The No Nothing, Know Nothing Party of Prohibition

The No Nothing, Know Nothing Party of Prohibition

Everything old is new again, and as we head toward a 2020 political season, there’s a lot that we can learn from the strange party politics of the Prohibition Era 1920’s.  If we don’t learn from that history, we’re doomed to repeat it, right?

Take Virginia’s Senator Carter Glass in 1927.  With absolutely nothing prior in history to make him think that everything in politics is fluid, he announced, “Anyone is a fool who thinks the Eighteenth Amendment will be repealed in the next hundred years.”  You’ve probably had a drink in public today without fear of arrest, so I don’t need to tell you how that turned out.

Once Prohibition became the law of the land, no one could seem to decide who would be in charge of repealing it should the day come.  Did the presidential parties need a Prohibition position in the party platform?  The candidates for presidency said no, preferring to let Congress decide.  Congress, of course, wanted political cover from the presidency and the entire argument over alcohol became a childish game of hot potato.  Does any of this sound at all familiar to what’s happening today?

Add to this the most accurately named party in the history of American politics—the Know-Nothing Party.  Rising to its short-lived glory in the 1850’s, the hallmark of the Know-Nothing Party was its anti-immigrant sentiment.  The Know-Nothing’s denounced immigration as a social and economic threat to America’s cultural norms.  Never mind that America had yet to see its first birthday.  Perhaps seeing the irony in the party name, the Know-Nothing Party eventually became the American Party.  The Prohibition movement quickly jumped into the anti-immigrant spirit.  German beer, Italian wine and Irish whiskey, for example, may have been more dangerous to the idea of the “American way” than to a life of sin.  The Temperance Movement did a good job of hiding their anti-immigrant sentiment, but ultimately, it was there lurking just beneath the foamy cusp of a pint of German lager.

Add to this the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and American politics gets even more awful and interesting.  It cannot be seriously argued that the KKK ever gave a flying fuck about the moral standards of America.  Instead, it sensed an opportunity to blame the immigrant populations for alcohol-fueled domestic spats, violence, and divorce.  While many immigrants might have been involved in the brewery and distillery businesses, public flouting of the Prohibition laws belonged at least as much to those born in America as it did to recent immigrants.

Ironically, Prohibition’s backlash may have created the most culturally diverse years in the early 1900’s.  African American jazz musicians played for racially diverse crowds throughout Chicago.  While the gangs may have affiliated according to the country of their own ancestral ties, it certainly wasn’t an occupation left only to one nationality.  Those against Prohibition not only had numbers and resourcefulness on their side, but also the power of diversity.

The moral of the story is this.  Don’t trust the government to legislate morals and if they do, buy your friends a drink.

Written by Amy Williams

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