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The Temperance Movement

The temperance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries was an organized effort to encourage moderation in the consumption of intoxicating liquors or press for complete abstinence. The movement's ranks were mostly filled by women who, with their children, had endured the effects of unbridled drinking by many of their menfolk. In fact, alcohol was blamed for many of society's demerits, among them severe health problems, destitution and crime. At first, they used moral suasion to address the problem.

Temperance efforts existed in antiquity, but the movement really came into its own as a reaction to the pervasive use of distilled beverages in modern times. The earliest organizations in Europe came into being in Ireland in the 1820s, then swept to Scotland and Britain. Norway and Sweden saw movements rise in the 1830s. In the United States, a pledge of abstinence had been promulgated by various preachers, notably John Bartholomew Gough, at the beginning of the 1800s. Temperance associations were established in New York (1808) and Massachusetts (1813). The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance (1826) was interdenominational. Thanks largely to the lead from the pulpit, some 6,000 local temperance groups in many states were up and running by the 1830s.

The movement existed in a matrix of unrest and intellectual ferment in which such other social ills as slavery, neglect and ill-treatment of marginalized people, were addressed by liberals and conservatives alike. Sometimes called the First Reform Era, running through the 1830s and '40s, it was a period of inclusive humanitarian reform.

The first statewide success for the temperance movement was in Maine, which passed a law on June 2, 1851, which served as model for other states. Proponents suggested that it was motivated by a justified concern for the public welfare, but not all agreed. An anonymous letter which appeared in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review^ (May 1852) suggested that:

The sphere of individual liberty must be shrunken, indeed, if it cannot enclose all that lies within a man's skin, and the powers of the ruler, extensive indeed, if they can reach down the citizen's throat and explore his digestive organs. It is not mere bombast to declare that the esophagus, the duodenum, lacticals, and capillary ducts of free-born Americans are, and of right should be, forever inviolable; and that if the Declaration of Independence does not avail to save the contents of our stomachs and bladders from chemical analysis and legislative discussion, it is full time to make another declaration that shall mean something.
The argument, with minor changes, has been applied against the efforts of the War on Drugs in the 20th century and invasive scanning at airports in the 21st. One of the temperance movement's characteristics was international cooperation. Some believe the first U.S. group that acquired that dimension was the Order of the Good Templars founded in Utica, New York (1851), which eventually boasted chapters in many parts of the world. Also in the United States, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (1874) and the Anti-Saloon League (1895) quickly picked up steam. As these groups gathered political power, their strategy changed from moral suasion to agitation for government control of liquor, using social, educational and political tactics. In fact, they succeeded in getting many liquor laws passed nationwide, partly thanks to backing from churches as well as industrialists who faced poor worker productivity and absenteeism. The WCTU became international in scope in the 1880s.

Some of the most notable figures associated with the U.S. temperance movement were Susan B. Anthony, Frances E. Willard and Carry A. Nation (the latter worked on her own). The effects of their efforts and thousands of other advocates included:

  • Government regulation
  • Instruction on alcoholism in schools
  • Energized study of alcoholism.

The temperance movement crested when the 18th Amendment to the Constitution (text) (Prohibition, 1919-33) was passed and ratified. The frank failure of Prohibition (repealed by the 21st Amendment) sealed the movement's fate as it lost steam.

The lifespan of the temperance movement reached a second reform era, Progressivism. This period was characterized by maturing social and governmental efforts to reform society, whose roots lay in the 19th century. These reforms included women's suffrage and equal pay, birth control, child labor reform, the eight-hour day and environmental conservation, among others.

The most well-known temperance effort since the movement's heyday has been Alcoholics Anonymous. This widespread and venerable organization advocates total abstinence, but treats alcoholism as a disease and does not seek governmental control of the liquor industry.

See Constitution (narrative).