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Brewing, Prohibition, Politics

The state’s ethnic German population was known for beer, both its manufacture and its consumption. However, many Iowans supported the temperance movement, which sought to outlaw alcohol as a source of immoral behavior, and which considered German and Irish drinking customs uncivilized. The Iowa legislature passed consecutive temperance laws from 1855 to 1894, and Republican support for these measures meant that German Iowans often leaned Democratic, more so than in states that lacked such laws.

As an agricultural state, Iowa was perfectly suited to support a brewing economy. By 1878, over 130 breweries thrived statewide. Brewers paid top dollar for grain, making hops and barley, not corn and soybeans, the cash crops for many farmers. The brewing industry generated jobs, leading the legislature in 1856 to modify the state’s first prohibition law to permit the manufacture of beer, wine, and cider made from Iowa-grown fruit and grain.

For German Iowans, beer was part of family outings and public concerts, not saloon culture. They fought the state’s temperance laws at every opportunity. A prohibition amendment to the state constitution passed in 1882, but was struck down on a technicality. When a new prohibition law went into effect in 1884, German Iowans rioted in Iowa City and Marshalltown, and the law was openly flouted in majority German communities. The legislature eventually approved a compromise, the Mulct Act of 1894, which taxed saloon owners via fines for the sale of alcohol.

Many German Iowans voted Republican, but felt abandoned by party leaders over prohibition. Some historians attribute Abraham Lincoln’s election to German-American votes in the Midwest: support for abolition was strong among liberals who had fled Germany during the conservative crackdown that followed the failed democratic uprisings of 1848, and a disproportionally high number of German Americans enlisted in the Union Army. Still, in 1860, a vote for Lincoln’s Republican Party was also a vote for temperance. Ethnic Germans in reliably Democratic towns throughout the state were often more willing to countenance slavery than support prohibition. Anti-temperance sentiment continued to influence the German-Iowan vote through 1916, when male voters in predominantly German counties rejected a referendum on extending the vote to women, fearing that women would support renewed prohibition efforts.

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Brewing, Prohibition, Politics