Anti-Saloon League of Virginia


The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia, established in 1901, led the movement that brought Prohibition to the state in 1916. While the state had established the Virginia Society for the Promotion of Temperance as early as October 1826, the league became a major force in Virginia politics, especially within the Democratic Party, in the first two decades of the twentieth century. An affiliate of the Anti-Saloon League of America, a national dry pressure group based in Ohio, the Virginia League gave political direction to the temperance beliefs of Protestant evangelicals, chiefly Baptists and Methodists.

Founded in 1901 at Richmond‘s Second Baptist Church, the league raised money and organized a network of Protestant voters through church visitations and sophisticated publicity. It aimed to close saloons and dismantle the liquor industry, which it blamed for a host of social and moral problems, wherever possible by means of restrictive licensing, local option referenda, state legislation, and ultimately outright prohibition of alcohol manufacture and sales. The league emphasized practical politics. Its dominant figure, the talented but severe Methodist cleric (later bishop) and educator from Blackstone, James Cannon Jr., rejected third-party tactics and instead worked with officeholders and politicians who actually held power, many of whom opposed prohibition.

Bishop James Cannon

The Virginia league quickly established itself as a political force. After its initial superintendent, an outsider appointed by the national league, was assaulted by a judge he had criticized, league publicity helped bring about the impeachment and removal from office of the offending magistrate. Cannon was named to the league’s powerful Executive Committee in 1903, became president in 1904, and assumed day-to-day operations as superintendent in 1909. He immediately attacked the liquor industry at its weakest points. Collaborating with prominent legislators, Cannon drafted legislation in 1903 and 1908 that closed the notoriously unruly rural saloons. The league directed local option elections that by 1909 had banned saloons from eighty-six out of one hundred counties.

Yet Virginia’s largest cities remained defiantly wet, and the conservative organization of U.S. senator Thomas Staples Martin, which controlled the state Democratic Party, was unfriendly to prohibition. In other southern states, the Anti-Saloon League was identified with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but the Virginia league fashioned an alliance with Martin in 1909. The organization backed a dry candidate for governor, and, in turn, the league withheld calls for state prohibition and endorsed organization candidates. By 1912 the league had demanded passage of an enabling act to allow a state prohibition referendum. Martin’s wet organization blocked the bill until league threats to throw its support to the Virginia Progressive Democratic League resulted in passage of the enabling act in 1914.

Oh Look Who's Here!

That September Virginians endorsed state prohibition, which went into effect in 1916. The league helped draft the prohibition statute, which barred the manufacture and sale of intoxicating beverages, but allowed a personal use exemption. Another league-sponsored bill created a state prohibition commissioner. Although wets and some dry legislators offended by Cannon’s lobbying and cooperation with the Martin machine denounced the league’s members as “ecclesiastical politicians,” the league remained powerful until the end of national prohibition in 1933.

The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia, a group that will lead the movement bringing prohibition to the state, is established.
The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia comes under the leadership of its most forceful member, James Cannon Jr.
The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia's James Cannon Jr. helps draft legislation to close notoriously unruly rural saloons.
The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia demands passage of an enabling act to allow a state prohibition referendum.
September 22, 1914
Virginians endorse an act that makes a statewide referendum on alcohol law, an act that the Anti-Saloon League of Virginia has been pushing for the past several years.
  • Hohner, Robert A. “Cannon, James.” In Dictionary of Virginia Biography, Vol. 2, edited by Sara B. Bearss, John T. Kneebone, J. Jefferson Looney, Brent Tarter, and Sandra Gioia Treadway, 589–591. Richmond, VA: The Library of Virginia, 2001.
  • Hohner, Robert A. Prohibition and Politics: The Life of Bishop James Cannon, Jr. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
  • Moger, Allen W. Virginia: Bourbonism to Byrd, 1870–1925. Charlottesville: The University Press of Virginia, 1968.
APA Citation:
Pegram, Thomas. Anti-Saloon League of Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/anti-saloon-league-of-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Pegram, Thomas. "Anti-Saloon League of Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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