Reform Movements: Temperance
Reform Movements: Temperance
Way of Life. The consumption of hard liquor and fermented beverages such as cider, beer, and wine was an everyday occurrence for most Americans in the early 1800s. Workers received grog from their employers as part of their pay or during morning and afternoon breaks. Clean drinking water was not always available, but in the North and West where apple groves flourished, fermented cider was plentiful, so many Americans drank cider and other alcoholic beverages with meals and to quench their thirst. Americans also believed that liquor had restorative or medicinal properties and that it was essentially healthy. A drink of whiskey before breakfast was recommended, as was a nip of hard liquor before a meal to aid in digestion or before bed at night to hasten sleep. Liquor was also a part of the social fabric. Politicians passed out drinks freely to their constituents before elections, even on election day. Horace Greeley, who grew up in rural Vermont, recalled, “In my childhood there was no merry-making, there was no entertainment of relatives or friends, there was scarcely a casual gathering of two or three neighbors for an evening’s social chat, without strong drink.” In the first two decades of the nineteenth century alcohol consumption rose sharply as whiskey became widely available and its price plummeted to twenty-five cents a gallon. By 1820 the average American drank seven gallons of alcoholic beverages a year.
Social Evil. Although some in the early 1800s had warned about the individual and social effects of so much drinking, organized efforts at curbing alcohol consumption did not begin until the 1820s, at a time when Americans were drinking more than ever. The clergy spearheaded the movement, which was grounded in the revivalism that was spreading across the nation. Liquor was portrayed as a sinister temptation from the devil, and many clergymen saw it as their duty to rescue their fellow Christians. The Reverend John Pierpont preached, “If I be willingly accessory to my brother’s death, by a pistol or a cord, the law holds me guilty; but guiltless if I mix his death drink in a cup. The halter is my reward if I bring him his death in a bowl of hemloc; if in a glass of spirits, I am rewarded with his purse.” To those who rose up in opposition to alcohol, intemperate drinking seemed to be the root of all social evil: it filled the prisons with criminals, the almshouses with the destitute, and the reform schools with juvenile delinquents. Perhaps most shocking, it caused otherwise upright husbands to leave their families destitute, spending all their money on drink instead of clothing and food, and committing violent acts against their wives and children when they came home drunk at night. Moved by what they saw as a social crisis as well as one of the soul, temperance reformers organized in unprecedented numbers.
Abstinence. Through the early 1820s the temperance campaign reached mostly middle-class Christians (many of them women) who joined the movement by promising to drink only moderately although most were not heavy drinkers to begin with. Some temperance leaders, dissatisfied with limited progress, called for more-drastic measures in the form of abstinence from hard liquor (although many still allowed the consumption of fermented drinks such as cider, beer, and wine). Hundreds of temperance societies sprang up, and the first national temperance organization, the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, was created in 1826. By 1834 the Society boasted five thousand local chapters and a national membership of one million. Lecturers, or missionaries, gave rousing sermons to the unconverted, urging them to sign abstinence pledges. Pamphlets and periodicals full of pleas for boycotts of grogshops and taverns as well as illustrative stories of drunken depravity were dispersed all over the country. Temperance hotels were built so that travelers could stay at dry establishments. Temperance women patronized only those grocery stores that had banned liquor. Members of Congress even caught the bug, eager to show their constituents that they too had signed pledges of abstinence. The temperance movement had a profound impact on America’s drinking habits, with the result that the average American drank only three gallons of alcohol a year in 1840 (down from seven in 1820).
Prohibition. More than individual abstinence was needed, though, according to some leaders. Within the ranks of the national society, some members called for an emphasis not on the drinker but on the maker and seller of alcoholic beverages. In the mid 1830s, when the American Temperance Union was formed out of the American Temperance Society and other local societies, it quickly broke into factions: those supporting legislative prohibition of alcohol and those resisting such measures. In the process the temperance movement lost much of its power although prohibitionists did gain some victories. Massachusetts passed a bill in 1838 prohibiting the sale of liquor in quantities smaller than fifteen gallons. The law was repealed in 1840, but the state passed a local option law that allowed localities to ban liquor, which proved to be effective. In 1845 one hundred towns in the state were liquor free. Maine witnessed the most intense efforts at prohibition, with Neal Dow leading the fight. By 1846 the state passed a statewide prohibition act, precursor to the more sweeping Maine Law of 1851. Other states were inspired by Maine’s lead, and throughout the 1850s fourteen states from Rhode Island to Wisconsin passed “Maine laws.”
Washingtonians. While the national temperance movement foundered on the issue of prohibition, another crusade to end drinking picked up momentum. In 1840 a small group of Baltimore’s working-class men, themselves heavy drinkers, were convinced by the reasoning of a temperance lecturer to give up drink and decided to form their own society, named after the nation’s first president, to help others do the same. What was different about this group was that the members once had been heavy drinkers themselves, the types temperance leaders railed against and warned good Christians about. Unlike middle-class temperance workers, who tended to believe that drunkards were irredeemable, the Washingtonians hoped to reach men like themselves with the appeal of shared experience. The group adopted methods that prefigured Alcoholics Anonymous: new members first pledged total abstinence, then told their own stories of depravity and regeneration, gained support from other members who had had similar experiences, and, finally, encouraged others to join them in their pledge. The movement quickly swept across the country, and by 1842 the organization claimed to have gained six hundred thousand pledges of abstinence. Although the Washingtonians gained the support of many mainstream temperance workers, others disdained their emotionalism and suspected that the reform was not genuine. While the group changed the lives of many supposedly irredeemable alcoholics who would have been otherwise neglected by the predominately middle-class temperance movement, it is clear that there were also many backsliders who returned to their old ways once the initial euphoria had passed. By 1843 most members had joined other societies, many of them new fraternal organizations such as the Order of the Sons of Temperance.
Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin, Drinking in America: A History (New York: Free Press, 1987);