Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The temperance movement arose in the nineteenth century as a result of high rates of liquor consumption, consumption that many observers thought damaging to the individual drinker, to families, to communities, and to society as a whole. This movement operated in both the United States and Canada, as reformers sought to reduce the volume of alcohol consumption. The temperance crusade had roots in the evangelical Protestant churches that sought to remove barriers to the "right behaviors" leading to salvation, in this case overconsumption. There were both separate and common organizations in the two nations. Especially important in common was the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in the United States in 1874 and organized in Canada that same year. Each state and province, however, had other temperance organizations; in the United States, for example, the Anti-Saloon League was especially powerful in the first decades of the twentieth century.

Concerned about the human and social wastage brought about by high rates of alcohol consumption, temperance advocates worked to reform the individual drinker. Most typical in this regard were religious revivals and other activities of moral persuasion aimed at obtaining pledges from individuals to reform themselves by abstaining from alcoholic drink. The temperance movement soon moved from persuasion and pledge-taking to legal controls. Reformers worked for measures to prohibit businesses from manufacturing, distributing, and selling alcoholic beverages. Across the Great Plains, communities turned to "local option" laws. Later they worked to achieve stateor provincewide prohibition laws and, eventually, national laws.

Prohibition was a lively political issue in all of the Great Plains states and provinces for many years. In the United States, federal law applied prohibition to Indian lands from 1834 to 1953. In the 1850s Americans witnessed a wave of state prohibition measures, most of which were repealed within a few years. Prohibition came more permanently to the Great Plains in 1880, when Kansas adopted state prohibition in a popular referendum. The experience in Kansas with prohibition was especially noteworthy. Although prohibition enjoyed strong majority support, a minority of citizens opposed the measure, and illegal distribution and sale continued, with saloons brazenly operating in some communities. With prohibition sentiment building across the nation by the turn of the twentieth century, some Kansas citizens sought better enforcement of their antidrink statute. The state wctu successfully used nonviolent demonstrations to close some establishments. Frustrated by continuing illegal operations, however, Carry Nation achieved national notoriety in 1900 and 1901 when she traveled to Kansas communities and physically smashed saloons and their liquor stocks. Her controversial actions stirred the prohibition movement but did little to bring about better enforcement of the law.

The success of the Kansas prohibition referendum in 1880 spurred protestors in other states to enact similar legislation, often with the active campaigning of the WCTU. In Texas, the temperance movement gained strength with the formation of the United Friends of Temperance around 1870 and the state wctu in 1883. Local option spread in Texas, although the state did not enact prohibition laws prior to the success of the national movement. In 1889 North Dakota became the first state to enter the union under prohibition legislation. Oklahoma also entered as a dry state in 1907, so powerful were its temperance reformers. By 1917 all of the Great Plains states except Texas and Wyoming had enacted prohibition laws. The United States enacted national prohibition under the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in effect from January 16, 1920, until December 6, 1933, when it was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment. In the United States, with the end of national prohibition, the repeal movement swept the Great Plains states. Kansas held onto prohibition until 1948 and Oklahoma until 1959.

In Canada, although the Prairie Provinces by 1900 provided for restrictions on alcohol sales, the situation was complicated because the federal government retained the right to regulate the manufacture of alcoholic beverages. Eventually, by popular referendum, prohibition was adopted in Alberta (1915), Manitoba (1916), and Saskatchewan (1917). Prohibition, however, proved short-lived in the Canadian provinces. By 1925 the three Prairie provinces had abandoned prohibition in favor of sales under strict government control.

K. Austin Kerr Ohio State University

Bader, Robert Smith. Prohibition in Kansas: A History. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986.

Franklin, Jimmie Lewis. Born Sober: Prohibition in Oklahoma, 1907–1959. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Gould, Lewis L. Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973.

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