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.
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
- 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
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.