Dry Republicans, Wet Democrats? Alcohol and Party Politics in American History

While I was reading about some of the rum-soaked campaign practices of 19th century party bosses for another article, I started to wonder how the party politics of booze played out through American history. Today it tends to be that the more Democratic states have the more liberal liquor laws, and the Republican states have the reins held a little tighter, but was that always the case? Or has that flip-flopped as the parties have evolved over time? The question took me down a bit of a rabbit hole. It’s a compelling story of political gamesmanship, public pressure, and the great values conflict that every political party in America has to wrestle with: safety vs. liberty. Told here in abbreviated fashion, of course, because this is a blog.

***

American politicians have always had something to say about alcohol. They’ve had to—it’s such an integral part of our culture that people’s positions on it have won and lost them their elections. The parties to which those politicians belong, however, have often taken a more nuanced approach. Views on alcohol don’t often fall neatly along party lines, and you don’t want to alienate one kind of voter or another. Try as they might though, the parties have gotten drawn in time and again throughout our history.

The first political parties were organized right around the end of George Washington’s time as president. (Washington famously thought parties would be devastating for the country, and is the only president who didn’t belong to one.) To one side were the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton; to the other were the Democratic-Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists believed in a strong central government and policies that supported urban commerce. The Democratic-Republicans were the guardians of individual liberty, the farmer, and rural life. Their battle lines on alcohol were as simple as they get in our history: while the Federalists instituted the excise tax that led to the Whiskey Rebellion, and generally supported efforts to moderate alcohol consumption, the Democratic-Republicans were, as one author puts it, “born in a tavern.”[i] Local party-affiliated clubs were almost always based in bars, and the party quickly gained a reputation for courting voters with free alcohol (aka “swilling the planters with bumbo”). The Federalists were doing that too, of course, but it’s the Democratic-Republicans who got notorious for it. In fact, one of the first mentions of the word “cocktail” is in a Federalist newspaper reporting on Democratic-Republican campaign activities. When a curious reader asked what a cocktail was, the editor described the drink, alleging that it was the only way Democrats could get voters because “once you swallow one, you will swallow anything.”

The Federalists folded pretty quickly, and after a few decades of political dominance the Democratic-Republicans themselves faded out in the 1820s. Out of that splintered party came the Democrats, led by Andrew Jackson, and the Whigs, led by Henry Clay. The Democrats were the populist, rural, individual freedom (read: slavery-supporting) party, while the Whigs were the urban, government regulation-supporting party that fought what they considered Jackson’s tyranny of the majority. The Democrats retained their reputation as booze-friendly, especially as their constituency began to include the growing immigrant population, with one Whig campaigner referring to them derogatorily as “the Irish Roman Catholic and Whiskey Party.” The Whigs, meanwhile, are generally associated with the early Temperance movement, but that’s not a universal truth. In the 1840 presidential election, for example, they used hard cider (considered a workingman’s drink) as a symbol for their candidate William Henry Harrison.[ii] A decade later, though, “Father of Prohibition” Neal Dow was elected mayor of Portland, Maine as a Whig, and managed to get the first statewide alcohol ban passed. The parties’ positions shifted year to year and town to town, and for good reason: slavery was the issue of the day, and neither party wanted to engage in another divisive issue on a national scale if they could help it.

As the Civil War approached the Prohibition movement lost steam. Part of it was that there were bigger fish to fry, and part of it was that the movement lost its major political support system when the Whigs dissolved over their inability to agree on slavery. Abraham Lincoln and other abolitionist Whigs founded the Republican Party and took with them the Whig’s willingness to legislate morality, but they weren’t committed to Prohibition. During the war they levied taxes on alcohol to fund the government, and over the next few decades those taxes became the major source of federal funding.  To Temperance reformers the Republicans were still better than the Democrats (whose political machines, like Tammany Hall, were still running local politics out of saloons), but this tax dependency wedded the Republicans to the industry in their eyes. (the Party’s corruption didn’t help.) And indeed, the Republican Party in the post-war years was a diverse group that included a lot of wets. When, for example, a prominent Republican echoed the earlier “Irish Roman Catholic and Whiskey” comment by denouncing Democrats as the party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion,” it became a big issue in that year’s presidential campaign.

