Title Reviewed:
Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920

Author Reviewed:
James H. Timberlake

Alexander B. Callow, Jr


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 60, Issue 1, pp 112-113

Article Type:
Book Review

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Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920. By James H. Timberlake. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963. Pp.238. Illustrations, notes, index. $5.25.)

Historical myths sometimes die a slow death. One myth long held by Americans and many of their historians is that prohibition was a singularly conservative measure, promoted primarily by fanatical rural drys. In this little book, a happy combination of good scholarship and good writing, James Timberlake has snuffed out this notion by finding, as it were, the proper home for prohibition. He argues that prohibition was an integral part of progressivism; indeed, it was one of the more important (and least understood) reforms of the Progressive movement. Essentially a middle-class reform, deeply rooted in the American reform tradition, prohibition cut across geographic and class lines. It was successfully stitched into the Constitution, not merely because of the astute tactics of the Anti-Saloon League, but fundamentally because it was buttressed by the moral, economic, social, and political idealism of progressivism itself.

Thus, argues Timberlake, if progressivism was founded on a belief in the moral law, so was prohibition, which sought to eliminate from commerce an article that was believed to destroy man's reason, paralyze his moral nature, and undermine the very foundation of religion and political democracy. If progressivism was an attempt to limit the power of an industrial and financial plutocracy, prohibition aimed to mash the liquor industry—one of the most corrupting branches of that plutocracy—with its intimate ties to commercialized vice and political machines. If progressivism represented a crusade for humanitarianism, so did prohibition, which held that liquor was a primary cause for poverty, crime, disease, misery, and broken homes. And, finally, if progressivism sought to elevate and improve the status of the lower classes, prohibition attempted to uplift them by banishing intemperance, believed to be of critical importance in stunting the rise of the working-man and the "Americanization" of the immigrant.

Timberlake is not so unsophisticated as to believe that all progressives were cut out of the same cloth. Prohibition appealed largely to the old-stock middle class; although it was supported by some labor groups, the urban-labor-immigrant progressives disliked the reform and fought it. The old-stock middle class won the contest, however, because it constituted the backbone of progressivism and held disproportionate political power. But the key point is not that the prohibition movement was either rural or urban but that it was a middle-class reform supported by middle-class Americans in both country and city. Moreover, it won that support because it was firmly embedded in the aspirations of the Progressive movement.

Thus came prohibition to the United States. Middle-class Americans—striving to revitalize and preserve American democracy and to usher in a new era of humanity, achievement, and progress—turned to prohibition as one device to achieve their goals. Little did they realize in 1920 the ugly ironies involved in a dry utopia.

This book, then, is indispensable to students of recent American history. It is at once a brilliant description of the mind and aims of the progressives and one of the best explanations of why this country adopted prohibition.

Purdue University

Alexander B. Callow, Jr

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.