Review: Southern Prohibition
Lee L. Willis. Southern Prohibition: Race, Reform, and Public Life in Middle Florida, 1821–1920. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2011. 209 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-2927-7.
This informative and entertaining study, full of maps and photographs of the paraphernalia of nineteenth-century alcohol culture and consumption, revisits an old question in fresh ways. Willis traces the “long temperance movement” in the South, with Florida as his focus—and not just alcohol but also other psychoactive substances as his target as well (4). The key to understanding this long history is to shed the assumption that antebellum reform, because of its associations with abolitionism, never “hit” the South, and thus that temperance and Prohibition were relative latecomers to the region. Willis begins by pointing out that many southern states, including Florida, did have state-enforced Prohibition for some residents, namely, black residents in the antebellum era. Further, Willis demonstrates that temperance societies came to middle Florida with the settlement of the region by whites, and it was precisely fears of the accessibility of alcohol to blacks and rowdy poor whites that spurred much of this early movement to restrict alcohol sales, set rules for taverns and grog shops, and tax liquor. Moreover, political divisions between Whigs and Democrats, the former favorable to temperance and the latter initially not, mirrored national political divisions, and Florida’s politics over time grew both less democratic and less violent as Whig proponents of progress and reform regularized the governance of the young state and cracked down mostly on lower-class drinking habits and establishments.
The Civil War and Reconstruction saw the single greatest setback for the cause of temperance: with emancipation came the legal ability of new black citizens to obtain alcohol if and when they wanted it. Together with the political disturbances of the Reconstruction era, this transformation in the accessibility of alcohol to the “dangerous classes” fueled a renewed interest in Prohibition. Willis traces this story in Leon and Franklin counties in his final two chapters, concluding that “the evolution from temperance to prohibition reflected a desire to bring order to a society that reformers regarded as disturbingly unstable” (103). Unlike other parts of the country, the male-led Sons of Temperance and groups such as local option leagues took the lead in spreading the gospel of temperance; the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union came later, and plays a relatively smaller role in this book. Willis also finds that campaigns for children’s safety and welfare were central to the rise of Prohibition, and that whites were interested in alcohol control as part of a program of social control for blacks, but that black reformers “viewed prohibition as a means to social improvement, not social control” (105).
Throughout the book, too, Willis sets alcohol within the broader context of opium, tobacco, and other narcotics. The deleterious effects of alcohol drew constant, and justified, attention from reformers, but “opiates such as laudanum and paregoric were hallmarks of the global psychoactive revolution, and their availability in territorial Florida indicates that in terms mind-altering substances, this region was hardly a frontier” (25). Narcotics later demonized as “dangerous drugs” drew few comments in the nineteenth century. Teetotalers had no problem taking their tinctures of opium, and dipping into an entire range of pharmacopeia. The war on drugs amounted to a war on alcohol, one with frequent twists and turns through the course of the century. Early twentieth-century Prohibitionists were the first to take on opiates beyond alcohol, and developed the regime that separated “alcohol” from “drugs,” a distinction with enormous consequences down to our day.
Conspicuously absent from most of this story is women, whether as individuals or organized into the WCTU. Willis concludes with some questions about the notable fact of “women’s marginalization in temperance organizations” in middle Florida: “By not giving due consideration to the men’s organizations, have women’s historians overemphasized the role that women played in the movement? What consequences do varying degrees of male and female participation in reform have on political culture”? (158) To my mind, the most important conclusion is the clear connection between the relative weakness of the WCTU in the region and the lateness of the state in adopting women’s suffrage.
Willis tells a complex, nuanced story, in the best tradition of using local history to ponder larger questions. The focus not just on alcohol but on psychoactive substances generally gives the study an originality beyond other works on alcohol control in the South, and the use of archaeological evidence from recent digs in Florida, including evidence drawn from major fires as well as digs that turned up French champagne bottles and Bordeaux was labels from territorial-era Apalachicola, will appeal to enthusiasts of material culture. Students of southern religion will note that the work of evangelicals was necessary, but very far from sufficient, in accomplishing their treasured goals of temperance, for Willis’s work presents a multi-causal history that cannot be reduced to any one factor.