In 1869 the more die-hard Temperance reformers formed the Prohibition Party, a single-issue party that would never get any serious traction but would play a Nader-like spoiler in the election of 1884. Their candidate got just enough votes in New York to flip the state to Democrat Grover Cleveland and hand him the presidency. It was a bit of a come-to-Jesus moment for the supporters of the movement—their party had put the hated Democrats in power.[iii] They started to think that maybe a political party wasn’t the right way to go about things.[iv] First through the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, then through the Anti-Saloon League, prohibition advocates channeled their efforts into lobbying politicians from both the major parties. Without a doubt the most successful single-issue advocacy group in American history, the ASL worked from the ground up, focusing on state legislatures before moving on to Washington. The ASL wooed and threatened Republicans and Democrats alike, able to guarantee a large voting bloc if a candidate would declare for the drys. By 1919, there were enough drys to not only pass the legislation that sent the 18th Amendment to the states for ratification, but to override President Wilson’s veto. Once it got to the states the ASL’s real brilliance revealed itself, as the legislatures the group had worked so long to control quickly ratified it. No more “Whiskey Party” or “Rum Party”: the fight against alcohol was officially bipartisan.

The thing is, shortly after Prohibition started, the Republicans took control of everything in Washington. The White House, the Senate, the House—all of it Republican. And when something goes majorly wrong, the opposition party tends to seize on it. It took a while, but by 1928 the Democrats were inching in a pro-booze direction. They nominated an unapologetic wet (New Yorker Al Smith) for president, and many began to openly advocate for repeal—especially after the stock market crashed and we suddenly had bigger problems on our hands. With Roosevelt’s election the Democrats became the Party that ended Prohibition—but that didn’t make them the universal champions of liberal alcohol policies. As each state decided for themselves whether and how to reintroduce alcohol, it was the old rural/urban culture split that was the driver, not party identity. The longest Prohibition holdouts were the Deep South states, many of which continued to vote Democrat until Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act.

As we moved through the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st, this pattern largely held. Through the reestablishment of legal alcohol, through the birth of the American fine wine industry, through MADD and the rise in drunk driving awareness, and through the growth of “craft,” Republicans and Democrats have ridden the winds of public opinion, adjusting their perspectives on alcohol to match the prevailing mood. Ideologically, both parties have competing internal impulses here. For Republicans, it’s their laissez-faire economic side fighting their socially conservative Bible Belt side. For Democrats, it’s their public health-conscious side fighting their socially liberal side. Sometimes that makes this topic hard to navigate, but more often it gives them room to wiggle in one direction or the other. They’ve clearly been wiggling for centuries.

Also, apparently Democrats drink more overall, but Republicans drink more wine. For whatever that’s worth.


[i] Sismondo 85

[ii] Harrison holds the record for both the longest Inauguration address (two hours) and the shortest presidency (31 days; he got pneumonia, though not while giving the address as some thought at the time)

[iii] Incidentally, Cleveland was what was known as a “Bourbon” Democrat, but the name wasn’t a reference to a personal affinity for alcohol. The Bourbons (it was meant as a disparaging term) were centrist Democrats with strong support in the south, and bourbon was a southern drink.

[iv] The Prohibition Party disappeared in the 1920s, after their raison d’être faded with the 18th Amendment’s passage. They actually reformed a few years ago. Very few people noticed.

Handy charts of political parties in US history:
New Nation: 1788-1840
Antebellum: 1820-1860
Gilded Age: 1868-1900
Early 20th Century: 1896-1930

Sources:
Ley, Aaron J. and Cornell W. Clayton. “Constitutional Choices: Political Parties, Groups, and Prohibition Politics in the United States.” The Journal of Policy History, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2018
Sismondo, America Walks Into a Bar. See Sources page.
Maveety, Glass and Gavel. See Sources page
Anderson, Lisa. The Politics of Prohibition: American Governance and the Prohibition Party, 1869-1933. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 2013

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