It was a key component of the Progressive Era, and was strongest in the South and rural North, drawing heavy support from pietistic Protestant ministers and their congregations, especially Methodists, Baptists, Disciples and Congregationalists. It concentrated on legislation, and cared about how legislators voted, not whether they drank or not. Founded as a state society in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1893, its influence spread rapidly. In 1895, it became a national organization and quickly rose to become the most powerful prohibition lobby in America, overshadowing the older Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Prohibition Party. Its triumph was nationwide prohibition locked into the Constitution with passage of the 18th Amendment in 1920. It was decisively defeated when Prohibition was repealed in 1933.
However, the organization continued, and is today known as the American Council on Alcohol Problems.
The League was the first modern pressure group in the United States organized around one issue. Unlike earlier popular movements, it utilized bureaucratic methods learned from business to build a strong organization. The League's founder and first leader, Howard Hyde Russell (1855-1946), believed that the best leadership was selected, not elected. Russell built from the bottom up, shaping local leagues and raising the most promising young men to leadership at the local and state levels. This organizational strategy reinvigorated the temperance movement. Publicity for the League was handled by Edward Young Clarke and Mary Elizabeth Tyler of the Southern Publicity Association.
The League's most prominent leader was Wayne Wheeler, although both Ernest Cherrington and William E. Johnson ("Pussyfoot" Johnson), were also highly influential and powerful. The League used pressure politics in legislative politics, which it is credited with developing.
Howard Ball has written that the Ku Klux Klan and the Anti-Saloon league were both immensely powerful pressure groups in Birmingham, Alabama during the Post-World War I period. A local newspaper editor at the time wrote that "In Alabama, it is hard to tell where the Anti-Saloon League ends and the Klan begins". During the May 1928 primary in Alabama, the League joined with Klansmen and members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). When an Alabama state senator proposed an anti-masking statute "to emasculate the order's ability to terrorize people", lobbying led by J. Bib Mills, the superintendent of the Alabama Anti-Saloon League, ensured that the bill failed.
When it came to fighting "wet" candidates, especially candidates such as Al Smith in the presidential election of 1928, the League was less effective because its audience was already Republican.
The League used a multitiered approach in its attempts to secure a dry (prohibition) nation through national legislation and congressional hearings, the Scientific Temperance Federation, and its American Issue Publishing Company. The League also used emotion based on patriotism, efficiency and anti-German sentiment in World War I. The activists saw themselves as preachers fulfilling their religious duty of eliminating liquor in America. Lamme (2003) explores the public relations approach used by the League as it tried to mobilize public opinion in favor of a dry, saloonless nation. It invented many of the modern techniques of public relations.
The League lobbied at all levels of government for legislation to prohibit the manufacture or import of spirits, beer and wine. Ministers had launched several efforts to close Arizona saloons after the 1906 creation of League chapters in Yuma, Tucson, and Phoenix. A League organizer from New York arrived in 1909, but the Phoenix chapter was stymied by local-option elections, whereby local areas could decide whether to allow saloons. League members pressured local police to take licenses from establishments that violated closing hours or served women and minors, and they provided witnesses to testify about these violations. One witness was Frank Shindelbower, a juvenile from a poor family, who testified several saloons had sold him liquor; as a result those saloons lost their licenses. However owners discovered that Shindelbower had perjured himself, and he was imprisoned. After the Arizona Gazette and other newspapers pictured Shindelbower as the innocent tool of the Anti-Saloon League, he was pardoned.
At the state level, the League had mixed results, usually doing best in rural and southern states. It made little headway in larger cities, or among liturgical church members such as Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians and German Lutherans. Pegram (1990) explains its success in Illinois under William Hamilton Anderson. From 1900 and 1905 the League worked to obtain a local option referendum law and became an official church federation. Local Option was passed in 1907 and by 1910 40 of Illinois' 102 counties and 1,059 of the state's townships and precincts had become dry, including some Protestant areas around Chicago. Despite these successes, after the Prohibition amendment was ratified in 1919, social problems such as organized crime ignored by the League undermined the public influence of the single-issue pressure group, and it faded in importance. Pegram (1997) uses its failure in Maryland to explore the relationship between Southern Progressivism and national progressivism. The Maryland leader 1907-14 was William H. Anderson, but he was unable to adapt to local conditions, such as the large German element. The League failed to ally with local political bosses and attacked the Democratic Party. In Maryland, as in the rest of the South, Pegram concludes, traditional religious, political, and racial concerns constrained reform movements even as they converted Southerners to the new national politics of federal intervention and interest-group competition.
Unable to cope with the failures of prohibition after 1928, especially bootlegging and organized crime as well as reduced government revenue, the League failed to counter the repeal forces. Also their failure to disassociate from the Ku Klux Klan brought on negative connotations with the League. Led by prominent Democrats, Franklin D. Roosevelt won in 1932 on a wet platform. A new Constitutional amendment passed easily in 1933 to repeal the 18th amendment, and the League lost its power.
In 1909, the League moved its national headquarters from Washington to Westerville, Ohio, which had a reputation for supporting temperance. The American Issue Publishing House, the publishing arm of the League, was also in Westerville. Ernest Cherrington headed the company. It printed so many leaflets--over 40 tons of mail per month--that Westerville was the smallest town to have a first class post office.
From 1948 until 1950 it was named the Temperance League, from 1950 to 1964 the National Temperance League, from 1964 the American Council on Alcohol Problems. Today the organization continues its original goal. A museum about the League is at the Westerville Public Library.