Temperance and Prohibition (Three Sources)

Earlier I wrote about Thomas Pegram when commenting on the temperance movement–U.S. Temperance Movement. I encountered Pegram when he was a guest historian on the television show Who Do You Think You Are? (Kelly Clarkson’s episode). This was an important topic for early Adventists; Ellen White called Adventists to “exert their influence by precept and example—by voice and pen and vote— in favor of prohibition and total abstinence.” For more from White, see “Temperance and the License Law” (Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, November 8, 1881, pp. 289-290, PDF).* Because I knew little about the movement and the social situation out of which it grew, I wanted to learn more.

To this end I requested Pegram’s book, Battling Demon Rum (1998), via inter-library loan. I also got two others—Last Call (Okrent, 2010) and The Alcoholic Republic (Rorabaugh, 1979). The first few pages of each book speak to the bigger picture I was interested in seeing more clearly. Below are some of the excerpts that may be of interest to Adventists who wish to understand why the early leaders made such a big deal about the temperance movement.

Extent of Drinking

But the shining potential of American democracy was threatened in the eyes of many by the empire of King Alcohol. Aided by the growth of the market economy and its attendant dislocations, Americans between 1800 and 1830 drank more alcohol, on an individual basis, than at any other time in the history of the nation. During that span Americans above the age of fourteen on average consumed each year between 6.6 and 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol (current American consumption is about 2.8 gallons annually)…. In the eyes of some observers, nineteenth-century America had become a “nation of drunkards.” (Pegram, pp. 6-7)

According to the historian W. J. Rorabaugh, the chief authority on American drinking patterns in the nineteenth century, the 1820s witnessed a shift to more frequent binge drinking, both solitary and with companions. Americans, especially white men, drank hard liquor to the point of drunkenness with greater frequency. (Pegram, p. 10)

America had been awash in drink almost from the start…. In 1839 an English traveler marveled at the role liquor played in American life: “I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink,” wrote Frederick Marryat in A Diary in America. “If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink…. [T]hey begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave.” (Okrent, p. 7)

By 1810 the number of distilleries in the young nation had increased fivefold, to more than fourteen thousand, in less than two decades. By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year…. In modern times those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like. (Okrent, p. 8)

Was early nineteenth-century America really a nation of drunkards? Certainly the clergy who were crusading for temperance thought so, as excerpts from their sermons and addresses attest. These self-appointed moral guardians, convinced that a hearty indulgence in alcohol was commonplace, increasing, and unprecedented, were filled with apprehension, their sermons filled with despair. Intemperance, they warned, was widespread, “too obvious not to be noticed;” “so common, as scarcely to be thought criminal;” “the fashionable vice of the day.” They noted, too, that the United States was among the most addicted of nations, that in this respect it had out-stripped all Europe, and that “no other people ever indulged, so universally.” Even more alarming in their eyes was the fact that this intemperance was spreading “wider and wider;” “like the plague;” “throughout our country;” “with the rapidity and power of a temptest.” (Rorabaugh, p. 5)

A similar alarm was voiced by the nation’s most prominent statesmen. It was not so much the alcohol that worried them—they all drank to some extent—as its excessive use. George Washington, a whiskey distiller himself, thought that distilled spirits were “the ruin of half the workmen in this Country….” John Adams, whose daily breakfast included a tankard of hard cider, asked, “…is it not mortifying…that we, Americans, should exceed all other…people in the world in this degrading, beastly vice of intemperance?” And Thomas Jefferson, inventor of the presidential cocktail party, feared that the use of cheap, raw whiskey was “spreading through the mass of our citizens.” In 1821 George Ticknor, a wealthy Boston scholar, warned Jefferson, “If the consumption of spirituous liquors should increase for thirty years to come at the rate it has for thirty years back we should be hardly better than a nation of sots.” The Founding Fathers, fearful that the American republic would be destroyed in a flood of alcohol, were anguished and perplexed. (Rorabaugh, pp. 5-6)

Effects of Excessive Drinking

But in the estimation of many men and women, alcohol had a destructive impact on American society. Squandered wages, neglected or abused families, moral degeneration, crime, poverty, and disease were some of the costs of personal intemperance. In the public sphere, a political culture that often defined freedom and equality by the conviviality of the barroom was, in the eyes of its detractors, too willing to defend liberty at the expense of progress, to prize democratic participation as long as it excluded women and blacks, and to elevate individualism above the common good. Seen from this perspective, drinking created personal and political deviancy. (Pegram, p. xi)

