Temperance and Temperance Movement

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From the 1780s through the 1820s, Americans drank a great deal of alcohol. The per capita consumption in those decades, more than twice that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, was the highest ever recorded in American history. Distilled spirits, especially rum and whiskey, were the favorite drinks, with beer and wine consumed much less often. Because so many farmers turned their grain into whiskey, the price was low and the supply plentiful. Homemade hard cider was also cheap and easy to make.

pervasiveness of alcohol

Before the 1820s, most Americans had no misgivings about the moderate use of liquor. In towns and cities, it was purer than water, more readily available than milk, and less expensive than tea and coffee. At meals, a glass of whiskey or cider enlivened the ubiquitous diet of fried meat and corn. At work, manual laborers believed that frequent small drinks throughout the day improved their stamina. In sickness, liquor was believed to have medicinal value, and few doctors disputed that claim. At community ceremonies—barn raisings, elections, court days, fairs, dances, militia musters—alcohol appropriately enhanced the festivities. In short, Americans had made liquor an integral part of everyday life.

In those years, oversight by the government was modest. Local and county officials issued licenses for the sale of liquor, granting the privilege to innkeepers, retailers, and dramshops (later called bars). Although unlicensed vendors were occasionally prosecuted, enforcement of license laws was sporadic. Drunkards were frequently arrested, but usually for disorderly conduct rather than intoxication. Another means of regulation, taxation, was unpopular, as western farmers made clear by their fierce opposition to the federal tax on domestic distilled spirits levied in 1791.

the temperance movement begins

In the 1810s, organized opposition to heavy drinking began to take shape. Evangelical Protestant ministers in various states became more outspoken, dwelling on the spiritual dangers to Christian youth who drank. Salvation depended on proper conduct, not just pious beliefs, and even moderate drinking could be harmful. Religious revivals spread the conviction that sin was not ineradicable; free will could and should be exerted to combat threats to moral purity.

In 1813 the first sizable temperance society emerged. The Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (MSSI) attracted several hundred prominent Boston men and sponsored local auxiliaries throughout the state. The nonsectarian MSSI assailed intemperance on religious grounds but, as would be the case with temperance advocates throughout the century, they also stressed the economic and social consequences of inebriation. Poverty, crime, and insanity supposedly stemmed from the abuse of liquor. To improve conditions, the MSSI urged town officials to arrest illegal sellers as well as drunkards. The MSSI members also hoped that the example of their own moderate drinking would prompt others to emulate their restraint, although they doubted that habitual drunkards could be reformed. Within five years, it was clear that the MSSI's exertions had made little headway. Without full time staff, charismatic leadership, newspapers, and other methods to gain widespread support, the MSSI never rallied enough people to convince local officials to do what the MSSI wanted.

american temperance society

A more vigorous organization, the American Temperance Society (ATS), spread rapidly after its creation in 1826. The ATS relied on evangelical ministers for its leadership, but it consciously sought a large nondenominational membership. Unlike the MSSI, the ATS wanted every sober man and woman to remain so by joining a local temperance society and signing a pledge to abstain from all distilled liquors (after the mid-1830s, wine and beer were also proscribed by a "long" pledge). The goal was to make drinking unfashionable and disreputable by convincing every decent American to abstain.

The ATS worked hard to get people to join. Itinerant agents organized state, county, and local auxiliaries. The first temperance newspaper publicized the reform. Hundreds of short pamphlets disseminated sermons and addresses. The energetic recruitment yielded approximately 1.5 million members in 8,000 societies by 1835. Nearly one in every five free white adults joined, with the proportion lower in the southern states than elsewhere. As the numbers rose, many towns had more than one society, with young men's societies especially popular. Women, who accounted for approximately half of the national membership, occasionally formed separate groups. A group largely absent from the movement before the 1840s were former drunkards—their conversion was not a goal of the ATS—and free blacks, Indians, and slaves were not recruited.

the popularity of temperance

The sudden and widespread popularity of temperance cannot be understood solely in terms of evangelical religion or ATS proselytizing. Men and women devoted to causes other than temperance realized that the drink reform movement resonated with and strengthened their particular interests. They knew that the temperance pledge represented values they respected. For instance, employers in factories, mills, shops, and offices prized the punctuality, self-control, and frugality of a young man who abstained. Temperance became a symbol of dedication to economic as well as spiritual self-improvement. Furthermore, many women believed that abstinence was a pledge to a tranquil family life marked by kindness rather than cruelty. Temperance sermons and addresses often cast wives, mothers, and children as the victims of drunken rage.

The moral influence of the abstainers did not convince everyone. Although liquor consumption dropped sharply in the 1830s and 1840s, very few liquor sellers voluntarily quit their work. By the mid-1830s, some local and state temperance societies began to seek legal relief. Rather than prosecute illicit sellers, they pressured local and county officials to withhold all licenses. "Local option" allowed regions within a state to be "dry." Whig Party candidates and voters were more inclined to favor "no-license" than the Democrats, but the issue divided both parties and was approached warily whenever it arose in election campaigns. Because the illegal sale of liquor continued and remained difficult to prosecute, by the early 1850s temperance crusaders sought statewide prohibition. A surge of Irish immigrants at that time made the goal especially appealing as abstainers once again celebrated their reform as the quick and reliable way to determine who was and was not respectable.

See alsoAlcohol Consumption; Alcoholic Beverages and Production; Reform, Social; Revivals and Revivalism; Whiskey Rebellion; Women: Female Reform Societies and Reformers .


Hampel, Robert L. Temperance and Prohibition in Massachusetts, 1813–1852. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research, 1982.

Rohrer, James R. "The Origins of the Temperance Movement: A Reinterpretation." Journal of American Studies 24 (1990): 228–235.

Rorabaugh, W. J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Tyrrell, Ian R. Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800–1860. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Robert L. Hampel