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Case Study: Temperance

Right from colonial times, many Americans were concerned that heavy alcohol consumption in our country was fueling crime, poverty, family neglect, lost work, violence, and other social problems. Charitable action to temper alcohol use emerged after the War of 1812, amidst worries about the discipline and industriousness of everyday citizens in our young democracy. This first effort peaked in the mid-1800s—when close to half of all states put into effect full or partial bans on alcoholic beverages. After the Civil War, America’s temperance movement gathered momentum again, culminating in a national ban on selling intoxicants that was put into effect from 1920 to 1933 by Constitutional amendment. While government prohibition ultimately failed, the multi-generational civil movement to encourage more temperate use of alcohol was profoundly successful in changing America.

An alcoholic haze

“Americans drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn.” That’s how one historian described the 1800s. That an alcoholic haze hung over many of our communities is backed up by hard numbers. In 1823, the average adult American imbibed seven and a half gallons of alcohol each year. This is the equivalent, notes author Daniel Okrent, of consuming more than a bottle and a half of standard 80-proof liquor, per adult, every single week. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, more money was spent on alcoholic drinks than the total expenditure of the national government.

In 1890, San Francisco hosted one saloon for every 58 residents—counting men, women, and children. That same year, Jacob Riis counted saloons in Manhattan for his book How the Other Half Lives. Just in the area south of 14th Street, which was packed with poor immigrants, he found 4,065 booze shops. (The same district was home to 111 churches.) Riis described how drunkard parents would send their children to bars with a tin pail to have it filled with beer. They coated their buckets with lard on the inside to keep the foam down and maximize the quantity of lager received.

Reform schools and workhouses were filled with heavy drinkers. An 1833 survey of the inmates of Auburn Prison found that 57 percent had been drunk when they committed the crime they were incarcerated for. Three quarters of the men admitted to being habitual heavy drinkers.

Plenty of propaganda and exploitation went into building up this level of drinking. The president of one of the distiller associations pressed Congress to give liquor to soldiers to “insure the steadiness of nerve that wins battles…. The man who rushes a rapid-fire gun should be given the relief from terror that alcohol imparts.” Cheap gin was created specifically to be marketed to impoverished blacks in the South at fifty cents per pint. Children were directly taken advantage of. Speaking at one distillers’ meeting, a dealer urged that “we must create the appetite for liquor in the growing boys…. Nickels expended in treats to boys now will return in dollars to your tills after the appetite has been formed.” Brewers pushed the idea that beer was “healthful,” and that it would calm children. (See period advertisements nearby.)

In addition to damaged health, family turmoil, workplace costs, and other nasty social fallout, the high rate of alcohol consumption degraded American politics. Brewers and distillers spent large amounts of money to buy votes, influence elections, bribe journalists, and so forth. The saloon became the headquarters for corrupt machine politics. In 1884, fully half of the members of New York City’s board of aldermen were saloonkeepers, and a third of the others owed their posts to backing by saloon owners. A worker at a charity that helped immigrants in Boston said that “the affiliation between the saloon and politics was so close that for all practical purposes the two might have been under one and the same control.” Selling your vote for the price of a day’s bar tab was very common.

Close-up on two groups of activists: women and entrepreneurs

Stepping up to battle the problems that resulted from heavy alcohol use were a series of volunteer and charitable organizations: the American Temperance Society, the Temperance Union, Washingtonian Societies, the Order of the Sons of Temperance, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Anti-Saloon League, and many others. Three main categories of Americans drove the temperance movement: 1) evangelical Christians acting as part of their larger commitment to improve human life through benevolent service, 2) reformist business entrepreneurs fired by a vision of national progress through personal industry and social improvement, and 3) women.

Daniel Okrent notes that women were often indirect and entirely innocent victims of alcohol:

A drunken husband and father was sufficient cause for pain, but many women also had to endure the associated ravages born of the early saloon: the wallet emptied into a bottle, the job lost or farmwork left undone, and most pitilessly…venereal disease contracted by the wives of drink-sodden husbands who had found something more than liquor lurking in saloons.

