Ohio History Journal

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Book Reviews

Book Reviews




Organized for Prohibition: A New History of the Anti-Saloon League. By K.

Austin Kerr. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. xvii + 293p.; illus-

trations, notes, note on sources, index. $25.00.)


The vineyards of temperance history have been well worked. Since its or-

ganized beginnings in the 1820s, temperance reform has appealed to count-

less thousands of Americans, old and young, female and male, wealthy and

poor, liberal and conservative. Consequently, the movement has had a diver-

sity, a longevity, and a prolific literature which have allowed historians am-

ple scope for their research and interpretative skills. The recent work of Nor-

man Clark and Ned Dannenbaum, for example, has revised earlier portraits

of temperance advocates as cranky political reactionaries, describing them

instead as perceptive commentators on the ill effects of alcohol on American

life and genuine reformers.

K. Austin Kerr's history of the Anti-Saloon League falls within this posi-

tive tradition. Mindful of the large existing literature, Kerr maintains that this

is a "new history" because it focuses upon the "nuts and bolts" of the

league's internal structure. Relying upon a massive collection of the league's

hitherto unused records at the Ohio Historical Society, Kerr treats the

league as an example of the "managerial revolution" described by Kenneth

Boulding and Alfred D. Chandler, Jr., an approach foreshadowed as early

as 1928 by Peter Odegard's Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon


The book's greatest strength is its tightly woven and closely argued narra-

tive of the league's internal workings. With the Ohio league as an organiza-

tional model, the national Anti-Saloon League was established in 1895, and

"[F]rom its inception was to be like a modern business firm, bureaucratic

and not democratic" at both the national and the local levels. This structure

was well suited for fund-raising, temperance education, and enlisting the sup-

port of Protestant churches and congregations, as evidenced by the league's

rapid string of victories: the defeat of "wet" Ohio governor Myron Herrick in

1905, the passage of the federal Webb-Kenyon Bill in 1913, and the ratifica-

tion of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919.

However, Kerr argues, although prohibition may have "worked" because

it curtailed American drinking, the league itself did not after 1920. Earlier ef-

forts to reform the league bureaucracy and allow greater participation by

member churches had been only cosmetic, and as a result, "the league

structure was ill-suited for resolving the disputes that arose after victory was

achieved." When its leadership divided over tactics in the 1920s, therefore,

the league found it increasingly difficult to raise funds from member church-

es, endorsed the Republican Party and Herbert Hoover in 1928, and was

discredited with them after 1929. Nor was the rigid league bureaucracy

adapted to building the cultural consensus on the value of a dry society

which might have given longer life to the "noble experiment."

Kerr, therefore, attributes the league's victories before 1919 and its decline