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A century ago, America decided to get dry. We’re still feeling the effects, and Nevada was part of the whole process.
The Eighteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution was ratified on January 16, 1919, when Nebraska became the thirty-sixth of the forty-eight states. That gave the amendment the needed three-quarters of the states. The amendment said that one year from its ratification, it would prohibit “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States.” It also called for appropriate legislation, which passed in 1920. In the meantime, though, what about Nevada? Nevada’s legislature approved the amendment only five days after Nebraska did, and it might surprise you that it did so. Our state has had a bit of a reputation throughout its history, after all. In this case, Nevada definitely was a follower, not a leader.
Temperance had been a major issue in nineteenth-century America. But Nevadans weren’t overly interested in it. The state was known in the 1860s and beyond for mining, ranching, wide open spaces, and permissiveness. In 1909, the Anti-Saloon League arrived in the state, saying Nevada had a greater percentage of saloons per capita than any other state. The League actually had some success: the legislature passed what’s called a local option law in 1911. That enabled county officials to shut down liquor sales if ten percent of taxpayers in the local school district signed a petition AND if they could prove the saloon endangered community morals or public health. It didn’t have much of an impact.
But other factors did. The Anti-Saloon League reorganized and improved its advocacy efforts. Another was women. In 1914, Nevada became one of the last states to approve suffrage. Nevada women led new efforts to reform and modernize the state, including ending alcohol sales. Joining them in this effort were numerous religious leaders. In 1916, they took advantage of still another factor: The Progressive Era. Moral reform was on the rise, helping the Anti-Saloon League to grow. Some advocates of prohibition hoped that reform would have an impact on people’s behavior generally, including gambling. The Progressive Era’s commitment to direct democracy also helped the drys, as the Prohibitionists were called. They got an initiative petition with enough signatures to force the legislature’s hand. The 1917 session either had to pass the law or put it on the ballot in the following general election, in 1918.
Governor Emmet Boyle wasn’t sure the legislature should spend time and effort on it. In his message to lawmakers, he urged that they “expeditiously take the steps necessary to place the question of its adoption or rejection on the ballot.” One reason he wanted the legislature to punt it to the people was “the probable impairment of legislative efficiency which may be expected to result from an extended consideration by your body of so controversial a subject.” After a lot of back-and-forth over the legislative process and some committee work, that’s what happened: it went on the 1918 general election ballot. What happened then, and what other factors were in play, we’ll discuss next time.
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