If you asked me, I would say progressive stalwart William Jennings Bryan was the most famous American prohibitionist. He fought vehemently against the liquor traffic where rich capitalists got richer by getting workers addicted to booze. “The Great Commoner” had far more political clout than Carrie Nation. Or consider Frederick Douglass—perhaps the most famous orator of the 19th century, back when abolitionism was virtually synonymous with temperance. On his temperance tour of Britain in 1845, Douglass, who, like Nation, died well before nationwide prohibition was passed, claimed, “If we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery. Mankind has been drunk.” In his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: American Slave, he explained that keeping slaves stupefied with liquor was “the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” on the plantations.
Such details largely disappear from contemporary biographies, perhaps because they don’t fit our image of temperance as an angry, white, female, Bible-thumping crusade against individual liberty. While their political legacies are obviously variegated, Frederick Douglass, William Jennings Bryan and Carrie Nation all held the exact same positions on abolition, suffragism and prohibition. Yet even the titles of their biographies belie their differential treatment by historians: Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. William Jennings Bryan: A Godly Hero, or Champion of Democracy. And Carrie Nation? Vessel of Wrath. Historians give William and Fredrick a free pass for their role in prohibition along with Neal, Wayne and Andrew; we’re told that Carrie is the real villain.