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You always hear horror stories about lobbyists essentially writing all the bills for Congress. Wheeler was, by his own admission, one of them. Though Andrew Volstead denied it, Wheeler claimed to have written the Volstead Act, and he was instrumental in passing the 18th Amendment.
In fact, without Wheeler, it's unlikely Prohibition would've become law at all.
So who was this guy? He's been largely forgotten, since none of the laws bore his name. If you take a look at him, he's pretty forgettable. Balding, slight, with wire-framed glasses and an admittedly decent mustache, he looks like the kind of person who gets punched by Indiana Jones for not handing over the idol. He doesn't look like a man who made the entire country dance to his music.
Wheeler's gritty origin story started on the family farm. A drunk farmhand stuck a hayfork into Wheeler's leg (allegedly accidentally), and another drunk man scared his mom and sisters (source). Okay, so it's not having both his parents gunned down in an alley, but we can't all be Batman.
In 1893, Wheeler heard a temperance sermon delivered by Reverend Howard Hyde Russell, the founder of the Anti-Saloon League. After some prayer, Wheeler decided to work full time with the ASL.
It was a history-making decision.
Wheeler turned out to be good at it. Like, scary good. What Wheeler realized was what amounts to a democracy hack. Though democracy itself is based on majorities, what Wheeler realized was that he didn't need a majority to win. He just needed a motivated minority and a way to attract swing votes.
The first thing he changed was the focus of the League. The Women's Christian Temperance Union had been puttering around for over twenty years, but their problem was they they kept adding issues. It wasn't just about not drinking—they were into female suffrage, prison reform, and other social welfare issues. Wheeler knew that to keep the ASL powerful, and powerful in a way completely out of proportion to popularity, the key was staying focused on prohibition.
Next, he got brutal. This is the guy who coined the term "pressure group," so you know he wasn't messing around. Once he limited himself to one issue, he was able to focus. If a politician was dry, the ASL was his pal. Wet, and the ASL was his worst enemy, like Loki with a hangover. It's a very modern approach to politics, but it's one entirely unencumbered by the party system. Wheeler didn't care if you were a Democrat, Republican, Progressive, Populist, Anti-Mason, Know Nothing, Federalist, Anti-Federalist, Whig, or Nullifier. He only cared that you supported Prohibition.
To win, Wheeler used a cadre of motivated voters (motivoters?) to tip the balance in close races. Talk about single-issue voting: these candidates were entirely chosen by whether they were wet or dry. So, in theory, candidate A could support both Prohibition and eating kittens, while candidate B is very anti-kitten eating but waffles on outlawing liquor, and Wheeler would do what he could to elect candidate A.
Wheeler was brazen, too. His first big enemy was Myron Herrick, the wet governor of Ohio, who'd been the lackey of Senator Mark Hanna. Hanna was so powerful he basically elected William McKinley to the presidency. Wheeler absolutely crushed Herrick, somehow getting a Democrat elected in his place despite the fact that Ohio was staunchly Republican at the time.
Wheeler wasn't just willing to make weird alliances in achieving his goals; the man relished it. His first alliance was with the women's suffrage movement, and that was in place from the beginning. Far more women were anti-liquor than men, so getting women the vote was seen as a net gain. Remember, women didn't get the Constitutional right to vote until 1920.
The ASL worked with populists for an income tax amendment. Until this time, there was no income tax, and 40% of government revenue came from taxing liquor. Seriously. So there would be no Prohibition as long as the government was getting almost half its cash from booze.
Wheeler also happily worked with both progressives who worried that liquor was hurting ethnic and racial minorities, and racists who feared drunk ethnic and racial minorities. Neither side wanted those minorities drinking, though for two entirely different reasons. Even the Communists, who saw alcohol as just another way that corporations controlled their workers, supported Wheeler.
The ASL had serious traction by 1914, when they got a majority vote for an amendment, but not the two-thirds they needed. Wheeler needed just one more issue to put him over the line. President Woodrow Wilson, violating his campaign pledge to keep the U.S. out of WWI, gave it to him.
With the war came inevitable racism and xenophobia, this time directed at German-Americans. People were even calling sauerkraut "liberty cabbage," so remember that whenever you think we've gotten dumber ("freedom fries") over the years. Wheeler gleefully used the fact that a ton of prominent American brewers were German. Brands like Pabst, Schlitz, Miller, and Busch owned the beer industry. Wheeler exploited this like mad as another reason people should dump the drink.
Wheeler claimed to have written the Volstead Act, something Volstead himself denied, and he remained active in the fight against demon rum. He wasn't big on educating people about alcohol, either. He was all about force. He wanted to use the Army and Navy to enforce Prohibition, and when the government started adding stuff to industrial alcohol, Wheeler wanted it to add lethal poison. "Geez," said the government, "we were thinking, like, soap or something."
At his height, Wheeler held and exercised vast power, even over two presidents. This is a guy who had a single obsessive goal and became a fanatic about it. His eventual fall was in 1926, when amid a minor scandal over how much he was paying to influence Congressional races (ah, a more innocent time), he retired.
Wheeler didn't live very long after that. Karma, or something, wanted to kick the guy. His wife died in 1927 after burning to death in a cooking mishap. (Cooking was a lot more dangerous then.) Her father, upon seeing what happened, suffered a fatal heart attack. Wheeler himself died three weeks later, presumably to avoid whatever fate had in store for him.
Wheeler was a household name in his time, but today, he's nearly entirely forgotten. A big reason why is that his life's work has been repealed. If we were still living with the 18th Amendment, we might be calling root beer Wheeler Beer. Since Prohibition's pretty much regarded as a catastrophe all the way around, he's gone.
Wheeler didn't want America drinking, and for over a decade, he succeeded. Just shows what you can do if you're a cock-eyed dreamer with a mad goal and an incredible amount of political savvy.