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The Dry South Dampens

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

The voting of the “South,” or of the Southern states, for or against repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment has no “Southern” significance. Had these states voted “solidly” against repeal it might have affected the result, might have prevented repeal, now virtually assured, but the “solidity” would have been accidental, not “Southern.”

“Why the South is Solid” was the title of a book written by half a dozen distinguished members of Congress and other Southern spokesmen about forty-five years ago. There was reason for it and in it. The authors, among them Colonel Hilary A. Herbert of Alabama, knew their subject; the “South” was a section, political as well as geographical; it was under attack. It had met with a terrible reverse at Appomattox some twenty-five years before, but it had not been conquered—indeed it had been able to renew a gallant resistance which in 1875-1877 developed into an aggressively successful movement. The enemy, which was the “Radical” element in the Republican party, was still “waving the bloody shirt,” still threatening the South and yielding nothing to it unless with ill grace and sullenness. By this time common sense was become ascendant in the North and the “Radicals” were being thrust aside; “Fire Alarm” Foraker and young Mr. Cabot Lodge were getting into the nuisance class, and Mr. Lodge in time discovered other fields for venting brilliant spite without imposing on a jaded public. Besides, Northern business men wished to “do business” in the South, and in the ‘nineties they began to sell textile machinery to it as well as to buy its railroads.

The book of Colonel Herbert and his associates, convincing statement of the Southern case that it was, came late. The subjugation of the South had at last been accomplished and its surrender was imminent—which neither Mr. Cabot Lodge nor the Southerners perceived. The former Confederate captains, colonels, generals who had kept up the resistance after Appomattox, were grown old, they were dying in 1890, and they left few spiritual successors. They had, without knowing it, long before surrendered too much. The bodies of their states had been covered during Reconstruction with the spittle of Northern democracy before they were swallowed into the maw of the Union, and the Southern leaders scarcely seemed to be aware of the nasty process. Anyway the result of the war was to release the forces of democracy in the white masses, at the same time erecting all white skins into an aristocracy by subordinating all black skins to them. This doubtless was necessary—there was nothing else to do—but the price was the obliteration of the distinguished “South,” and it was complete by the end of the century.

Since then nothing that the South has done has been significant. It has been a collection of relatively impoverished geographical divisions, receptive of alms, imitative of and envious of Northern go-getters and their ways. The rude and primitive virtues of the people have not been lost: the young men make as good soldiers as their grandfathers were (one could give them no higher praise); but their “het-mans” seek only the rank and pay of leaders without seriously attempting to lead. This saying does not apply to soldiers and sailors; the South produces its share of them; but generals and admirals, unless they become dictators, are after all not leaders but takers of orders.

This, I think, is a true description of the political South for the last forty years; and that it should be true was inevitable. The South was overwhelmed, subjugated, beaten down. We Southerners were taken back into the Union on condition that we would behave ourselves. We were taken back hungry. We are still hungry. We are behaving ourselves and shall continue to behave, as long as we shall be allowed to feed, though scantily, and to assert superiority to colored races. I believe heartily in the expediency and necessity of that assertion in practice, but as Southerners we assert little besides. This is a lame conclusion, and confession, but as a newspaper reporter I must write it down, So, how the South votes in respect of the Eighteenth Amendment is without related meaning to the historic and traditional definition of the political “South,” still accepted in the North but in fact non-existent. That the South votes for prohibition today and against it tomorrow is to say that it is no better than Illinois or Colorado is, that the texture of Southern “principles” is as thin and rotten as are those of “Yankee” states. Why, forsooth, should it not be? One cannot answer that question, but the fact is that in the long past we have pretended monstrously and often have fooled the unwary. If our ancestors sometimes strutted the stage too grandly, at least they deceived some of the saints, and even now one fancies that some strangers do obeisance to their memories in the presence of their uncomprehending posterity.


The “carpetbaggers” who came to the South in “the tragic era” were moneyless creatures; they had only “carpetbags,” and of course they never had a chance against the strong men, the great race, who had been hammered, tempered, steeled in the Confederate War. As soon as the army of occupation was withdrawn, these vermin were sent scurrying. Honest Northern men who came to the South in those days and allied themselves with the white people were welcomed. They are still welcomed; sometimes the welcoming is a little overdone. I think it is singular that we have not a species of sublimated carpetbagger in these days, not paupers but reasonable spenders who would take the stump, tell us what a fine people we are, how great our heroes have been, and soon get themselves elected to Congress. It would be so easy! Frugal, too, in contrast with the investments of politicians in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio.