Women traumatized by alcohol discovered how vulnerable they were on many levels. They wanted saloons regulated, but they also needed action on other fronts.

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.

The leading appeal made by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union was “Home Protection.” That was broadly popular. And it fed the appetite for voting rights for women. Many suffragists, including Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony began their public lives as temperance activists and shifted to voting rights after. It is no accident that our Constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment enfranchising women was ratified exactly one year after the Eighteenth Amendment banished most alcohol sales.

Activist businessmen who resembled and foreshadowed today’s entrepreneurial philanthropists took important roles in reducing alcohol abuse.

Self-made businessmen were another major force behind the temperance drive, both as organizers and as funders. In many fascinating ways, these activist entrepreneurs resemble and foreshadow the entrepreneurial philanthropists who are so influential in civic reform today. Based on close study of the individuals who led and donated money to the civil movement against alcohol, scholar Ian Tyrrell reports that these Americans were

not the reactionary, provincial movement of popular belief.... On the contrary, temperance reformers…optimistically predicted the improvement of the moral state of society…. They were men who were working to create a society of competitive individuals instilled with the virtues of sobriety and industry…. They were excited by the economic progress and vast potential of the United States. Because the nation’s character was still being forged, temperance reformers believed that they had a unique opportunity to shape the future.

It’s natural that economic strivers and improvers would be interested in temperance. And mass drunkenness was an obvious problem. More than three quarters of the 7,000 business leaders who answered an official questionnaire in 1897 expressed concern about alcohol abuse among their employees.

Many of the public-spirited businessmen trying to change drinking habits were the same ones involved in creating public libraries, mechanics institutes, worker lyceums, and YMCAs. They wanted to encourage self-improvement, moral refinement, and education among laborers. And they believed that modern organizing (such as the new charitable groups) and modern technology (like steam-powered printing presses) offered fresh ways of enlightening individuals and strengthening society.

Like many current entrepreneurs who turn to philanthropy to improve American life, the business leaders taking part in the temperance movement often expressed dual motivations. One was a sense of their own rising influence and responsibilities. A second impulsion came from their unease that hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens lived miserably in a land of great richness. These yielded an “urge to transform the moral condition of society,” as Tyrrell puts it. And these men were “prepared to disrupt the social order to achieve their ends.”

Edward Delavan was a self-made businessman who made a fortune in the hardware trade in the 1820s. He then retired on his investments at an early age and devoted himself to what he called “the improvement of mankind.” He was religious, as well as an idealistic advocate of practical progress. He became the influential secretary of the New York State Temperance Society, and spent 30 years financing and guiding the movement for sobriety to ever-wider success.

John Cocke, who served as president of the American Temperance Union from 1836 to 1843, and provided funding his whole life long, founded enterprises that smelted copper, and built canals and railroads. His business partner Christian Keener was also an important temperance activist, and the chief donor to the Maryland Temperance Society. Anson Phelps, also in mining and smelting, was one of the wealthiest industrialists in the country, and a major temperance supporter. George Odiorne was an advanced iron manufacturer and wealthy banker who gave loyally of both money and time.

Matthias Baldwin was a technologist who became wealthy after greatly improving the design of locomotives. Wholly self-made, he viewed his temperance philanthropy as one of the best ways he could help others discipline and improve themselves and follow him into success. Daniel Fanshaw was an improver of the printing process in America. He directly applied his skills in modern communications on behalf of the New York City Temperance Society.

Three Tappan brothers—not only the well-known Arthur and Lewis but also brother John, who served on the executive board of the American Temperance Society—ranked for years among the top bankrollers of temperance organizing. Like most of the others I have just cited, the Tappans were highly innovative in the ways they made their money. And moral considerations were important not only in their philanthropy but also in their business practices. Lewis’s creation of the first system for rating the credit-worthiness of businesses and businessmen, for instance, was important in cleaning up the world of finance, and introducing rational moral considerations into commerce.

