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Harris & Ewing collection, Library of Congress
|Died||September 5, 1927 (aged 57)|
Western Reserve University
|Known for||Prohibition advocate|
|Spouse(s)||Ella Belle Candy (m. 1901-1927, her death)|
Wayne Bidwell Wheeler (November 10, 1869 – September 5, 1927) a veritable father of the prohibitionist movement was an American attorney and longtime leader of the Anti-Saloon League, and played a major role in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages.
A native of Brookfield Township in Trumbull County, Ohio, Wheeler was raised on his family's farm, and a childhood accident caused by an intoxicated hired hand gave Wheeler a lifelong aversion to alcohol, as well as an anecdote he later used in recruiting converts to the prohibition movement and promoting a prohibition amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Wheeler graduated from high school in Ohio, received his teaching qualification, and taught for two years before becoming a student at Oberlin College. After graduating in 1894, Wheeler became an organizer for the Anti-Saloon League. He earned his LL.B. degree from Western Reserve University in 1898. In 1902, Wheeler became head of the Anti-Saloon League, and perfected a system of single issue pressure politics, including media campaigns and public demonstrations, to win enactment of laws limiting or banning the sale and consumption of alcohol.
Wheeler's career hit its high point with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1920. As enforcement of Prohibition became increasingly difficult, federal agencies resorted to draconian measures including poisoning alcohol to try to dissuade people from consuming it. Wheeler's refusal to compromise, for example by amending Prohibition measures to allow for consumption of beer and ale, made him appear increasingly unreasonable. His influence began to wane, and he retired in 1927.
Soon after his retirement, Wheeler was beset by several tragedies. His wife was killed in an accidental kitchen fire, and his father-in-law had a fatal heart attack after trying unsuccessfully to aid her. Wheeler suffered from kidney disease, and died at a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan on September 5, 1927.
Wheeler was born in Brookfield Township, Trumbull County, Ohio, to Mary Ursula Hutchinson Wheeler and Joseph Wheeler. His anti-alcohol stance started while working on the family farm, when an intoxicated hired hand accidentally stabbed Wheeler with a hayfork. As an adult, Wheeler turned this incident it into an effective anecdote that supported his position on banning the use of alcohol.
Upon graduation from high school, Wheeler taught school for two years, and in 1890 he enrolled at Oberlin College. To pay his tuition, Wheeler worked as a waiter, dormitory janitor, summer school teacher, and salesman.
Wheeler was studying at Oberlin when Howard Hyde Russell offered him a job with the newly-organized Anti-Saloon League (ASL), saying later that he saw in Wheeler "a loving, spirited self-sacrificing soul who yearns to help the other fellow." After graduating in 1894, Wheeler accepted Hyde's job offer and became a field organizer for the ASL. Wheeler studied law while working for the ASL, and in 1898, he earned his LL.B. degree from Western Reserve University. Wheeler's background in teaching and law enabled him to become a skilled organizer and debater, and after receiving his law degree he was appointed head of the ASL's legal office, where he was responsible for initiating numerous lawsuits in support of regulating the production, sale and consumption of alcohol.
In 1903, Wheeler became acting superintendent of the ASL, its full time executive director, and in 1904 he was appointed to the post permanently. Wheeler advocated for prohibitionists to enforce laws strictly and unsympathetically rather than attempting to curb alcohol consumption through treatment and education. To that end, Wheeler and the ASL campaigned against Myron T. Herrick, when he ran for reelection as Governor of Ohio in 1906. Herrick was a Republican and a conservative, and supported a local option bill backed by the ASL, but had agreed to some modifications in order to ensure passage. For his willingness to compromise, the ASL decreed that Herrick wasn't sufficiently in favor of prohibition, and backed his opponent, Democrat John M. Pattison, a temperance advocate. Pattison won, a result that marked the first significant victory for the Anti-Saloon League.
As the ASL's leader, Wheeler developed a method of activism that came to be called "Wheelerism", which focused on only one issue, and relied heavily on mass media to persuade politicians that there was widespread public support for the ASL's position. Wheelerism also included direct persuasion of those in power, with tactics such as threats to withdraw campaign endorsements and financing, endorse and finance opponents, or reveal embarrassing information employed to obtain support for restrictions on the liquor trade.
