Attacking Alcohol: Examining the Temperance Movement from the Early 19th Century until Prohibition

From 1920 until 1933 – beginning with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment and ending with the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment – the United States prohibited the sale, production, importation and transportation of alcoholic beverages. However, the journey to establish prohibition began over a century earlier.

The dry movement, also known as the temperance movement or the prohibition movement, had a wide variety of supporters: religious and rural conservatives as well as urban progressives; men as well as women, sometimes working together, sometimes separately; wealthy business owners who thought alcohol made their workers less productive as well as workers who thought alcohol was used to oppress them; white people who feared the perceived danger of black people drinking as well as black people who thought alcohol was a tool to limit their progress (Burns).

By the time of national prohibition, the temperance movement had already been working for decades to promote their cause. In this essay, I will discuss the improbable success of the temperance movement through the religious and economic changes in antebellum America, the movement’s reemergence and expansion in the 1870s, and the mostly political changes around the turn of the 20th century that helped prohibitionists achieve their ultimate goal.

Most scholars would argue that the temperance movement began to blossom in the early 19th century. Coinciding with America’s Second Great Awakening, as early as the 1810s, religious leaders denounced alcohol. Reverend Leonard Bacon of New Haven, Connecticut, was one of the earliest leaders to recognize what most people already knew – ‘drunkenness,’ as alcoholism was then known, affected all levels of society (Lender, 88).  Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe and other influential children) was another one of the earliest leaders to denounce “the habit of excessive drinking,” which he called more generally “intemperance” (Burns). Around 1814, Beecher wrote, delivered and published six sermons on intemperance, which were spread around the country.

These two men reflect larger changes in America. Many in society began to aim “to discipline society and to create a society of predictable individuals devoted to self-improvement” (Tyrrell, 120). Particularly for many evangelicals, two theological shifts – ‘disinterested benevolence’ and ‘perfectionism’ – led to an emphasis on social reform, especially on a national level, during the antebellum period in America known as the Second Great Awakening (Graber, 2097). While American evangelical activism covered an extremely diverse range of issues, the temperance movement represented arguably “the biggest arm of the moral suasion movement” (Graber, 2098).

The notion of disinterested benevolence largely affected Calvinist groups (such as Congregationalists and Presbyterians) (Graber, 2097). While Calvinists had long affirmed that original sin left all of humanity corrupt and depraved, 18th century New England minister Samuel Hopkins argued that corruption manifested itself as selfishness, and that people should engage in “charitable action motivated not by self-interest but by sympathy,” which he called disinterested benevolence (Graber, 2097). Disinterested benevolence, which was part of the Calvinist New Divinity movement, contrasted with Enlightenment thinkers who claimed that self-interest led to virtuous actions (Graber, 2097).

The theology of perfectionism, on the other hand, influenced Protestants who were not Calvinists (Graber, 2097). In the 18th century, British religious leader John Wesley, and his followers who came to be known as Methodists, argued that “people could and therefore were morally obligated to live lives of personal and social holiness” (Graber, 2098). Essentially, the theology of perfectionism encouraged people to immediately attempt to overcome personal and social sin and strive toward perfection (Graber, 2098).

But it wasn’t only religious shifts that helped promote the temperance movement. Economic changes, especially urbanization and industrialization in the Northeast, created the conditions for the temperance movement to flourish. While, during Prohibition, many ‘dry’ movements were usually rural and reactionary, urban progressives, especially in New England, heavily supported the temperance movement. In fact, in “Temperance and Economic Change in the Antebellum North,” Tyrrell wrote, “in 1831, over one-third of all the temperance pledges came from New England, a region which held only 18 percent of the nation’s free population. In contrast, the Southern states supplied 8.5 percent of temperance pledges but comprised about 22.5 percent of the free population. These patterns of temperance activity broadly correlate with the growth of urbanization and the beginnings of industrialization in the Northeast” (Tyrrell, 120).

For example, the famous American Temperance Society was a product of New England. In 1826, in Boston, the previously mentioned Lyman Beecher co-founded the American Temperance Society, which was the first national society to work toward a society where “temperance, with all its attendant blessings, may universally prevail” (Burns). By 1829, the American Temperance Society had over a thousand chapters with a total membership of almost a hundred thousand. Within ten years of the group’s founding, it had over eight thousand chapters and an estimated total of 1.5 million members (Tyrrell, 120). Originally, the temperance movement, which included the American Temperance Society, aimed to change personal behavior through persuasion, rather than through legal changes (Graber, 2098).

