Temperance—voluntary abstinence from alcohol—was popular in the 1890s, and widely promoted by the largest women's organization of the Gilded Age, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Prohibition—national, state, or local laws preventing the sale of alcohol—was more controversial. A minority faction of Republicans supported national prohibition, as did some Populists (mostly in the West rather than the South). Since 1869 the strongest supporters of anti-liquor had banded together in the Prohibition Party.
Candidate Levering. Gold Prohibition Party. YMCA Hall. Boston Globe, 10 September, 1896.
Prohibition may seem a quixotic goal, but advocates at the time were unwilling to accept the immense social costs of liquor consumption—costs which we ignore today. Prohibitionists viewed themselves as progressive reformers, not as conservatives. Frances Willard, leader of the WCTU for many years, sought solutions to poverty and unemployment, and by 1896 had declared herself a Christian Socialist. Prohibitionists were the only party that consistently endorsed national woman suffrage, and a substantial part of the party's convention delegates were women from the WCTU.
Like the Republican, Democratic, and Populist conventions, the Prohibitions became mired in the currency issue. The convention first passed a "broad-gauge" platform calling for woman suffrage, generous pensions for Union veterans, arbitration of international disputes, and other measures. After much debate, a substitute, "narrow-gauge" platform won passage, calling only for the prohibition of liquor. The convention nominated Joshua Levering of Maryland, a longtime prohibition advocate. The remaining Prohibitionists were often called "Gold Prohibitionists" because they had rejected the silver plank among other reform issues. Many "Silver Prohibitionists" left the party to work through other means.
In the long run, prohibitionists won their cause by working with major parties rather than through an independent party movement. A federal constitutional amendment for prohibition of liquor passed in 1919. It was repealed in 1933, and today is largely considered a failure. At the state and local level, however, prohibitionism lived on, and even today "dry" counties in various parts of the U.S. testify to the movement's legacy.
Many Republicans believed in prohibition, even though they were unwilling to join Prohibitionists in calling it the nation's most important issue. Many McKinley supporters were distressed when, soon after his election to the presidency, he began serving wine at White House dinners and receptions, reversing a no-alcohol policy implemented by Rutherford B. Hayes. The Ohio State University has posted commentary on the return of liquor to the White House.
Life of Joshua Levering
Joshua Levering was born in Baltimore September 12, 1845. He attended private schools until the spring of 1861, when the exigencies of the Civil War necessitated business occupation. In 1866 he became partner with his father in the coffee importing business, under the name of E. Levering & Co., the same as at present. Eugene Levering, Sr., died in June, 1870, since which time the business has been conducted by his sons.
Mr. Levering was one of the originators of the American Baptist Educational Society in 1888, and has been its Treasurer since its organization. He has also ... held the position of Vice-President of the Southern Baptist Convention. At present he is acting Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, located in Louisville, Ky.... He is a member of the International Committee of the Young Men's Christian Association of the United States and Canada.
Originally an independent Democrat, Mr. Levering bcame a Prohibitionist in 1884, and voted for [John] St. John that year. He was chairman of the State Prohibition Convention of 1887 and again in 1893, and also a delegate to the National conventions of 1888 and 1892....
—From Great Leaders and Issues of 1896.
Troy, Al., Oct. 5—W. K. Cameron of the Cameron Furniture Company, had his head cut off by being run cover by a Central Railroad Train in the yard at 7 o'clock. He leaves a wife and four children. He lost his eldest daughter six weeks ago. He was drinking. —Birmingham World Herald, October 6, 1896
Platform of the Prohibition Party
The Prohibition party, in National Convention assembled, declares its firm conviction that the manufacture, exportation, importation and sake of alcoholic beverages has produced such social, commercial, industrial, political wrongs, and is now so threatening the perpetuity of all out social and political institutions, that the suppression of the same by a national party, organized therefor, is the greatest object to be accomplished by the voters of our country; it is of such importance that it, of right, ought to control the political action of all our patriotic citizens, until such suppression is accomplished. The urgency of this cause demands the union, without further delay, of all citizens who desire the prohibition of the liquor traffic; therefore, be it Resolved, that we favor the legal prohibition, by State and National legislation, of the manufacture, importation, exportation, inter-State transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages.
That we declare our purpose to organize and unite all the friends of prohibition into our party, and, in order to accomplish this end, we deem it but right to leave every Prohibitionist the freedom of his own convictions upon all other political question as the changes occasioned by prohibition and the welfare of the whole people shall demand. —reprinted in Great Leaders and National Issues of 1896
To the Editor of the World:
If upon a gold basis, under which our Government is supposed to have been doing business all these years, we workingmen have been getting smaller wages every year and employment has been getting scarcer and scarcer, until at the present time, good authority says, 1,000,000 honest men are out of a job, do you think we hanker to perpetuate this very thing which has brought us to want and ruin? ...I shall not vote for either McKinley or Bryan. I shall vote for the only man that is honestly standing up for the people of American to-day, Joshua Levering. If McKinley wins, look for blood four years hence, for the people will not be fooled all their lives. —Robert Lyons, Black River, N.Y., in New York World, 10 August 1896
© 2010 Rebecca Edwards, author of New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905 by Rebecca Edwards, Oxford University Press
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