By: K. Austin Kerr

Type: General Entry

Published: 1952

Updated: April 30, 2019

The prohibition movement influenced Texas and American politics from the 1840s to the 1930s. In the nineteenth century a movement against alcoholic beverages arose when some Americans, appalled by the social damage and individual wreckage that alcohol consumption too often seemed to cause, sought to persuade citizens to refrain from drinking liquor. This "temperance" movement enjoyed considerable success and continued parallel with the prohibition movement. In the eyes of some reformers a sober America was attainable only under laws that declared illegal the manufacture and sale of liquor. In their view the profit motive led the distilling, brewing, and saloon industries to encourage more people to drink. The destruction of the legal liquor traffic appeared to be the solution of a widespread individual and social problem. Prohibition sentiment found ready partisans among fundamentalist Protestants in Texas. Fundamentalists had long taught that drinking is immoral, and many of them came to believe that state-enforced teetotalism would improve public morality. In this regard, during the prohibition era at least, fundamentalists contributed to the extension of state power. Legal prohibition would, they thought, conduce to greater freedom. In subsequent years, however, in spite of this temporary alliance with political liberalism, and in spite of continuing opposition to alcohol sales and consumption, fundamentalists demonstrated a staunch conservatism.

Drys, as the reformers were called, first animated Texas politics in the 1840s. The drys sought measures allowing voters in prescribed areas to declare prohibition in effect: to pass so-called local-option laws for neighborhoods, towns, cities, and counties. Eventually the drys sought statewide prohibition and an amendment to the United States Constitution declaring illegal the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. In 1843 the Republic of Texas had passed what may have been the first local-option measure in North America. A Texas law of 1845 banned saloons altogether. The law was never enforced, however, and was repealed in 1856. The prohibition controversy, however, did not disappear in either Texas or the nation. The United Friends of Temperance, the first Texas-wide dry organization, was formed around 1870. In 1883 the state branch of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union was founded with help from the national WCTU leader, Frances Willard. There was a separate black WCTU for the state. In 1886 the Prohibition party offered candidates for office in Texas. The new Constitution of 1876 had required the legislature to enact a local-option law. In 1887 the drys engineered a state prohibition referendum, which they lost by more than 90,000 votes. Nevertheless, dry sentiment was widespread. In 1895, fifty-three of the 239 counties were dry, and another seventy-nine counties were partly dry under local option.

In the twentieth century the prohibition movement advanced from the rural counties of North Texas to convert a majority of the state's voters. As before, the liquor industries opposed the measure with well-financed publicity and well-placed financing of political leaders. In 1903 the Home and State began to counteract liquor publicity, and the Texas Local Option Association united dry groups. That association merged in 1908 with the state Anti-Saloon League , which had appeared in 1907. The league, formed in Ohio in 1893, was bringing new zeal and organizing skills to the dry campaign around the United States. In Texas the drys in 1908 and 1911 tried again for a prohibition law but lost the referendum by a close margin. Although the statewide dry campaigns had failed, the number of dry counties was increasing. North Texas was dry; only areas with relatively large concentrations of African, Hispanic, and German Americans continued to license the liquor industries.

With the electorate split on the issue, prohibition continued to divide Texans. In 1913 Morris Sheppard , a dedicated dry, won a seat in the United States Senate and assumed leadership in the national prohibition campaign by his sponsorship of what became the Eighteenth Amendment. In 1916 the drys won enough congressional races to have Congress initiate the national prohibition amendment. The Texas legislature, encouraged by the Anti-Saloon League (which was reorganized in 1915 under Arthur J. Barton to provide sustained support for state prohibition), ratified the federal amendment in 1918. In 1919 Texas voters approved a state prohibition amendment.

Prohibition was controversial in both national and Texas politics in the 1920s. The Anti-Saloon League was deeply divided over the question of how to use the Eighteenth Amendment: as a measure providing new opportunities to persuade Americans to abstain from liquor, or as a measure demanding strict enforcement. In Texas, Atticus Webb, who assumed leadership of the state league, failed to obtain strict enforcement. In 1925 opponents of prohibition were in control of the Texas government and refused to support enforcement. In the meantime, the drys were unable to obtain funds for a large-scale, sustained educational campaign on behalf of abstinence. Nationally, popular support for prohibition receded dramatically after the onset of the Great Depression in 1929, and in 1933 the Twenty-first Amendment repealed prohibition. In 1935 Texas voters ratified a repeal of the state dry law. Thereafter the prohibition question reverted to the local level, and the drys had available only local-option statutes.

In the 1980s a neoprohibition movement emerged in the United States. The reformers sought not to outlaw the liquor industries but more closely to regulate their marketing campaigns. In 1984, for instance, Congress required Texas and all other states to declare the minimum drinking age to be twenty-one in order to receive full federal highway funding. Subsequently, "warning labels" stating the dangers of alcohol consumption were mandated.

Lewis L. Gould, Progressives and Prohibitionists: Texas Democrats in the Wilson Era (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1973; rpt., Austin: Texas State Historical Association, 1992).

Time Periods:
  • Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
  • Progressive Era
  • Texas in the 1920s
  • Great Depression

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

K. Austin Kerr, “Prohibition,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 27, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

April 30, 2019