Many more such world-changing businessmen put energy into the temperance crusade—right up to John Rockefeller, who, in addition to being America’s most successful business creator ever, was a lifelong Baptist and a teetotaler. He was a steadfast financial supporter of the Anti-Saloon League. Rockefeller would match with an additional 10 percent from his own pocket whatever the ASL was able to raise from donors every year.

The temperance philanthropists believed that alleviating problem-drinking would require individual transformation. But they also thought it required societal change. They wanted to speed both kinds of reform. Opposing them was much of the establishment. Lawyers, old money, settled merchants, non-evangelical clergy, and defenders of the status quo mostly discounted the temperance vision for a better life, or actively fought it.

A multipronged attempt to persuade

The civil-action portion of the anti-alcohol campaign (before it turned into a Constitutional amendment) was built on persuasion. It became a multimedia effort, propelled by millions of published words, the most popular public speakers of the day, school curricula pumped across the country, prominent blue-ribbon commissions, celebrity endorsements, popular songs and entertainments. It involved one of the widest coalitions ever assembled for social change, running from unionists to manufacturers, political conservatives to avowed radicals, rural pastors to urban settlement-house activists, very rich to very poor. There were charitable groups working to change conditions at every level: nationally, in states and counties, within workplaces, through individuals signing personal pledges. In many of these undertakings, temperance went from strength to strength, meeting disappointment only when it devolved into federal command and control.

Abraham Lincoln was a supporter. In an 1842 speech he said “the temperance revolution” could break individual “bondage” and “slavery” of the most tyrannical sort, and offer “more of want supplied, more disease healed, more sorrow assuaged” than nearly any other social reform. He expressed excitement that “the cause itself seems suddenly transformed from a cold abstract theory to a living, breathing, active, and powerful” force.

Lincoln was particularly appreciative that temperance proponents were relying on empathetic argument. “When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced,” he urged, “persuasion, kind unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted.” The anti-alcohol persuaders he admired understood that problem drinkers were often “their old friends and companions. They know they are not demons.” So the campaigners engaged as “practical philanthropists, and they glow with a generous and brotherly zeal.”

These empathetic activists first sought moderation. And even for the alcohol-addicted they called not for laws or sentences but for individual pledges of abstinence—backed and made workable by a whole architecture of peer support, familiar to anyone today who knows how Alcoholics Anonymous works. Reasoning, education, and mutual reinforcement were the main tools.

As early as the 1830s, the New York State Temperance Society, one of the first state-level charities to become active, was printing 12 million pieces of literature every year—and actually selling enough of them to cover more than two thirds of its annual expenses. The Anti-Saloon League produced ten tons of printed matter per day at its Ohio press in 1916. Its annual budget that year, in today’s dollars, was $57 million.

Essay contests on the damage done by alcohol were launched with substantial prizes. These attracted broad notice and many entries, and winning stories were widely read once published. Doctors were also recruited to sign statements on the unhealthfulness of distilled spirits, and medical societies were enlisted in campaigns.

From its very beginning, the temperance movement worked hard to reach young people. Early anti-alcohol societies sprang up at colleges like Amherst, Williams, Union, Andover, and Colgate. Eventually, detailed lessons were created for primary and secondary schools. By the end of the 1800s, temperance education was part of weekly instruction for children and teenagers in every U.S. state.

Fraternal organizations were created to offer social life, mutual support, and benefits like insurance to Americans who favored temperance. The Sons of Temperance, founded in 1842, had a quarter of a million paying members by 1850. The Cadets of Temperance, Good Samaritans, Band of Hope, and others provided similar offerings, including special fraternities for young people, women, and blacks.

Moderation in all things

Through most of their 100-year history, temperance forces were more focused on self-regulation and local decision-making than on totalist national edicts. Up through the mid-1800s, the emphasis was very much on individual conversion, and personal pledges of moderation or abstinence.

“The first time I heard in America that 100,000 men had publicly promised never to drink alcohol liquor, I thought it more of a joke than a serious matter,” wrote Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1835 travelogue Democracy in America. But he later marveled that this was a sincere action to encourage others through example rather than control. “In the end I came to understand that these hundred thousand Americans, frightened by the progress of drunkenness around them, wanted to support sobriety by their patronage…. If they had lived in France, each of these hundred thousand would have made individual representations to the government asking it to supervise all the public houses throughout the realm.”

