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Fact Check: Rockefeller didn’t pursue Prohibition to ensure ethanol’s demise as a fuel

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Photo by Chris Dobbins.

We all have a favorite automotive tall tale or conspiracy theory we cling to over the years, but sometimes they’re just plain wrong and need debunked. Though we didn’t hear it when we asked for your favorite conspiracy theories a while back, we have come across the claim that John D. Rockefeller funded Prohibition as a means of eliminating ethanol as an automotive fuel, and after some research, we believe we can tag that claim as false.

The story, as it’s typically told, starts with Henry Ford and the Model T, designed to operated on both gasoline and ethanol (along with kerosene). Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil monopoly depended on widespread automotive consumption of gasoline, saw the possibility of ethanol-powered vehicles as enough of a threat to his business to warrant a ban on ethanol under the guise of the temperance movement and Prohibition.

Rockefeller did have a hand in establishing Prohibition, that much is true. His contributions to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union – which, in turn, used the funds to persuade U.S. Congressmen to pass the 18th Amendment and the subsequent Volstead Act – totaled millions of dollars and helped vault the temperance movement to the national stage. However, his reasons for doing so appear to have been misconstrued over the years, likely out of a desire to ascribe underhanded motives to the passing of Prohibition or to blame the lack of alternative fuel choice on a convenient villain.

The story above suffers from a severe lack of context. Rockefeller’s commitment to the temperance movement arose long before the Model T: He was a lifelong teetotaler, mainly for religious reasons, and his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, was reportedly one of the founding members of the WCTU in the 1880s (not to mention that he paid his father-in-law to preach the temperance movement). And while Rockefeller’s net worth peaked in about 1913, a couple years after the Supreme Court-ordered breakup of Standard Oil, Rockefeller retired from the business in 1895 to focus on his philanthropy.

In addition, many industrialists at the time favored temperance and Prohibition largely because they believed it would lead to improved performance from their employees. So even if Rockefeller had some inkling to use Prohibition as a means of eliminating ethanol as an automotive fuel, that likely amounted to no more than a passing thought compared to his views of drink as an evil that must be stomped out.

As for ethanol as an automotive fuel, alcohol taxes prevented it from becoming competitive, pricewise, with gasoline until Teddy Roosevelt passed the Free Alcohol bill in 1906. Plenty of experimental and low-production internal combustion engines used ethanol up to that point, but Ford appeared to be the only major carmaker (aside from, perhaps, Rolls-Royce engine designer Harry Ricardo) to pursue ethanol as a viable alternative fuel on its own during the first couple decades of the Twentieth Century (others considered it more as an octane booster blended into gasoline, similar to how ethanol is used today). Even then, Ford’s reasons for doing so were more to make his cars appealing to farmers – who could feasibly produce ethanol at home – than to shift automobiles away from gasoline.

(We’ll note here that Henry Ford, as an industrialist, worked alongside Rockefeller with the Anti-Saloon League, another group dedicated to the temperance movement and to passing Prohibition. So if Prohibition was indeed targeted at Ford’s attempt to make ethanol a legitimate alternative fuel, then Ford was actively working to oppose his own efforts.)

(We’ll also note that Ford likely did not design the Model T to run on ethanol. More on that in a separate article currently in the works.)

Of course, it would help to examine the actual text of the 18th Amendment, Section 1 of which reads

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Note the “for beverage purposes” wording. Presumably that would mean ethanol for non-beverage purposes, such as fuel, would be okay, right? Well, let’s check out the Volstead Act, known formally as the National Prohibition Act, which Congress passed to enforce the 18th Amendment. Specifically, we have to look no further than the act’s long title:

An Act to prohibit intoxicating beverages, and to regulate the manufacture, production, use, and sale of high-proof spirits for other than beverage purposes, and to ensure an ample supply of alcohol and promote its use in scientific research and in the development of fuel, dye, and other lawful industries.

So not only did Prohibition allow for ethanol as a fuel, but it specifically encouraged the use of ethanol as a fuel. And, reportedly, one of the industrialists who took up the Volstead Act’s suggestion to develop ethanol as a fuel source was none other than Rockefeller himself, who dabbled in producing the fuel for a few years in the Twenties. Nor did Prohibition deter Ford from pursuing ethanol as a fuel: His oft-quoted comments to the New York Times about turning “that sumach out by the road” into fuel came in 1925.

Could Rockefeller have ultimately intended to use Prohibition to eliminate ethanol as a fuel source? We can never know a man’s intimate thoughts entirely, but given that Prohibition did not actually cause that change, given the lack of scholarship pointing to any evidence that was his intention (and there’s plenty of scholarship out there on Rockefeller), and given that Rockefeller’s overwhelming intentions behind pursuing Prohibition are well documented, it’s almost certain that Rockefeller had no ulterior motives regarding ethanol as a fuel source.