The living generation was born after the last carpetbagger and scalawag had been booted out, and its impression of Reconstruction is about as well defined as its childhood recollection of the Bad Wolf or the Black Douglas. Your Southern man of forty, well born, college bred if not educated, is less tolerant of the Negro than was his grandfather, who was not afraid of him and did not hate him when he had his brief day of power.

Appomattox was a lid-lifting for whites as well as Negroes. Both races entered upon the enjoyment of a new freedom and for neither was the freedom wholly good. The carpetbaggers, white and black (there were many Negro carpetbaggers) brought with them the Northern brand of democracy, and a part of it was political priestcraft—hitherto alien to the South and abhorred by its leaders. The Southern churches contained statesmen who were profoundly concerned with the moral aspects of economics and politics, and so church secession antedated state secession; but these statesmen were content to stay within churchly limits. Dr. James Henley Thornwell, Calvinist, was the great theological defender of the South’s institutions, the “peculiar institution” not excepted, but to offer for Congress or other office was no habit of ministers of the gospel.

In the constitution written for the Lords Proprietors of the colony of South Carolina by John Locke at the request of Lord Shaftesbury was the provision that, “whereas ministers of the gospel are by their profession dedicated to the service of, and the cure of souls, and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their function; therefore, no minister of the gospel, or public preacher of any religious persuasion, whilst he continues in the exercise of his pastoral functions, shall be eligible to the office of governor, lieutenant governor or to a seat in the assembly or the privy council.” In the four state constitutions adopted from 1776 to 1865 inclusive, that provision was in essence retained, but from the constitution of 1868, the fabrication of carpetbaggers, scalawags, and native Negroes, it was carefully omitted. That was natural. In the convention that made it, the clergy, especially of the Methodist Church (Northern), was powerful if not dominant—among them B. F, Whittemore, white, of Massachusetts, the slimiest rascal that ever crawled out of any state; and B. F. Randolph and “Daddy” Cain were conspicuous among the colored carpetbaggers. There were many native preachers too. The Reverend F. L. Car-dozo, a mulatto of Charleston, was an intelligent and accomplished man, much the best of these political ecclesiastics, but the “cure of souls” became a sideline to his business also. When the article about legislative qualifications was reported to the convention, Locke’s ancient tribute to the cloth and the inhibition protecting it were included; but with one accord the delegates, clerical and lay, pounced upon it and jeeringly cast it out.

Ever since that day in South Carolina a few “shepherds” have from time to time been active, sometimes acrobatic, in politics; and no one seems to think the worse of them on account of it. When the Democrats came to power in 1877, Democratic preachers began to ask for office, and it occurred to no one that this was the sincere flattery of imitation tendered the carpetbaggers and black plantation extorters. In other Southern states office-hungry ecclesiastics began to receive recognition about the same time.

The great majority of the clergy was then as now non-political, reverently faithful to “the service of, and cure of souls,” but the minority that resorted to lay legislation and sought lay offices (with attached emoluments) whereby to save the people from their sins, was vocal, sometimes vociferous. In the popular mind, especially in the feminine part of it and in the rural districts, the notion that a preacher was a divinely appointed political adviser soon had firm lodgment. Now this was American; at any rate it was Kansan, it was not new. But it had not been Southern, and it was introduced with that Americanism that the carpetbaggers loved and which so much became them. The rural priest of whatever sect often has aptitude to reduce his parishioners to mental subjection and always has opportunity. It is not strange that some of them, not restrained by high churchly authority, make the most of both. These priests are poor, their lives are circumscribed; it is not surprising that some of them are sure that they are called of God to run in a primary election and to serve in a legislature.


The “liquor question” had been taking on accretions of horror steadily in the South for about forty years before 1876. In the eighteen-thirties and -forties agitation was continuous in South Carolina, and lodges of “Washington-ians” and other temperance workers were numerous, but those temperance advocates were total abstainers from politics as well as from strong drink.

The first “state temperance convention” of South Carolina was held in Greenville on August 8, 1842; 184 delegates, representing nearly all the counties and parishes, were present; and Judge John Belton O’Neall, chief justice and leading Baptist layman, presided. The Reverend Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (great nephew of “Millions for Defence” Pinckney) was the secretary. The following declaratory resolutions were passed:

1st. That our object is not to force but to persuade people to be sober.

2nd. That we disclaim, utterly, all sectarian or political combinations and all dependence upon or intention to seek legislative aid in the reformation in which we are engaged.