Convinced that plenty of Americans entered taverns simply because it could be hard to wet one’s whistle in any other way when out in public, temperance donors paid for the construction of drinking fountains in many cities. Some were quite elaborate, or sentimental, or didactic, or attracted people in some other way. An example that still stands in Washington, D.C., in a prominent spot just off Pennsylvania Avenue, was one of many built by Henry Cogswell, a San Francisco millionaire. It became popular because it was designed to hold ice in a reservoir under its base—and thus dispensed chilled water to any passerby even in hot weather. (The piping was eventually disconnected when the city government got tired of replenishing the ice supply.)

America’s first strict limits on alcohol peddling came through democratic action, a full lifetime before national prohibition, when Maine voted for statewide limits on sales starting in 1846. By 1855, another 14 states had decided to join Maine in blocking sales of intoxicating beverages, and Pennsylvania and New Jersey both fell one legislative vote short. More than a half-century later, one of the primary goals of even the hardball-playing Anti-Saloon League was simply to let various communities choose for themselves what they would allow in alcohol sales. There was a push for “local-option bills” that let residents decide on a place-by-place basis whether they would be wet or dry.

This democratic, non-utopian, non-coercive approach reflected a willingness to be satisfied just with reclaiming one’s own sphere of life, without pressing overly hard on others. You can glimpse that spirit in a letter from John Noyes: “What if there is not another bright spot in the wide world, and what if ours is a very small one? Turn your eye toward it when you are tired of looking into chaos, and you will catch a glimpse of a better world.” In that bit of modest, human-scale wisdom there is a lesson for philanthropic reformers of today as well.

Human sparkplugs

Temperance built a large cadre of creative, energetic, and determined leaders. Francis Willard was the first dean of women at Northwestern University before she founded the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. There she became, as Susan B. Anthony once said, “the commander-in-chief of an army of 250,000 women” (who she sometimes referred to as her “Protestant nuns”).

Before he became the sparkplug of the Anti-Saloon League, Wayne Wheeler was aptly described by a classmate as a “locomotive in trousers.” If he had actually been made of steel, though, he might never have turned his energy to temperance. A formative early experience was having a hayfork lodged in his leg by a blind-drunk laborer at his family farm.

Another “father” of the movement was Richmond Hobson. You can get a sense of the energy he brought to the cause from a little excerpt from one of his convention addresses in 1915. He called on fellow agitators to mail out “speeches and other documents. Request all papers and periodicals to decline liquor advertisements. Call the Salvation Army into action. Develop local fights so as to produce the best effect on the national field. Take the offensive everywhere. Attack! Attack! Attack!”

Temperance activists stirred up voluntary boycotts which convinced the New York Tribune, Boston Record, Chicago Herald, and other newspapers to stop accepting liquor advertisements. Protestant churches organized a vast number of public events, and supplied clergy and volunteers from their congregations to staff them. A “Committee of Fourteen” united a range of prominent citizens in an effort to close loopholes that allowed some saloons to skirt laws blocking liquor sales on Sundays. A different “Committee of Fifty” was organized by academics and lawyers to take a look at alcohol and temperance; their report had aimed to draw a line down the middle, yet caused Harvard president Charles Eliot to forswear even the mild imbibing he had long practiced. He became an abstainer instead.

In these days before radio and TV, public speaking was a crucial element of any campaign to change the nation’s direction. One of the early popular speakers was John Gough, a reformed drinker and former actor. During his career, he delivered more than 10,000 temperance speeches heard by an estimated 9 million Americans. Former drunkard John Hawkins, a hatter by trade, traveled 200,000 miles after his retirement to deliver testimonials. Three-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan was an influential anti-alcohol barnstormer. He delivered hundreds of addresses every year, often to large crowds. After one talk to 20,000 people in Philadelphia, 12,000 members of the audience took a pledge of total abstinence. Richmond Hobson was another popular orator. In addition to those who heard him, an estimated 2 million printed copies of his “Great Destroyer” speech were distributed to the public.

