History Nebraska Blog

William Jennings Bryan, Billy Sunday, and the Prohibition Party Ticket of 1920 ∙ Patricia C. Gaster

“We have come together to select a burial lot for John Barleycorn,” said Virgil G. Hinshaw in his opening address to Prohibition Party delegates on July 21, 1920. The party’s thirteenth national convention had just been called to order at 10 a.m. in Lincoln’s city auditorium by Hinshaw, chairman of the Prohibition National Committee. More than 250 delegates from around the country heard him congratulate the nation’s oldest third party (founded in 1869) on the recent achievement of its longtime goal of national prohibition, now the law of the land, thanks to the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Before the day was over, convention delegates would try to draft two high-profile temperance advocates from outside party ranks, William Jennings Bryan and Billy Sunday, to head their party’s national ticket.

The enactment of the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the manufacture, sale, and distribution of intoxicating liquors nationwide, was the culmination of a series of steps toward national prohibition begun by the states and by federal restrictions on alcohol during the World War I era. Before the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, twenty-six of the then forty-eight states had already gone dry. In Nebraska a prohibitory amendment was adopted to the state constitution in 1916, which took effect on May 1, 1917. By the time the Eighteenth Amendment took effect on January 17, 1920 (Nebraska was the requisite thirty-sixth state to ratify on January 16, 1919), thirty-three states had adopted state prohibition. 

World War I provided an opportunity for prohibitionists to advance their goal of banning liquor across the country. While the U.S. was at war, many considered it unpatriotic to use much-needed grain to produce alcohol, and in August 1917 Congress adopted the Food and Fuel Control Act, which prohibited the manufacture of distilled spirits from foodstuffs. It also closed distilleries, many of which were thought to be operated by Germans. The Wartime Prohibition Act, passed in November 1918 after the Armistice had already been signed, prohibited the manufacture of beer and wine after May 1, 1919, and banned the sale of all liquors after July 1. It was to continue in force until the conclusion of the war and demobilization. The National Prohibition (Volstead) Act, passed on October 28, 1919, was designed to enforce the provisions of both the Wartime Prohibition Act and the Eighteenth Amendment.

The convening of the Prohibition Party in Lincoln in July of 1920 attracted much interest around the state and nation. The two major parties had already held their national conventions. The Republicans, meeting June 8-12 in Chicago, selected Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge as their presidential and vice presidential nominees. (An early boomlet in support of Nebraska’s Gen. John J. Pershing for president on the Republican ticket collapsed.) The Democrats met June 28-July 6 in San Francisco, nominating James M. Cox and Franklin D. Roosevelt as their standard bearers. It might have been supposed that the Prohibition Party, which had celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in September 1919 at a national meeting in Chicago, would disband and rest on its laurels now that the Eighteenth Amendment had become a part of the Constitution. However, prohibitionists believed that the administration of the new law would be as great a challenge for them as its adoption into the Constitution had been.

Prohibition Party members distrusted the lukewarm attitude of the two major parties toward both the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act. Although the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of both measures, the wets at the time of the 1920 convention in Lincoln were keeping up a “continuous agitation” for some modification of the law that would permit the manufacture of light wines and beer. Convention delegates felt that in such a political climate, it was necessary to hold the party together and put a national ticket into the field in 1920.”


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