Congressman Joseph R. Bryson served South Carolina’s 4th District in the United States House of Representatives from 1939-1953. A conservative Democrat, one issue of great importance to him both personally and professionally was government regulation of alcohol. He was ardently opposed to any alcohol consumption whatsoever, and many citizens at the time shared his view on this issue. When Bryson took office, Prohibition was still fresh in the minds of Americans, having ended only six years prior. Included in his collection are materials evidencing his and society’s feelings on alcohol and Prohibition at that time; a one-case exhibit showcasing some of these items is on display until October 15 in the Brittain Gallery at Hollings Library.
Prohibition in the United States (1920-1933) had turned out to be to a large degree ineffectual, as widespread drinking continued throughout those years. It also brought many problems along with it, including bootlegging, increased organized crime, political corruption, and the fact that the illegally manufactured alcohol was sometimes dangerous or even fatal when consumed. However, supporters of reinstating Prohibition believed that the problems associated with legal access to alcohol were more devastating to society than those brought by restricting access.
It is easy for us to forget today just how much support there was for Prohibition, both public and political, at the time it took effect in 1920, and the items on display serve as an interesting reminder of how societal attitudes have changed over the years. There were multiple organizations solely devoted to the outlaw of alcohol and an end to any and all drinking, and these organizations enjoyed solid membership and a degree of political influence. The 18th Amendment was ratified by 46 of the 48 states; Connecticut and Rhode Island being the only states to reject it. In contrast, the 21st Amendment which repealed Prohibition was ratified by 38 states, which was only 2 more than the minimum three-fourths required for passage; was rejected by South Carolina; and was not considered by nine states.
The Prohibition Party, founded in 1869, is the oldest existing third party in the United States. It has nominated a presidential candidate in every election since 1872, and although never a leading contender, these presidential candidates enjoyed considerable support between 1884 and 1920, earning anywhere from 145,000 to 270,000 votes in each election during those years, and over 100,000 votes even as late as 1948. Bob Shuler, a Prohibition senate candidate in 1932, attracted over 500,000 votes. In comparison, the Prohibition presidential candidate in 2012 earned 519 votes.
Congressman Bryson introduced, at different times, both a bill and a constitutional amendment to bring back national Prohibition of alcohol, both of which were met with some degree of public support. However, while strongly in favor of complete Prohibition, Congressman Bryson recognized that some progress could be made through compromise. Bryson thus pursued laws that would impose regulations short of complete Prohibition; for example, prohibiting soldiers from consuming alcohol during times of war; and measures to prohibit beer and liquor companies from advertising their products. In remarks to the House Speaker at a vote on a bill that would allow the President to limit the amount of wheat allocated for the production of alcoholic beverages he said, as he cast his vote in favor of the bill, “I fully realize that the measure does not meet the needs…since the Majority party has indicated…that the pending measure was all that we could expect to get during this session, it is better to take a portion of a loaf than no loaf at all.”
The Prohibition folders in Congressman Bryson’s collection contain numerous letters from constituents expressing their opinions on the subject, and they are overwhelmingly supportive of his efforts. One example from such a letter reads, “I hope your name will go down in history as a GREAT LEADER of the fight against this mighty enemy of the whole race.” During World War II, some soldiers and civilians felt strongly that the war effort and national security would be best served by prohibiting soldiers from drinking. One soldier wrote, “Here is one serviceman, and I know that there are millions more, who heartily approves of your efforts to curtail the consumption of the poison that people call liquor. Servicemen have plenty of opportunity to see the effects of alcohol upon the nation, and especially upon its youth. Needless to say, it is too awful for description.” Congressman Bryson sent responses to some of these constituent letters. In addition to correspondence, the items on display include speeches Bryson made to Congress, brochures and pamphlets about prohibition, poems, newspaper clippings, copies of bills introduced by Bryson, and literature from churches and temperance societies.
While the sincerity and motivations of some politicians claiming to support Prohibition may have been questionable, there is no doubt in Congressman Bryson’s sincerity. He never wavered in his adamant opposition to and disapproval of all forms of alcohol consumption, nor in his fight to outlaw it again, and he truly believed society would be best served through Prohibition. He claimed to have “always been sober and never [to] have taken a drop of intoxicating beverages.” Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn said of Bryson that he “typified morals. He practiced what he preached. He was a good Christian and a great American.” Come by the Brittain Gallery through October 15 to check out this exhibit, and read more about Congressman Bryson and his collection in the finding aid, found here.
Contributed by Mary Kennington Steele