While organizations like the American Temperance Society aimed to limit drinking and attracted members of various backgrounds, other groups like the Washingtonians aimed to specifically help the “drunkards” themselves. In a sense, the Washingtonians were a prototype of the 20th century organization, Alcoholics Anonymous, although the Alcoholics Anonymous founders weren’t familiar with the Washingtonians. In 1840, six alcoholics in Baltimore, Maryland founded the Washingtonians, also known as “A Society of Reformed Drunkards.” By sharing their stories and experiences with each other and watching out for each other, the Washingtonians aimed to help those who struggled with alcohol abuse. At the group’s peak, it had over half a million men (Burns). Although the Washingtonians helped many Americans, some clergymen denounced the group because they seemed to promote the idea that drunkards could be reformed with the help of others, rather than the help of God.

In the 1850s, several states passed prohibition laws, which were victories for the American Temperance Society and the temperance movement as a whole. However, by 1860, most state prohibition laws were off the books (Burns). While the temperance movement gained ground and power in the early nineteenth century, the Civil War largely delayed the temperance movement. At the time, there were no federal income taxes, so the federal government was largely dependent upon revenue from alcohol taxes. With the financial burden of the Civil War, rather than discouraging the sale of alcohol, the federal government helped legitimize the liquor trade in order to tax it. Alcohol taxes often made up over a third of the federal government’s revenue, and, during some years, made up as much as seventy percent of the federal revenue (Burns).

Although the temperance movement lost a great deal of momentum during the American Civil War, it was simply delayed – not destroyed. Passionately reemerging in the 1870s, the temperance movement tried to promote their cause by trying to control alcohol education in public schools, to mobilize churches to support their views, and to keep the lecture series full of speakers denouncing alcohol (Lender, 88). But arguably the temperance movement’s greatest tool was the “Temperance Tales,” which effectively used literature and graphic arts (essentially propaganda, and often medically inaccurate) to denounce the evils of drink (Lender, 88). The “Temperance Tales” were collections of illustrations, novels, short stories, and plays, concerned exclusively with the dangers of drink (Lender, 88). Such propaganda first appeared during the antebellum reform movement, and was especially popular before the Civil War. For example, the Temperance Tales included quotes such as, “You will hardly find an instance of degradation, of pauperism, of great crime which has its origin more or less in intemperance” (Lender, 88). Because of these Temperance Tales, the drunkard stereotype was heavily entrenched in American culture before the major temperance movement even started, and especially before medical research established that it could affect anyone (Lender, 88).

However, as science progressed, ‘drunkenness’ was no longer only a moral concern, but a medical concern as well. In the 1860s, Dr. Albert Day, one of America’s best-informed medical specialists on alcoholism, wrote that drunkenness was “a habit which permeates all society, from the highest to the lowest” (Lender, 88). Despite the stereotypes of the classless Skid Row drunkard (which still remain today), even the Women’s Christian Temperance Union stressed that people of all classes could be “ruined by drink,” and that it was “not only the dull, ignorant, and vicious man who becomes a drunkard” (Lender, 88).

Especially in the late 19th century, women became especially active and involved in the temperance movement, which was often called “The Women’s Crusade” (Burns). In fact, in many ways, the temperance movement ignited, coincided and enabled the women’s suffrage movement. For example, famous social reformer and feminist Susan B. Anthony, along with fellow-reformer and friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founded their own women’s temperance society after Anthony wasn’t allowed to speak at a temperance conference because she was a woman (Burns). In the 1870s, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was founded in Ohio (Burns). It should be noted that many WCTU members were also feminists; by the end of the nineteenth century, the group had more members than other women’s organizations, including those aimed specifically at female suffrage (Graber, 2101). During the time period, women had very, very few rights. Women often didn’t have a way to address many of their concerns; for example, victims of domestic abuse or marital rape couldn’t get help from police. However, while actively and publicly denouncing domestic abuse wasn’t a serious possibility for many women at the time, denouncing alcohol was a relatively accepted way to address their concerns. By attacking alcohol, reformers, especially women, were attacking male prerogatives – drunken husbands failed their wife and kids (Kingsdale, 130). Alcohol, in a sense, was used a scapegoat for some of the problems that women faced, abuse and other types of negative behavior that alcohol often enabled (Burns).

To be clear, not all temperance activists were peaceful. Carrie Nation in Kansas took a much more forceful approach, often physically vandalizing and destroying saloons with her hatchet. Nation’s mother died in an insane asylum, and many wondered about Carrie Nation’s sanity as well (Burns). Nation’s first husband died of alcoholism, which was another reason the cause was special for her. Nation had no moral issues with her vigilante-tactics. Kansas had already banned the sale of alcohol in every county, yet saloons and alcohol in general were far from gone, often with the help of government officials. When the state failed to enforce the alcohol ban, Carrie Nation, convinced God wanted her to do so, took the law into her own hands (Burns). While Carrie Nation didn’t change much nationally, she did bring a lot of attention to her cause.