Billy Sunday was a professional baseball player turned preacher whose colorful railing against alcohol abuse drew a huge following. He knew his subject—brewers and distillers owned most of the early professional baseball teams, and the stadiums were drenched in beer and whiskey. The tickets sold to fans often included two drinks at the “booze cages” that dominated lower seating areas. Many players became alcoholics. Billy Sunday attracted crowds of 10,000 listeners and more to his enormous touring tent. During his 40 years of speaking up to 250 times per year, more than 100 million Americans took in at least one of his manic addresses.

“I will fight them until hell freezes over,” he said of alcohol merchants in a University of Michigan performance. “Then I’ll buy a pair of skates and fight ’em on the ice.” After passage of the Constitutional amendment to prohibit alcohol sales, Sunday effused that “The reign of tears is over. The slums will soon be only a memory. We will turn our prisons into factories and our jails into storehouses and corncribs. Men will walk upright now, women will smile, and the children will laugh. Hell will be forever for rent.”

A grand coalition

The coalition of groups and individuals that voluntarily drew together to tamp down alcohol abuse was one of the broadest in the history of American social movements. In addition to the evangelical Christians, women, and business entrepreneurs whose practical and moral concerns gave the effort its deepest energy, there were many on the left who agreed something needed to be done.

Lillian Wald, who brought nursing, improved hygiene, and better family life to squalid tenements in New York City, was a backer. Jane Addams, Jacob Riis, and other progressives were disturbed by the damage done to the poor by alcohol. African-American union organizer Philip Randolph later argued that throttling back alcohol use would bring higher wages, less corrupt politics, lower crime rates, and other good results. Drink only befogged and numbed workers in ways that hurt their best interests, argued a variety of socialist groups.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the campaign against heavy drinking was its success in crossing and uniting economic classes. While the first seeds of backlash were planted by educated clergy and successful civic leaders, the main force that brought the temperance effort to its peak before the Civil War was a spontaneous rising of artisans and manual workers. The so-called Washingtonian movement began in 1840 in a rude Baltimore tavern, where six casual drinkers began to rue their dependence on whiskey. They took a mutual pledge to help each other walk away from liquor, naming their effort in admiration of the self-discipline shown by the father of our nation, and with the idea that just as Washington had defeated political oppression, so could the oppression of “both body and mind” imposed by the “tyrant” alcohol be beaten.

The society they formed spread like wildfire among the working class. Within a few years the movement had hundreds of thousands of adherents across the major Northern cities. Chapters were organized to offer tradesmen, laborers, and artisans a solidarity group to lean on. There were branches for bakers, printers, carters, butchers, sailors, firemen, hatters, carpenters, shipwrights, and caulkers. Washingtonian societies formed to support abstinence along the docks, in slums, within prisons, and among released felons. It was a remarkable, self-organizing effort “by drunkards for drunkards,” all seeking a better life. And it created a proletarian infantry that meshed powerfully with the church ladies and business owners and community leaders who formed the artillery. That was the united social force that resulted in 15 of 31 U.S. states making themselves fully or nearly dry within little more thana decade.

A spontaneous anti-alcohol effort among manual workers —by drunkards for drunkards—created a proletarian infantry that meshed powerfully with the church ladies, business owners, and community leaders who formed the temperance artillery.

The desire to make their campaign a popular one drew temperance campaigners into the world of entertainment. Popular celebrities were recruited to endorse the cause. There were temperance balls, fairs, musical events, and parades. As early as the 1840s, temperance concerts were drawing crowds of 4,000 people or more.

Movement leaders noted that “man is a social being” and that “love of company” and “feelings of sociality” were the forces that drew many Americans into taverns. So alternative social life was provided. Singing became a big part of gatherings. Many original songs and hymns were written, and temperance “glee singers” made merry with ditties like “Blue Monday,” “I’ve Thrown the Bowl Aside,” and “Close Up the Booze Shop.”