On November 30 of the same year the “State Temperance Society” held its fifth annual meeting in Columbia, Judge O’Neall again presiding, and passed resolutions that the “only object of temperance societies” was “to improve and direct public opinion.” It recommended that “district societies do not interfere with the district police which the legislature had wisely entrusted to boards of competent commissioners.” Another resolution declared that “temperance societies had nothing to do with license laws beyond improving public opinion to make the keeping of drinking houses and patronizing them disreputable.” A fourth declared that there “exists no connection between the church and temperance societies and that any attempt to connect the cause of religion with the cause of temperance will be injurious to both.”

This sharp separation of the temperance movement in South Carolina from the state and the church was characteristic of the South, for Judge O’Neall’s activities extended far beyond the borders of his state. In 1852 he was elected, in Richmond, president of “The Sons of Temperance of North America”; and it is likely that the policies of South Carolina, of which he was undoubtedly the author, were accepted in other states. O’Neall was one of the noblest figures in the life of the state, a graduate and forty years a trustee of the South Carolina College. He could be a judge; but he could not have gone to Congress, for he was a “Union man” and opposed to Mr. Calhoun. In that day there were South Carolinians who dared to oppose, and the “Union” minority had leaders not less remarkable for talent and courage than had the state rights majority. The temperance societies drew from both parties. A delegate to one of the early state conventions was James L. Orr, later speaker of the national House of Representatives.

One of the early temperance workers was the Reverend Mr. Landrum, Baptist, of Spartanburg district. When he began his work, “dram-drinking was so common among members of the church that it was a reproach to the church,” and “treating at elections by candidates was almost universal,” but “Landrum and his co-workers never ceased to oppose this degrading practice until it was entirely broken up, at least before the public, and no one could be elected who was known to indulge in it.” “In 1843, nearly three thousand voters in Spartanburg district were pledged to total abstinence”—and that number was a decided majority of the district’s voters. This progress was made in a time when intoxicants were sold by general stores, and the sale was no more taxed or regulated than was that of other merchandise.

In the ‘fifties, the “Washingtonian” societies rapidly waned, and at the outbreak of the Confederate War few of them were in existence. After the war, the secret order of “Good Templars” arose, and numerous lodges were established. The federal government was now taxing the manufacture and sale of liquors, and the licensed “grog shop” took the place of unrestricted sale. It multiplied in every town and village, and, except in the cities, all of the shops were likely to be indeed disreputable. In the cities, “dives” were plentiful; so were saloons of a better class, and wines and whiskies were also sold by respectable grocery stores.

When the white Democrats gained power in 1877, agitation for prohibition by county option set in under acts authorizing county referenda. Sometimes counties voted themselves dry, the people surrounded at the polls by “shepherds” and singing women and children, but invariably the county prohibition laws soon were dead letters. After two or four years counties, the same people voting, usually asked for repeal and a return to licensed saloons. However, fortunes were sometimes founded in drug stores in those days.

In the disordered years beginning in 1865 and lasting about to the close of the century drinking habits and conditions were bad. Men drank at the barrooms, and pistol toting was not confined to the ruffian class, as for the most part it is now and has been for a long time. It was common for the family socially prominent to include a drunken son or brother, and the horror of the barroom was strongly implanted in the minds of many of the best women. Agitation to make counties and towns dry grew in the eighteen-nine-ties into state movements. Men began to offer for governor as prohibition Democrats, and, in exceptional instances, were elected.

In a referendum of Democrats in 1892 South Carolina voted for state prohibition; but the general assembly, under the orders of Governor B. R. Tillman, enacted the “dispensary,” or Gothenberg, system, which was already in operation in the college town of Athens, Georgia. It never had a chance. The commanding influence and surveillance of its sponsor, Captain Tillman, was removed from it when he went to the United States Senate in 1895; it fell into the hands of corruptionists; and the anti-Tillmanites so hated Tillmanism that they gloated when the scandals in the “great moral institution,” as they derisively called it, came to light. The state dispensary was abolished in 1907; in one-third of the counties independent dispensary systems were set up; and the management of these was non-partisan. In the nine years that they were operated, until 1916, no corruption or dishonesty was reported, and they earned handsome profits for their counties. They might in time have become corrupt, but the fact is that they did not in the nine years.