As the 20th century began, the temperance movement became even more closely aligned with urban progressives. When Lyman Beecher first spoke against alcohol in the early 19th century, fewer than one in ten Americans lived in a city (Burns). However, by the early 20th century, almost half of Americans lived in cities, and the overall population increased by ten times (Burns). Eventually, the WCTU joined the Prohibition Party and the Anti-Saloon League in order to affect national legislation (Graber, 2102).

Many sentiments were exploited in order to promote the cause of prohibition. For example, William Anderson, the superintendent of the New York Anti-Saloon League, utilized the pre-existing fears of small-town, rural Americans, who feared the un-American immigrants and their saloons. Overall, native-born, middle or upper class men and women largely led the anti-saloon leagues. Xenophobia has been present throughout American history, and played a significant role in boosting the temperance movement. Saloons, perhaps even more so than alcohol itself, were the target of many reformers; saloons were symbols of wickedness (Kingsdale, 130). For many ethnic, working-class, male immigrants, especially Germans and the Irish, the saloon was a social center and meeting house (Kingsdale, 130). As Kingsdale pointed out, “The saloon was more than a social institution within the working-class neighborhood: It was also a cultural symbol in the ongoing tensions between social groups and between the sexes” (Kingsdale, 130). Many of the saloon-goers were Catholic, especially many, if not most, Irish-Americans. The anti-Catholic sentiment from the more dominant WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) helped associate drinking with Catholics, further demonizing the saloons (Burns). Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League gained significant political power, especially in Ohio, by making prohibition a wedge issue (Burns). Personally, Wheeler had a drunken uncle and was hurt by a drunken farmhand in his youth, strengthening his anti-alcohol feelings. He emphasized the contrast between rural America and urban America, saying that God made country and man made the town (Burns).

Especially with World War I, the temperance movement reached new levels of success. With the government actively spreading anti-German propaganda, Wheeler and others utilized the anti-German feelings by associating the mostly German brewers with treason (Burns). Additionally harmful to the brewers, during the war, the government limited grain to use as food rather than alcohol, which also put a heavy dent in America’s alcohol production (Burns). There were a thousand breweries before World War I started, but more than half of those closed during the war (Burns).

Of course, the temperance movement wasn’t completely unopposed. For example, the United States Brewers’ Association as well as the National German American Alliance, both of which largely consisted of German-American brewers, made efforts to limit the temperance movement (Burns). In the same way that anti-German sentiments were used to promote temperance, the National German American Alliance, which originally focused on simply promoting German culture in general, began to focus on stopping prohibition, utilizing German pride (Burns). Such organizations targeted prohibitionists with various tactics, such as advertising and marketing beer as a healthy beverage, bribing newspapers to write against the Anti-Saloon League, and even paying some of the poll taxes in Texas for Mexican-Americans and African-Americans, whom the brewers hoped would support their cause (Burns). In the brewers’ attempts to promote beer, their advertising often demonized distillers and hard liquor, presenting beer as a healthier alternative. However, in such attempts to protect their own business, they helped demonize hard liquor, which helped the prohibitionists’ cause overall (Burns).

Those opposing prohibition faced many hurdles. Discussing the decline of saloons in America, Powers wrote, “Their political unsophistication, lack of resources, and sheer inertia were partially responsible, especially when compared to the organization, funding, and fervor of the temperance coalition” (Powers, 143). Additionally, the onslaught of anti-alcohol propaganda discouraged many people who did choose to drink from speaking out publicly (Powers, 143). However, until the early 20th century, the sale of alcohol was safe from prohibition because the federal government depended upon revenue from taxing alcohol (Burns). Especially after the Civil War significantly legitimized the alcohol industry, alcohol taxes, in some years, made up seventy percent of all federal revenue (Burns).

The situation drastically changed in 1913 with the passing of the Sixteenth Amendment, which enabled the federal government to impose a national income tax (Burns). Prohibitionists joined other progressives in promoting the institution of the income tax; by eliminating the government’s dependence on revenue from alcohol, it was far more realistic to ban alcohol nationally (Burns).

In 1919, the temperance movement achieved their ultimate victory with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibited the production, transport and sale of alcoholic beverages in America (Burns). In 1920, Prohibition took effect nationwide. The Volstead Act, conceived and drafted by the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler, was enacted to enforce prohibition.

Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, the temperance movement endured, embraced and caused a wide variety of changes that touched almost all aspects of American life. While the prohibition of alcohol didn’t last forever, it’s important to understand how alcohol came to be prohibited. Especially today, with America’s War on Drugs causing significant problems, the lessons of prohibition’s failure are arguably more important than ever.