Some Thoughts on Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800-1860 by Ian R. Tyrrell

A substantial American Temperance movement rose and fell during the first half of the nineteenth century. Prohibitionists are often depicted as reactionaries, but this broadly-based movement was largely fueled by contemporary American notions of progress and self-improvement. And the results were, temporarily, astounding. Relying primarily at first on the power of moral suasion to instigate change in popular attitudes about drinking, the antebellum Temperance movement fomented a drastic reduction per capita consumption of alcohol over the course of a few decades; however, the various and substantial efforts of the Temperance movement backfired when many in their ranks went too far and began to support the outright legal prohibition of alcohol.

Anti-drinking activists eventually succeeded in passing prohibition laws in several municipalities and thirteen states. But these so-called “Maine Laws” proved to be immensely unpopular in practice. And by the end of the 1850s, the per capita level of alcohol consumption was higher than it had been at the beginning of the century (302).

The nineteenth century Temperance movement began in New England, spread quickly to New York City, and “eventually spurred a new wave of political activity in every northern and western state” (260). The story of how this movement grew and transformed “from temperance to teetotalism, and from moral suasion to prohibition” is deftly chronicled in Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800-1860 by Ian R. Tyrrell (10).

A common misconception is that the Temperance movement was largely a rural revolt against modernity.
However, the movement’s leaders who “are so often depicted by historians as deeply conservative were in fact encouraging and exploiting change” (128). The early Temperance movement was bolstered by the support of artisans and entrepreneurs, the type of men who saw value in being “temperate, sober, and virtuous in habits because they relied on their own exertions for upward mobility” (141). These forward-looking, upwardly-mobile men “were working to create a society of competitive individuals instilled with the virtues of sobriety and industry” (125). These early leaders of the Temperance movement were hardly reactionaries; on the contrary, they were “(P)rofoundly influenced by the spirit of romantic perfectionism which permeated antebellum social thought, the men who were most strongly committed to temperance reform in the late 1830s expressed a deep and abiding faith in man’s potential for improvement” (126).

The Temperance movement, which included but was not limited to The American Temperance Society, The American Temperance Union, The New England Tract Society, The Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, The Sons of Temperance and The Washingtonians, represented a variegated coalition of interests which included secular, spiritual, industrial, professional, and Nativist elements. In Democracy in America Alex de Tocqueville chronicles the dynamics that would propel the antebellum Temperance movement. And Tyrrell describes the impressive power and reach of voluntary democratic American organizations at this time:

Given the structure of American political and legal institution and American conceptions of democratic values, there was a premium placed upon voluntary organizations to effect change. Under such a system, it was possible for articulate and well-organized minorities to achieve much more success and influence than their sheer numbers would indicate (10).

Temperance was a thoroughly middle-class movement and it is therefore unsurprising that single factor which “most disturbed these promoters of social change was the role of liquor within lower-class life” (8). A major aim of the early Temperance movement was to “mobilize the respectable population first, so they would encourage temperance in the larger society” (8). In this spirit, it was argued that “the moderate drinker set the worst example for his fellow man” (72).

Starting in the 1830s, as the Temperance movement veered in the direction of promoting total abstinence, and its leaders began to challenge the common American assumption that the “ideal” approach to alcohol consumption was “moderation and not abstinence” (16). This was a radical shift in American attitude towards the consumption of alcohol. As Terrell notes the “popular belief that Puritans condemned the consumption of alcohol has no basis in fact” (16). On the contrary, the consumption of fermented ciders was an “integral part colonial fabric” (18).

Originally, “Temperance societies did not condemn moderate drinking because it was practiced by too many of its supporters” (42). These early activists “did not, like later temperance reformers, try to eliminate the liquor traffic but sought to regulate it” (43). In Massachusetts reformers originally “urged” the merchants of alcohol “to suspend the sale of liquor to minors and to habitual drunkards” (43). Furthermore, the “first temperance reformers especially railed against the sale of liquor by the drink to local townspeople in small retail shops licensed only to sell for consumption off the premises” (43). In the eyes of reformers, such “dramshops” did not offer any of the “socially useful purpose”, of taverns, such as “providing refreshment for the weary traveler” (43).

But support for total abstinence from alcohol would soon garner remarkable public support as demonstrated by the astronomical success of the American Temperance Society.

Within five years of the inception of its program of reform, The American Temperance Society could point to 2,200 temperance societies in the United States, embracing 170,000 members. By 1833, there were more than 6,000 societies and a million members pledged to total abstinence from the use of spirits (87).

The Washingtonians were another immensely successful pro-abstinence organization. Founded in May of 1840, the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore was dedicated to the “growing conviction among Temperance supporters that drunkards could be saved” (160). They chose their name based upon the audacious premise that President “Washington had delivered he country from its political oppression; the teetotalers believed they would liberate Americans from the greater social oppression of alcohol” (160). And their growth was spectacular. “By the end of 1841, Washingtonians claimed 12,00 adherents in Baltimore, 10,000 in New York, 5,000 in Boston, and a total of 200,000 throughout the North (160).

At their “experience meetings,” Washingtonians employed strategies that were remarkably similar to the what we see today at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: “By publicly confessing sins, reformed men felt a sense of atonement for their past. They could put their sins behind them and assert their new sobriety” (172-173). Also like AA, Washingtonians “substituted emotional and psychological appeal for the rational arguments against liquor” and functioned on the belief that “by saving others they (alcoholics) simultaneously saved themselves (163; 174) (Curiously, neither of AAs founders, William Griffith Wilson and Dr. Robert Smith, had heard of the Washingtonians.)

But many in the Temperance movement began to look for political rather than personal solutions to alcoholism. For example, The American Temperance Union

clashed with the Washingtonians over the issue of prohibition. While temperance regulars had adopted general prohibition as the ultimate aim of reform by 1840, the Washingtonians renounced all reliance on legal measures (199)

Starting in New England, a new movement for local “prohibition was a spontaneous movement without central direction from the American Temperance Society or from professional agents of any of the other temperance societies” (226). This mutation of the Temperance movement was led by people who believed that “the community had the right and the obligation to regulate the morality of the individual through law” (227). The prohibitionists were frustrated by the limitations of local solutions; therefore, over time

their concern moved outward from the local level to the state level, as they discovered the magnitude and the complexity of obtaining local solutions for intemperance (226).

These antebellum Prohibition laws mostly came and went in a spasm of self-righteousness. As Tyrrell notes, the year “1855 represented the pinnacle of achievement for the organized temperance movement in terms of power and influence” (282). Those who had dreamed that “the nation would soon be one sober republic from the Atlantic to the Pacific” were soon disappointed (282). After the ratification of the

New Hampshire prohibitory law in August 1855, not a single new state adopted prohibition for the next twenty-five years, and most of the states which had embraced prohibition in the early 1850s modified or repealed their Maine Laws in the late 1850s and 1860s (282).

The 1850s was a tempestuous decade which culminated in the massive conflagration of the Civil War. The antebellum Temperance movement went down in ashes, but it rose like a Phoenix during the twentieth century. Sadly, Americans still have not learned a major lesson of our history—when it comes to efforts to reduce the consumption of controlled substances, moral suasion is much more effective than prohibition.

by Richard W. Bray

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