Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Wayne Bidwell Wheeler

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348px-Wayne_Bidwell_Wheeler,_half-length_portraitThis man, who looks like he might have been a bank clerk for George Bailey, actually has his fingerprints on three amendments to the Constitution. He coined the phrase “pressure group” and directed the efforts of the first effective such creature. He personally supervised Congress for over ten years. Now he is almost completely forgotten; that is not right.

Wheeler was born in 1869, on a farm in northeast Ohio. While he was still a boy, a drunk hired hand on the farm stabbed Wheeler in the leg with a hayfork. This event influenced Wheeler to be militantly opposed to alcohol.

He worked his way through Oberlin College, where he was recruited by Howard Russell Hyde, founder of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). At the time, the leading anti-alcohol organization was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU campaigned for prohibition, but also for women’s right to vote, government ownership of utilities and factories, prison reform and vegetarianism. By contrast, the ASL would be laser focused on one goal: national prohibition of the production and distribution of alcohol. Anyone who supported this cause was a friend; anyone who opposed it was an enemy.

Billy Sunday, meet pioneering social worker Jane Addams: you’re working together now. The evangelical clergy of the age were motivated to support Prohibition because of their faith; reformers like Addams signed on because of the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sentiment was rooted in its hatred of the immigrant masses in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor.
— Daniel Okrent, “Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010 (

While still studying law, Wheeler was already working full time for the ASL, speaking and recruiting in Ohio. Before long, Wheeler and the ASL had tossed out 70 state legislators who were not sufficiently dry. Having control of the Ohio legislature, Wheeler could put through a local-option law that would allow individual towns and counties to vote themselves dry.

In 1905, Governor Myron T. Herrick had pushed for changes to the local-option bill that, in the view of the ASL, compromised it. The ASL demanded revenge and Wheeler set out to obtain it. Herrick was backed by Mark Hanna, the Republican boss who also created William McKinley. Herrick was popular and politically successful. Nevertheless, Wheeler set his sights on Herrick, organizing more than 300 rallies against Herrick that year. Wheeler succeeded in unelecting Herrick, providing another object lesson for politicians of the power of the ASL.

Never again will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.
— Wayne Wheeler

Wheeler had figured out that his ability to mobilize a large bloc of voters gave him disproportionate political power. His key insight was that he didn’t need a majority of people; he needed a majority of people who showed up to vote. In a straight-up referendum on prohibition of alcohol sales, the ASL could only command a minority. However, the ASL could decisively influence an election by isolating their single issue and mobilizing voters, exerting influence beyond their numbers and tipping the scales for the dry candidate and against the wet.

Having asserted control of Ohio, the ASL was ready to go national. However, national prohibition would be impossible as long as Washington was hooked on alcohol. The federal government depended on excise taxes on alcohol for revenue; these taxes had provided as much as 40% of annual revenues since the Civil War. Without a substitute, Prohibition was unthinkable.

The ASL thus teamed up with progressives to pass the Sixteenth Amendment, creating the income tax. Overnight, the government’s dependence on alcohol was removed. Now Wheeler could work on what the ASL called “The Next and Final Step”: national prohibition.

I do it the way the bosses do it, with minorities. We’ll vote against all the men in office who won’t support our bills. We’ll vote for candidates who will promise to. We are teaching these crooks that breaking their promises to us is surer of punishment than going back on their bosses, and some day they will learn that all over the United States—and we’ll have national Prohibition.
— Wayne Wheeler, speaking to Lincoln Steffens

In 1914, resolutions for Prohibition and women’s suffrage amendments finally emerged from congressional committees. The ASL saw women’s votes as essential to overcoming obstacles to Prohibition, although ultimately the Prohibition amendment would jump ahead of the amendment granting women the right to vote.

By 1916, the ASL was ready for the final push. They had spent over $50 million in 2010 dollars. The payoff was a favorable Congress, four more states voting themselves dry and the defeat of every wet measure in every state. Wheeler had set up a printing plant in Westerville, Ohio, that produced more than forty tons of flyers, pamphlets and other printed matter a month in support of Prohibition. Understanding his alliance with progressives, Wheeler had made sure the plant was a union shop.

There was also urgency for the final push. In 1920, there would be a census, followed by redistricting. Cities would gain representation in Congress, at the expense of rural areas. Cities were wet; the countryside was dry. Wheeler liked to quote William Cowper: “God made the country, and man made the town.” So when Senator Boise Penrose of Pennsylvania, an ardent wet, demanded a seven-year limit on ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, Wheeler and the ASL had no objection. They knew they didn’t really even have that long. In the event, ratification by 36 states took thirteen months.

For the next six years, Wheeler sat in the Senate gallery, watching over Congress, the President and the new Prohibition Bureau whose staffing he controlled. He supported tainting drinkable alcohol with poison, saying, “The person who drinks this … is a deliberate suicide.” Wheeler retired in 1926 and died a year later.

Nothing is more certain than that when the next history of this age is examined by dispassionate men, Wheeler will be considered one of its most extraordinary figures.
The Baltimore Sun

He is little remembered today, but those who study the events of one hundred years ago must conclude he was an extraordinary figure. If there were a lobbyist’s hall of fame, a statue of Wheeler would belong in the front entryway. He showed future single-interest political pressure groups how do get it done.


Written by srojak

May 3, 2016 at 5:28 am

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