The election of Bryan in 1908 was celebrated by prohibitionists everywhere as a 'great victory'. Many assumed that Bryan would rollback the powers of the Eastern Money Trust and push forward the dry program. Bryan, a known dry, would surely pass and push forward any national prohibition legislation.
This hope however would soon be dashed for a number of reason. One side effect of the election of Bryan was unlooked for by everyone. The election of a known and vocal dry mobilized an alarmed the various wet organizations. For years the wets had bee passive,assuming that no nation would seriously ban alcohol. And any movement they did make against the well-oiled dry machine was small and unorganized. Indeed, many alcohol producers simply attacked other types of alcohol producers. This confused and bewildered response let the drys have their way in Washington for decades. The election of Bryan forced these groups to rise to the challenge. The prospects of a strongly dry White House was too much of a threat to ignore.
The other effect was the politicization of the issue. Up to Bryan's election Prohibition (at least on a national level) was mainly apolitical. No politician wanted to deal strongly in the issue, and Congress as a whole ignored it, often to the benefit of the drys. This 'creeping' accumulation of dry laws was looked on favorable and a good result of the dry lobby. The election of Bryan made the issue impossible even for Congress to ignore, and many politicians too a stronger wet stance. This movement to actually discussing alcoholic, instead of passively giving in to the presistant dry lobby had great effect on various dry efforts. The last thing they wanted was a debate breaking out.
And the last side effect was Bryan himself. While he was a dry and often pushed for dry planks in the Democrat platform, much of it was political maneuver. Bryan was an accomplished politician who would do pretty much anything to keep in the good graces of the electorate. Bryan, in winning th e1908 election, had founded a still shaky collation in the Democratic party. Many of the new members, Socialists, were very wet indeed and this kept Bryan in line. Debs, nearly an alcoholic, was hardly what the drys wanted to see on the Cabinet. Also Bryan preferred the local and state referendum option. He disliked the idea of an aggressive federal government pressing laws across state lines.
Byran's first year was quiet on the Prohibition front. Many drys were surprising a federal law hadn't bee enacted, but most were willing to wait. It would take time, they reasoned, to put the Trust Money in its place. Also, the national organization of the drys was still growing. The lobby in Congress was also started to run into wet organizations with real strengthen for the first time,. Still, to drys, 1909 just seemed to be another building year.
In the same time Byran had decided that local option and state laws was the safest route. Being a strong dry was easy when running, but when elected he saw it was a handicap. Always careful to stay popular, even the “Great Commoner” saw that the drys weren't all powerful. Whatever his personal convictions, he buried them and said little on the issue.
The single exception to this rule, merely proved his want to ignore the issue, and let it 'go its natural course'. Sequoyah was in midst of a great debate on weather to go dry, like neighboring Oklahoma. Byran weighed in one the issue, with a flurry of intense speeches pushing the dry point of view. While, on the surface, drys celebrated a President who would support them, underneath Bryan had done very little. What was a few speeches celebrating a very situational topic and subject? During th speeches Bryan only talked about Sequoyah issues and applications. No damming of the wet cities of the East, let along talk of a national federal law.
It is a testament to Bryan's political tightrope act that a week after his speeches he got two letters in the mail. One was from the head of the Anti-Saloon league and the other was a small note from rising 'wet' political Al Smith from New York.
Indeed, Bryan's careful approach to the issue became legendary. When Bryan visited a dry area like the Deep South, he proclaimed the advantages of a dry nation and the 'moral value' in pushing for prohibition of alcohol. When giving speeches directed at wet ares, like New York Bryan was suddenly full of compromise and minimization about it. This balancing act only lasted a year before the SAW changed everything.
The SAW and Prohibition
The war was instantly turned into a propaganda device by the drys. The reasons war increased the call for the banning of alcohol were many and varied. One was that Germany was bad, and all things German were also tainted. This including beer, and all who drank it. Indeed, many brewers had Germanic names and business titles. This rabid anti-German feeling fed into the nativist feeling of many drys.
Another argument was that America needed healthy fit soldiers, not those under the influence of drink. This charge was leveled at all services as a moral command. The cry of “Sober Troops!” ran into some problem from early on. The main one was that an alcoholic America had won the FAW without Prohibition or drunk troops having any effect at all. The new industrialized warfare didn't seem to be bothered if alcohol was banned or not on the home front. Also, FAW hero like Wood and Pershing refused (despite party pressure) to admit that alcohol had contributed to any lack of ability in American troops. Real world experience in war hurt the drys.
Another charge leveled by he drys was that bread used for beer could be used for the troops. While this was extreme, in many circles was effective. Particularity to the large business gaining army contracts for food. Still this argument only touched on wheat based alcohol. Many groups, such as the strong wine industry in California, argued that this had nothing to do with them.
Still, the build-up to war caused a sharp (but short ) stampede to ban alcohol. A few states passed a number of laws in 1910-11 but most of these had long been on the trajectory. The drys cried that Bryan was morally responsible for the lives of all those who died due to 'his flagrant ignorance of this issue”. Many drys had assumed that wartime fears and pressure would naturally lead to national Prohibition and that Congress would cave to their pressure. However, a strong wet lobby, and a disinterested President lead to only more states. Indeed, this lack of federal involvement lead to a split in the Dry movement. Most of the Dry movement, based around the Anti-Saloon league were still determined to ban alcohol all across the Untied State via a Constitutional Amendment. But a smaller group had decided that this might be impossible in the current climate. This group, still dis-organized was mainly focused on getting more dry states and enforcing the laws that were in place.