Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933by Thomas R. Pegram
Thomas Pegram's narrative account of the fight to regulate alcohol traces the moral and political offensives of the temperance advocates, and shows how their tactics and organization reflected changes in the nation's politics and social structure. The failures of prohibition enforcement shaped the attitudes of politicians ever since, offering an example of the limits of government-enforced morals.
Roger K. Miller
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Drinking and Temperance in the Age of Reform
Alcohol became an American problem between 1790 and 1830, during the expansive years of the early republic. Drinking, long accepted as an essential component of daily life and social interaction, in that period began to be seen as a cause of disorder and a barrier to progress. Organized efforts to promote temperance appeared in the 1820s as part of the extraordinary outburst of reform activism that transformed the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century. 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. Imbued with the ideals of democratic individualism and expectations for the establishment of a Christian republic, most early temperance reformers emphasized self-control for the temperate and self-improvement for the troubled drinker. But the persistence of social disorder tied to drink, and anxieties associated with increased immigration and economic downturns, influenced temperance organizations in the 1830s and 1840s to demand that the power of law and the authority of the state be used to force temperance onto those who refused to adopt it voluntarily. This blending of optimism, anxiety, and the willingness to use coercion in the service of reform thereafter marked the relationship between temperance reform and Americanpolitics.
The expansion of American democracy, ripe with the promise of liberty yet potentially disruptive of individual lives and the established social order, set the context for temperance reform. In the wake of the Revolution, Americans questioned and in some cases cast off traditional forms of authority. In politics, religion, and social organization, they struggled to create institutions fit for a free people. Population tripled, from 3,929,000 in 1790 to 12,901,000 in 1830. Cities grew larger, more numerous, and more dangerous. Settlers surged into the Midwest and onto the Southern frontier, bringing new states into the Union and upsetting the political dominance of the Atlantic seaboard. As the nation's commercial infrastructure matured with the development of roads, steamboats, and canals, the market revolution brought most Americans into the cash economy. Relations between employers and workers shifted. Americans in small towns and in the countryside found that the prosperity of their families depended on the location of transportation routes, the tastes and purchasing power of city dwellers, and the fluctuations of foreign markets. It was an age of buoyancy and opportunity, of expanded hopes, but many Americans also felt unsettled and anxious during this period of swift change.
The astute French observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted in the 1830s the "strange unrest of so many happy men." "In the United States," he wrote, "a man builds a house in which to spend his old age, and he sells it before the roof is on; he plants a garden and lets it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he brings a field into tillage and leaves other men to gather the crops; he embraces a profession and gives it up; he settles in a place, which he soon afterwards leaves to carry his changeable longings elsewhere." Americans embraced liberty with enthusiasm but seemed skittish and impulsive in its exercise.
As Americans explored the physical dimensions of liberty in the early republic, they also struggled with the consequences of self-government. On the one handin a position first outlined by Alexander Hamilton and later expanded upon by Whigs such as Henry Claysome Americans stressed the ability of government, if guided by wise laws and intelligent leaders, to promote national growth, encourage moral improvement, and develop virtuous and productive citizens capable of governing the republic. This viewpoint, at least implicitly, recognized a hierarchy of talent and temperament in public as well as in private life, and encouraged the rational restraint of antisocial impulses. Others put their faith in limited government, expanded democracy, and individual freedom to pursue one's self-interest. The "contagion of liberty" that followed the establishment of American independence spilled into the nineteenth century as vigilant republicans, invoking the principles of Thomas Jefferson and then the leadership of Andrew Jackson, criticized symbols of elitism and privilege and worked to bring them under democratic control. State-supported churches were disestablished and local judges made subject to popular election; formal requirements governing entry into the professions were relaxed, and deference to the "natural leadership" of great men was challenged. By the 1820s the traditional state-imposed property qualifications that restricted the electorate at the end of the eighteenth century had given way to universal suffrage for adult white men. Between 1820 and 1830 the number of qualified voters in the United States doubled. Deferential representative politics had been replaced by mass democracy.
The passage from deferential to mass-democratic politics was not initially smooth. Between 1790 and 1815, sharp differences over fundamental principles lent a bitter, combative tone to politics. One of the first forceful acts of the national government under the Constitution, Hamilton's attempt to tax the production of whiskey, prompted armed resistance on the part of western Pennsylvania farmers in 1794 and necessitated the use of military force to crush the rebellion. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who together wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, denounced each other as enemies of the nation as they fought for the presidency in 1800. Jefferson's supporters reviled Adams as a dictator and toady of the British monarch while Federalists reproached Jefferson as "Mad Tom"an atheist, a demagogue, and an apologist for the wildest excesses of the French Revolution. Partisan rancor eased after 1800, but disputes stemming from foreign policy threatened national unity until the conclusion of the War of 1812. The New England states resisted Jefferson's 1807 embargo on trade with the European powers, opposed war with Great Britain in 1812, and remained coolly resistant to patriotic enthusiasm during the ensuing conflict. Yet American democracy weathered its early crisis, and when Jefferson and Adams, by then reconciled after years of ill feeling, both died on July 4, 1826, a nation attuned to omens interpreted the event as a sign of God's approbation of American democracy and special intentions for the republic.