The triumph beneath the flop

Because today’s conventional wisdom is that alcoholic prohibition was nothing but a puritanical flop, it needs to be pointed out that the movement was both extremely popular in its day and powerful in its ultimate effects. As early as 1833, more than 700 separate Temperance Society branches had been organized in our largest state (New York). Fully 133 out of 292 distilleries in the state had been closed. And 12 out of every 100 New York residents had signed a pledge of alcoholic abstinence.

By a generation later, when national prohibition was being voted on in the U.S. House of Representatives, a petition was submitted to the chamber which bore 12,000 signatures—these represented not individual Americans but rather organizations that were requesting that alcohol sales be banished. When the prohibition amendment to our Constitution went to the states, more than 80 percent of the nation’s state legislators voted dry.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union has faded from modern memories. Historians, though, refer to the charity as “the nation’s most effective political action group in the last decades of the nineteenth century.” When group leader Frances Willard died in 1898, 20,000 people traveled to Chicago on a single day to view her casket.

And overlapping with the WCTU was the Anti-Saloon League—the mightiest culture-change group in America during its decades of operation. For many generations, alcohol manufacturers were America’s fifth or sixth largest industry, and a powerful political pressure group. But by 1909 the secretary of the U.S. Brewers’ Association was warning his membership that “we have to reckon with” the Anti-Saloon League, which “has over 800 business offices, and at least 500 men and women on its regular salary list…. It employs large numbers of speakers on contract, from the governor of Indiana down to the local pastor of the Methodist Church.” Neither before nor since has any group orchestrated an amendment of our Constitution more tidily than the ASL.

Like lots of social movements, the crusade against intoxication eventually went too far. At hotbed Oberlin College, the stigma against alcohol was eventually extended to proscribe stimulants like tea, coffee, gravy, butter, and pepper! And we all know the problems of enforcement and government over-reach that eventually doomed the national prohibition againstalcohol production.

But that is not the end of the story. The decades of prayer, persuasion, printed matter, protest, and peer support, the exuberant examples, editorials, education, and electioneering, the sweet singalongs, self-help confessions, and school lessons, the railing, rallying, and referenda—eventually these efforts told. The children and grandchildren of Washingtonians decided that alcoholic bingeing wasn’t fun. The famous Middletown sociology study showed that when social leaders in heartland towns decided to stop drinking, many other Americans were influenced.

Decades of civil organizing throttled back booze consumption from our frontier-era average of 7.5 gallons of alcohol per adult per year all the way down to 2.6 gallons by the early 1900s. During the first few years of national prohibition, drinking fell 70 percent more, and arrests for public drunkenness tumbled, as did alcohol-related deaths. Chicago closed one of its jails, Grand Rapids abandoned its work farm, church membership in the U.S. rose by 1.2 million, and Jane Addams described “the marked decrease” in disorderly conduct, street fights, family quarrels, and abuse inpoor neighborhoods.

Though conventionally viewed as a flop, the temperance movement actually reduced alcohol consumption dramatically—to just 29 percent, today, of the levels when reformers went to work. And then there’s their influence on wider American values…

As the years went on, bootleggers innovated, enforcement sagged, and drinking rebounded some. Yet even after repeal, alcohol consumption in the U.S. remained about 30 percent below its pre-prohibition level. Today, American alcohol consumption is about 2.2 gallons per adult per year. That’s a 71 percent reduction from when the temperance activists first wentto work.

More fundamentally, a new ethic of responsibility and seriousness took root in America. “The temperance movement,” summarizes historian Ian Tyrrell, “profoundly influencedAmerican values.”

Reform helped to popularize the idea of self-improvement and strengthened the bourgeois ethic of frugality, sobriety, and industry in American society. Until the 1830s, Americans saw no necessary link between temperance, respectability, and self-improvement; as a result of temperance agitation, middle-class culture and all who aspired to middle-class status would be deeply influenced.

This transformation was driven by volunteers and donors—men and women pursuing the national interest, but more often through philanthropy than politics.

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