Americans in different walks of life supported Prohibition, but the final thrust that brought the constitutional amendment into being was based on the anti-immigrant sentiment that was fueled by the First World War.
The U.S. entered WWI in 1917. That same year, Woodrow Wilson submitted the 18th Amendment, banning alcohol, to the states for approval. It was ratified by the necessary three-fourths of states within a year and in early 1919, Prohibition was enacted by Congress. The campaign leading up to that moment had started in the 19th century and had always been tinged by reactionary attitudes toward immigrants. Edward Samuel Bahr, author of Prohibition , describes it this way: “Prohibition was the rearguard action of a still dominant overwhelmingly rural, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment, aware that its privileges and natural right to rule were increasingly threatened by the massive arrival of the largely despised (and feared) beer swilling, wine drinking, new American immigrants.”
Twenty million people immigrated to the U.S. between 1880 and 1920. By 1910, almost 15% of the population was foreign born. In cities, that percentage was higher. Forty-one percent of New York City residents were foreign born. For many of these new Americans, Irish, German, Italian, Mexican, Slavs and Eastern European Jews, alcohol was a part of their culture. It was how they socialized, how they wound down after work. It was a part of their family gatherings and their religious services. They became the target of a broad range of Prohibition backers, ranging from moralistic reformers to vile bigots.
One of the primary focuses of Prohibition was the saloon, the largely male dominated local drinking hole. It is estimated that there were about 300,000 saloons in the U.S. in the early 20th century and that 80% of them were owned by first-generation Americans. Their clientele likely reflected that percentage. The saloon was not just a place to go have a beer. For many new immigrants is was where they got their mail, where they looked for a job and where they found people who spoke their language. It was also a hub of political activity, a place where political machines set up shop. The primarily female progressive reform movement of the time, in its typically patronizing manner, saw the eradication of the saloon as a way to improve the lives of immigrant families. The name of the nation’s most powerful Prohibition lobbying group, the Protestant fundamentalist Anti-Saloon League, speaks for itself.
Those Prohibition advocates were high-minded compared to the outright bigots who saw immigration as a threat to both religious and racial purity. Last Call author Daniel Okrent notes, “Like the Catholics, the Jews peered behind the Prohibition banner and saw the white-hooded hatred of the Ku Klux Klan and foaming xenophobia of the nativist pastors who dominated the Methodist and Baptist churches.” And this despite the fact that in many Southern states there were hardly any immigrants.
Although Americans had been drinking somewhat heartily since the Mayflower arrived equipped with kegs of beer, Prohibition advocates saw the alcohol industry in the U.S. as an immigrant business. Germans had dominated the beer brewing industry since the second half of the 19th century and the distilleries were often owned by Jews. Henry Ford, an anti-Semite, decried the distilling industry as 95% Jewish controlled.
It was the German-ness of the brewing industry that finally pushed the battle to ban alcohol over the starting line. World War I gave rise to a wave of anti-German hysteria in the U.S. In Iowa it was illegal to speak German. Wisconsin burned German books. And in Boston you couldn’t play Beethoven, The Anti-Saloon League seized on this sentiment and put its considerable propaganda machine in motion associating alcohol with the enemy and positioning Prohibition as a patriotic act that would help win the war.
Once Prohibition was enacted it was immigrants that often bore the brunt of enforcement. Williamson County, Illinois, actually brought in the KKK to help with enforcement. They raided the homes of Italian-Americans and if they found wine, carted the men of the family off to jail. One noted Prohibition agent, Izzy Einstein, made a name for himself in New York by busting rabbis. And along the border, a government commission empaneled to study the failure of enforcement of Prohibition, concluded that treatment of Mexican-Americans was “unconstitutional, tyrannic and repressive.” Congress passed an Immigration Act in 1924 that limited the number of Europeans who could immigrate and outright banned Arabs and Asians.
One result of the way Prohibition was imposed on immigrant communities was a fundamental change in voting patterns in the U.S. that persists to this day. Urban, immigrant populations began voting in droves for the Democrats, starting in 1928 with the candidacy of New York’s Catholic and anti-Prohibition Governor Al Smith. While Smith was defeated, immigrants were a key block of the voters who elected Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and while the nationalities of immigration has changed, new Americans continue to support the Democratic Party to this day.
The War on Alcohol, Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, Lisa McGirr, 2017.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent, 2010
Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America, Edward Samuel Behr, 1996.