Under Wheeler's leadership, the League focused entirely on the goal of achieving Prohibition. Unlike Francis Willards's Women's Christian Temperance Union, which dealt with many humanitarian issues, Wheeler felt that the only way to successfully challenge the political influence of the beer, wine and liquor makers was to focus on achieving national prohibition by any means necessary. Wheeler was able to elect politicians by encouraging the prohibitionists of both political parties to vote for a candidates who supported the cause, regardless of party affiliation or position on other issues. Unlike other temperance groups, the ASL recognized the supremacy of the two-party system, and worked with Democrats and Republicans rather the small, ineffective Prohibition Party.
During the Wheeler years, the ASL elected numerous statewide officials, state legislators, and members of Congress. Its influence was felt on issues related to the sale and consumption of alcohol, including Congress' override of President William Howard Taft's Webb-Kenyon Act veto. The Webb-Kenyon Act outlawed the transport of alcoholic beverages into states with prohibition laws, even small amounts for individual consumption. Taft argued that it was a states' rights issue that did not require federal legislation. Congress disagreed, and the override votes in the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives were completely unexpected, giving tangible proof of how powerful the ASL and other prohibitionists had become.
The override was followed by enactment of a national income tax authorized by the recently ratified 16th Amendment. Until 1913, the federal government had depended on liquor taxes for as much as 40 percent of its annual revenue, but with an income tax replacing the liquor tax, that argument evaporated. The ASL was thus positioned to achieve its primary goal: a Constitutional amendment imposing prohibition.
As the prohibition movement's power continued to grow, Wheeler adroitly expanded the influence of the ASL through timely alliances with the advocates of other causes. One his primary successes was supporting the women's suffrage movement in the belief that women would support ASL candidates at the ballot box. Because Wheeler supported the suffragists in their quest for a Constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote, they supported his efforts to obtain passage of a prohibition amendment. After decades of trying, in 1919 the ASL was able to obtain passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, which banned the production, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages. The Nineteenth Amendment, adopted in 1920, provided women the right to vote.
In the early 1920s, Wheeler's power was at its zenith. He was involved in drafting the Volstead Act, which provided the means for enforcing the prohibition amendment, as well as federal and state laws that refined prohibition's enforcement mechanisms. Candidates who ran with ASL backing controlled state governments and the U.S. Congress. In addition, Wheeler's influence extended to the Bureau of Prohibition, which gave him control of a patronage operation that hired the enforcement officers responsible for identifying and apprehending illicit alcohol makers, distributors and sellers.
The desire for alcohol among Americans did not dissipate as Wheeler had envisioned would occur after passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, and prohibition became increasingly unenforceable. By 1926, Wheeler was being criticized by members of Congress, who questioned the ASL's financing and campaign contributions. A turning point came when the Prohibition Bureau began adding poison to industrial alcohol to prevent its use in beverages. Wheeler opposed the use of non-fatal substances such as soap, and argued that fatal poisons in industrial alcohol was an acceptable measure because the government was under no obligation to protect the lives of is citizens if they broke the law by consuming alcohol. Between 10,000 and 50,000 deaths resulted, and Wheeler argued that in essence the victims had committed suicide. His callous attitude and refusal to compromise on enforcing prohibition began to change the way the public viewed the Anti-Saloon League, and Wheeler's influence began to wane.
Wheeler retired shortly after the public outcry over the poisoning deaths, but he continued to fight for prohibition. On August 14, 1927 Wheeler's wife was burned to death in a cooking accident at his house in Little Point Sable, Michigan, and her father suffered a fatal heart attack after trying unsuccessfully to come to her aid. Just two weeks after their deaths, Wheeler died of kidney disease while seeking treatment at a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan. He was buried at Green Lawn Cemetery in Columbus, Ohio.
Wayne Wheeler is not widely known today, however, historians familiar with the Prohibition era regard him as playing an important role in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment. His use of pressure politics, his expertise in building the pro-prohibition movement, and the time and effort he contributed to the ASL were the keys to its success and to the success of the Prohibition movement as a whole.
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