Under local option laws, the other counties had voted themselves dry, and one factor in the victory of state prohibition in a referendum in 1915 was that they resented that their citizens, trading at the dispensaries of the wet counties, contributed to the latter’s revenues. Whatever systems of liquor-selling states may set up after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment, they will be wise to provide that the revenues go into the state, not local, treasuries, in order that local option may have free play and that neighborhood and county envy of the wet districts may not be aroused. In South Carolina, liquor-selling, if it should be authorized by law, is likely to be confined to half a dozen or a dozen towns; the rest of the state will be dry; but automobiles make trading easy at long distances. If the towns in which the sales should be permitted receive the revenues, demand for state prohibition will not abate. On the other hand, if the revenues be poured into the state’s till for redistribution in dry and wet territory alike, agitation will not be strenuous, especially if the revenues should perceptibly reduce state and school tax levies.

The fact is that the habit of drinking intoxicants declined rapidly from about 1885 onward. By 1900 the “village drunkard” was a vanishing institution and by 1910 he was a rare bird. Religionists and prohibitionists, if they noticed the improvement, naturally took the credit for it; though they did not stress it, lest they reduce the terror of the “Demon” which was and is their main reliance. (“Demon” is no figurative term in the South. The powers of Lucifer are ascribed to the inanimate liquid, and something akin to de-monolatry is factual in a part of the population.) The prohibitionists had nothing to do with the improvement. The South had settled down and gone to work: men had found that life without too much liquor was better. There was still drinking, much drinking—but not nearly so much drunkenness. There are no data for comparisons; what any of us, wet or dry, say on the subject is no more than opinion; but, exercising my privilege of opining, I say that drunkards have been fully as much in evidence in South Carolina in the last ten years as they were from 1906 to 1916, the last years in which intoxicants were lawfully sold.

The “economic argument” had weight in the South’s dealing with the “liquor question,” but commentators have grossly exaggerated it. Some of the white South Carolinians have voted against barrooms and dispensary to keep whiskey out of reach of the Negroes, but not many of them. The counties of South Carolina that did not vote themselves dry had large Negro populations; they were plantation counties as a rule; and the dry counties included all the white counties. The Negroes did not vote in the plebiscites. In the textile counties the mill president sometimes voted dry and continued to take his highballs, but the whiskey traffic was in reality voted out of the counties by the working men, the poor men. With them ecclesiastics had, two decades ago, much influence—much more than they have now.

In the South, in the “Deep South” at any rate, there is but one powerful and pervading political notion—fear of the Negro. It is not fear of “Negro domination” but rather of the admission of the Negro as a corrupting and corruptible factor in elections. Even the scurvier politicians are restrained by it, preferring to rely on their wiles of appeal to white ignorance to taking chances in scrambles with opponents of their own kind for the votes of the masses of blacks. Accompanying the dread of the Negro is puritanic and superstitious distrust and hatred of Roman Catholics— of whom the rural South knows nothing beyond the tales that have been handed down through the generations. Numbers of the less educated clergy teach it and preach it, and it is preached too by many of the ministers who should and do know better—white preachers who entered the political game when the carpetbaggers (black and white) lifted the lid. Hence the spurious picture of Governor Smith dictating to a Negro woman secretary made the perfect appeal in the campaign of 1928.


Yet, despite ecclesiastical domination, the Southern states are voting for repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment and will continue to do so. The depression, the financial demoralization, the huge municipal debts, and the high taxes are a cause: the sight of any path that seems to lead out of the wilderness is welcomed. But that is not the whole explanation of the change. The political ecclesiastics have overshot the mark. Resentment is rising silently against them. Young people are no longer in fear of them. Prohibition oratory or harangue fills South Carolina, but no great crowds of voters hear it. Hard common sense (there is plenty of it deep in the minds of the country folk and the villagers) is asserting itself. They know that liquors are distributed wheresoever they are wanted. They perceive that the preachers thundering against bootleggers do not move to excommunicate substantial church members who drink. They are saying nothing; and some of them, especially women, who have resolved to vote wet, are timid about admitting it. They take no offence at clerical violence against the “saloon” (in this state have been no lawful “saloons” in forty years), smiling at it indulgently as part of the clerical job— but among the well-to-do, in the larger towns, cocktail parties are by no means uncommon, and before 1920 they were unknown. They observe too that moonshining, strictly a mountain manufacturing industry in three counties before the day of the Amendment, now proceeds in all the counties —in one of them, a dry county, in six months of the last year 165 stills were raided by state officers alone. These people of South Carolina, who cannot be fooled all the time, have become keenly aware that in a time of strangling and killing taxation the liquor traffic alone is tax exempt.

The South Carolinians will quietly vote for repeal, just as their legislators with their ears to the ground last winter voted for 3.2 beer—and I think that the other Southern states, besides Alabama, Arkansas, and Tennessee, will so vote, for the same reasons. But this voting will not be “Southern,” for there is no “South” now except on the maps.


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