Early Life, Southern Methodism, and Prohibition
Born November 13, 1864, into a well-known and affluent family in Salisbury, Maryland, James Cannon Jr. grew up under the strong Southern Methodist thumb of his father, James Cannon Sr., and mother, Lydia Robertson Primrose Cannon. After graduating from a local high school he enrolled at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland with dreams of entering the legal profession. In 1882 while a young student at Randolph-Macon, Cannon had an intense conversion experience at a college revival that forever changed his mind about secular pursuits.
In 1901 Cannon became a founding member of the Virginia Anti-Saloon League. By 1903, he was sitting on the league's Executive Committee, was named president the next year, and in 1909 became league superintendent. Whatever his office, Cannon was the driving force of the Virginia league. In his push for a dry Virginia, Cannon combined a talent for tart journalism and unyielding lobbying pressure with skill as a legislative draftsman and a willingness to make practical political compromises. He formed working relationships with political insiders such as William Hodges Mann and Richard E. Byrd, both of whom drafted bills with Cannon that dried up alcohol sales in rural Virginia by 1908. Cannon realized that without the support of United States senator Thomas Staples Martin, head of the conservative political ring that dominated Virginia's Democratic Party, state Prohibition would not be achieved. Courageously or cynically, depending on the observer, Cannon abandoned the progressive wing of the party and entered into an expedient alliance with the Martin machine in 1909. Although Cannon developed genuine respect and affection for Martin, reformers denounced the bishop as an unethical opportunist.
Following the U.S. presidential election of Woodrow Wilson in 1912, Cannon also played a powerful role in the national Anti-Saloon League. Cannon was the most influential Democrat among top league officials and he acted as the league's main legislative lobbyist during Wilson's two terms. Cannon used his access to Martin and the Virginia organization's congressional delegation to advance Prohibition initiatives that culminated in the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1917 and the onset of national Prohibition in 1920. After Republicans returned to power in 1921, Cannon worked to prevent the league's powerful counsel and legislative superintendent, Wayne B. Wheeler, from aligning the league with the GOP. Cannon spent much of the 1920s overseas on Methodist missions and in service to the international branch of the Anti-Saloon League, the World League Against Alcoholism.
Breaking with the Party
Beginning in 1929, Cannon's position as a moral leader was undercut by a series of personal scandals. Carter Glass promoted charges that Cannon had gambled in the stock market and hoarded flour during World War I (1914–1918). Wet political enemies claimed that Cannon had misappropriated Anti-Saloon League campaign funds. In addition, reporters sensationally charged that as his wife lay dying in 1928 Cannon had engaged in an adulterous affair with Helen Hawley McCallum (whom he married in 1930). Cannon survived congressional hearings and church investigations, but his reputation and the dry cause for which he stood were forever compromised. Assigned to distant California for the final years of his bishopric, Cannon retired in 1938 to Richmond, where he drafted an uncompleted autobiography. He died in 1944 and was buried at Richmond's Hollywood Cemetery.
November 13, 1864 - James Cannon Jr. is born.
1882 - James Cannon Jr., while attending a revival at Randolph-Macon College, undergoes a conversion experience that turns him away from ambitions for a legal career and toward a career in ministry.
1888 - James Cannon Jr. receives his BD from the Princeton Theological Seminary.
1901 - James Cannon Jr. becomes a founding member of the Virginia Anti-Saloon League, a group supporting Prohibition in Virginia.
1904 - The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia comes under the leadership of its most forceful member, James Cannon Jr.
1908 - The Anti-Saloon League of Virginia's James Cannon Jr. helps draft legislation to close notoriously unruly rural saloons.
1909 - James Cannon Jr. makes a political alliance with the conservative wing of Virginia's Democratic Party after realizing that Prohibition has little chance of passing without its help.
September 1914 - Voters endorse Prohibition in a state referendum by 30,000 votes, paving the way for Prohibition to be turned into law.
November 1, 1916 - Statewide Prohibition in Virginia goes into effect.
1924 - James Cannon Jr. begins to alienate himself from the Democratic Party by opposing the nomination of New Yorker Al Smith for president of the United States.
1928 - James Cannon Jr. breaks with the Democratic Party when it nominates Al Smith for president of the United States.
1938 - After a series of personal scandals and accusations greatly reduce his political influence, the Methodist Church assigns Bishop James Cannon Jr. to California, where he later retires.
September 6, 1944 - James Cannon Jr. dies.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Pegram, T. R. James Cannon Jr. (1864–1944). (2014, June 15). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Cannon_James_1864-1944.
- MLA Citation:
Pegram, Thomas R. "James Cannon Jr. (1864–1944)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 15 Jun. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 6, 2008 | Last modified: June 15, 2014