|Prohibition as an issue in New York State politics, 1836-1933|
William John Jackson
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Tags: New York (State), Prohibition
PROHIBITION AS AN ISSUE IN NEW YORK STATE POLITICS 1836-1933
William John Jackson
New York has been historically a ˘wet÷ state. Largely because of the attitudes and habits of its city populations, it was a leading producer and consumer of intoxicants and was either cool or hostile to ˘advanced temperance÷ and prohibitory legislation. Yet the state played a significant part in the temperance and prohibition movements of the 19th and 20th Centuries.
From the founding of the first temperance society at Moreau, New York, in 1808 until the mid-1830s, the ˘burned-over÷ district of upstate New York was the center of agitation stressing moral suasion directed at the individual to achieve voluntary temperance. The effects of this agitation were quickly felt elsewhere in the state, cutting across political, religious, class as well as geographical lines.
By 1836 the more extreme drys began advocating coercive reform through local and state legislation. Focusing on the seller rather than user, local option and state-wide prohibition laws were the means sought to restrict the liquor traffic. Both were adopted and quickly repealed in the pre-Civil War years. Liquor thus became a political issue but still with no clear-cut party alignment, even though the Whigs and Republicans had drier tendencies than Democrats. As upstate New York became more Republican following the Civil War, its differences with Democratic New York City on liquor and other issues became more apparent. Neither party, however, took an official stance on liquor despite the re-emergence of strong prohibitionist sentiment in the 1880s. The even balance between the major parties made the Prohibition Party a more significant force in that period than its numbers warranted, especially in New York. That party, the WCTU, and dry upstate Republicans were the groups persistently but unsuccessfully pursuing legal restrictions on the liquor trade. Increasingly, opposition to liquor focused on the saloons, the laws prohibiting Sunday sales being the most enduring issue. On this question the fusion, reform administrations of New York City foundered. Legislatorial apportionment enabled the sparsely populated, strongly dry, upstate districts to block liberalization of the liquor laws sought by the City.
The third prohibition wave began to crest in 1907-1908. Largely separate from the progressive movement in New York, the drys continued to find their greatest support upstate and, after 1914, their political leadership in the Anti-Saloon League. Utilizing the direct primary in upstate Republican districts and capitalizing on the hyper-patriotism of the war years, the ASL was a potent factor in New YorkĂs ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment. The State G.O.P., first because of Governor Whitman and later because of national party policy, became clearly identified with Prohibition in the 1920s.
Stymied by the Eighteenth Amendment, the Volstead Act, and a dry Congress, New York wets continually agitated for liberalization of the Volstead Act. In 1923 they repealed the State prohibition law, reenactment of which became a major issue between the parties. The Republicans were divided and severely weakened by it.
Governor SmithĂs popularity in New York stemmed, in part, from his outspoken advocacy of liberalization of the Volstead Act. His successor, Franklin Roosevelt, remained equivocal on Prohibition until the nationĂs mood had clearly changed in favor of Repeal. RooseveltĂs re-election to the governorship in 1930 won, in part, by his tactics on liquor, made his presidential election in 1932 more likely. The New DealĂs indifference to liquor reform and political rivalries within the State, vitiated the attempt by Governor Lehman to enact liquor legislation designed to promote moderation by stringent state controls.
New YorkĂs struggles over liquor generally reflected those nationally but were made particularly intense because of increasingly sharp differences between its upstate and New York City populations.