Public violence and the routine display in cities of the effects of alcoholic dissipation drove some worried Americans toward temperance as a defensive measure. But for many others, temperance reform was a supremely confident, hopeful movement, reflecting the buoyant faith that Americans, by their own actions, could perfect their society. (Pegram, p. 13)

Temperance tracts combined Rush’s pronouncements on the physical cost of drinking with doleful accounts of swelling populations in almshouses, insane asylums, and jails to drive home the individual and public damage wrought by drink. By extrapolating the figures from a single county, Weld argued that liquor had produced 300,000 drunkards, 10 percent of whom died annually, and accounted for half the nation’s paupers, 80 percent of its incarcerated criminals, half of those committed to insane asylums, and nearly all its murderers. (Pegram, p. 21)

A drunken husband and father was sufficient cause for pain, but many rural and small-town women also had to endure the associated ravages born of the early saloon: the wallet emptied into a bottle; the job lost or the farmwork left undone; and, most pitilessly, a scourage that would later in the century be identified by physicians as “syphilis of the innocent”—venereal disease contracted by the wives of drink-sodden husbands who had found something more than liquor lurking in saloons. Saloons were dark and nasty places, and to the wives of the men inside, they were satanic. (Okrent, p. 16)

Advocates for Temperance and Prohibition

Inspired by religious enthusiasm, democratic hopes, and moral concerns, temperance reformers joined sabbatarians, abolitionists, women’s rights advocates, pacifists, and crusaders for reform in health, education, and the treatment of disease, crime, and poverty in ambitious efforts to improve and even perfect American society. (Pegram, p. 3)

Visions of progress for families as well as fears of violence and poverty at the hands of drunken husbands inspired many women to undertake temperance activism. (Pegram, p. 17)

Women who fulfilled their own benevolent enterprises, were particularly active in spreading petitions and raising money for local temperance societies. In doing so they began to exert public influence in ways that challenged their exclusion from formal political participation. As the historian Lori Ginzberg has noted, “Virtually all women who employed the language of moral change—those active in charity work, moral reform, temperance, and abolition—moved casually into organizing for legislative action.” (Pegram, p. 22)

By 1835, 1.5 million Americans in 8,000 affiliated associations were organized for temperance under the loose umbrella of the ATS. By succinctly diagnosing social ills and encouraging individual action to improve or even remake their lives, temperance reform had grown into a major American social movement. (Pegram, p. 23)

One of these women women was a schoolteacher named Susan B. Anthony. Another, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a journalist’s wife. Within a very few years they were joined by Lucy Stone and Amelia Bloomer, two more women whose names, like Anthony’s and Stanton’s, still resonate today for reasons seemingly far removed from the purported evils of booze.

In fact the rise of the suffrage movement was a direct consequence of the widespread Prohibition sentiment. (Okrent, p. 14)

One could make the argument that without the “liquor evil,” as it was commonly known to those who most despised it, the suffrage movement would not have drawn the talents and energies of these gifted women…. Seldes arrived at this provocative conclusion because he believed that the most urgent reasons for women to want to vote in the mid-1800s were alcohol related: They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. They wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect their children from being terrorized by them. To do all these things they needed to change the laws that consigned married women to the status of chattel. And to change the laws, they needed the vote. (Okrent, p. 15)

Religion and Temperance

The upsurge in the popularity of temperance reform was deeply influenced by the spirit, message, and methods of the Second Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that swept through the United States between 1795 and 1837. (Pegram, p. 17)

Charles Grandison Finney, the Presbyterian evangelist…was the chief exponent of an active Christianity that soon invigorated secular reform…. Once converted, Christians should work to improve their world, both out of altruism and to hasten Christ’s Second Coming. Most nineteenth-century American evangelicals were postmillennialists, that is, they believed that Christ would return to earth after the churches had stamped out immorality and defeated evil…. To zealous Christians, secular reform became a critical accompaniment of religious expression…. Evangelical urgency thereafter infused the struggle against intemperance and slavery, which most reformers identified as the chief sources of evil in American society. (Pegram, p. 18)

*NOTE: For a more modern expression of Adventist analysis of alcohol, see “The Slippery Wine Skin” (Jack Hoehn, Adventist Today, November 6, 2013).

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