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Anti-Prohibition Backlash

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Reading: Fanatical Prohibitionists

 Reading: Hypocritical Prohibitionists

 Reading: Crime and Conscience

 Reading: Inevitable End


From the crusade of a despised minority, a mark for good-natured ridicule rather than fear, the prohibition movement became a vast continental propaganda, backed by unlimited money, engineered by organized hypocrisy. Under the stress of war it masqueraded as the crowning effort of patriotism. The war over, it sits enthroned as a social tyranny, backed by the full force of the law, the like of which has not been seen in English-speaking countries since the fires died out at Smithfield.

                                                     —Stephen Leacock

Not everyone was a fan of the cause but by 1919, all nine Canadian provinces had voted themselves dry and enacted legislation to enforce prohibition. The federal government prohibited all import and transportation of intoxicating liquor by a Federal Order in Council under the War Measures Act, a move that outraged a certain segment of the population—among whom was Stephen Leacock. As with his views on the Feminist Movement (see Anti-Feminist Atmosphere), his views on prohibition were exactly opposite those espoused by the Famous 5.

In his 1919 essay entitled "The Tyranny of Prohibition"— written as a tract warning the people of England against the evils of enacting prohibition—Leacock paints an unflattering view of prohibitionists, and the motives underlying their activism. In it, he characterizes the the "drys" (prohibitionists) and the "wets" (anti-prohibitionists), and it is easy to see where his sympathies lie.

Among the "drys," he identifies several types:

  • The "deeply religious, patriotic, and estimable people" who sincerely believe that enacting prohibition is "God's work"
  • Those who "desire to tyrannize and compel—to force the souls of other men to compliance with the narrow rigor of their own"
  • "Salaried enthusiasts, paid informers, the politicians seeking for votes"
  • "Ministers of the Gospel currying favor with the dominant section of their congregation"
  • "Business men and proprietors of newspapers whose profit lies in the hands of the prohibitionists to make or mar"
  • "The whole cohort of drunkards who can be relied upon to poll a vote in favor of prohibition in a mood of sentimental remorse"

In comparison, he portrays the "wets" as:

  • "Scholarly, industrious men on faculty at the university"
  • "Many of Montreal's leading lawyers and doctors"
  • "Painters, artists, and literary men"
  • "Some members of the clergy 'in days more cheerful than the present' "

Leacock blamed wartime idealism for the success of prohibition. In the atmosphere of national solidarity, individual self-sacrifice, and moral reform that pervaded society during the First World War, prohibition seemed to be a natural fit. He also blamed opportunistic politicians, who, recognizing the power wielded by women's groups, viewed prohibition as a means of getting the women's vote.

Though Leacock hated prohibition, in his clear-eyed cynicism, he realized something that the organizers of the prohibition movement did not: prohibition was doomed to fail.

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