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). Because of the decline in deference and the new democratic hostility to restraints on liberty, they also drank without customary controls and in different ways than they had before. In the eyes of some observers, nineteenth-century America had become a "nation of drunkards."
The identification of alcohol as a social problem in the early nineteenth century marked an important change in American attitudes toward strong drink. Alcoholic beverages had been present as an essential component of life from the establishment of the first colonial settlements in North America. When the Puritan settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony dropped anchor in 1630, 12 gallons of distilled spirits, 10,000 gallons of beer, and 120 hogsheads of brewing malt arrived with them. By the eighteenth century Americans not only brewed beerranging from a hearty barley brew containing 6 percent alcohol to the more common 1 percent "small beer"for home consumption but made widespread use of local fruits and grains to produce hard cider (7 percent alcohol) and more powerful distilled liquor such as applejack, peach brandy, and corn and rye whiskey (40 percent alcohol or higher). The New England trade with the West Indies provided molasses which spurred rum production in coastal towns. Although community scorn and the power of law was brought to bear on drunkards, everyone was expected to consume alcoholic beverages as dietary staples, and overindulgence was tolerated at weddings, funerals, militia musters, and on holidays. Women drank in the home; men drank more frequently and more copiously at home, in the fields or the shop, and at taverns and during public events such as elections; solicitous parents shared beer with children at meals and encouraged boys to develop a taste for distilled spirits.
Between 1800 and 1830 the use of alcohol was so basic a component of daily life that strong drink could be found in every conceivable situation. In the 1790s President John Adams enjoyed a tankard of hard cider with his breakfast every morning. Each family in a group traveling by wagon to Indianapolis in 1823 drained a half-gallon of whiskey daily as they bounced along the trail. Horace Greeley, the influential American editor, recalled of his Vermont boyhood around 1820 that "there was no merry-making, there was no entertainment of relatives or friends, there was scarcely a casual gathering of two or three neighbors for an evening's social chat, without strong drink." Eastern farmhands customarily received a half-pint to a pint of rum daily as they worked the fields; artisans put down their tools for drams twice daily; soldiers and sailors were issued daily rations of rum or whiskey. Even clergymen drank, sometimes to excess. One temperance-minded minister complained that fellow churchmen attending an ordination made such liberal use of alcoholic provisions that the sideboard "looked and smelled like the bar of a very active grog-shop."
Many early temperance advocates denounced only distilled liquor (whiskey, rum, gin, and other spirits that contained between 40 and 50 percent alcohol) and continued to drink fermented alcohol (beer, hard cider, and wine, all with a natural alcoholic content of 12 percent or less). Huntington Lyman, a prominent evangelist, remembered as a boy fetching a barrowful of beer for a meeting at which Congregationalist ministers resolved to "preach against the extravagant use of rum." The Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, one of the first prominent temperance organizations, served wine at its gatherings.
Americans drank because they believed that, when taken in moderate doses, alcohol was not only safe but actually beneficial to their health. In the early nineteenth century most Americans frequently worked outdoors. The warm feeling produced by a cup of rum or whiskey convinced laborers and travelers that liquor offered necessary protection from the elements. It was also commonly believed that alcohol possessed rejuvenative powers that helped workers carry out heavy or toilsome labor. Americans preferred to drink spirits because distilled liquor was safer, more plentiful, and cheaper than alternative beverages. Water was held in low regard as a beverage in the early nineteenth century. Even when clean it was thought to have no nutritional or digestive value. Most water available for drinking, however, was muddy, brackish, metallic-tasting, or had to be obtained by means of wells, long hauls, or frequent rain. The supply of milk was inconsistent and extremely perishable. Beer did not keep well, and wine was uncommon. Coffee and tea were expensive, whereas whiskey was pure, pleasurable, and in the 1820s cost twenty-five cents per gallon.
The cheap price of whiskey was a consequence of American expansion and a major reason for the increase in alcohol consumption between 1800 and 1830. Americans spilling over the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio country and the southern interior found that their corn and rye was cheaper to ship to market in the form of whiskey than as grain. Politics also aided the rise of whiskey. High tariffs and strained trade relations with Great Britain cut off supplies of West Indian molasses, crippling rum production, and in 1802 the whiskey excise tax was repealed. By 1820 American drinkers were enjoying a whiskey glut; whiskey and cider stood supreme as the national beverages.
After 1800 drinking also took place in a different behavioral context. Liquor had traditionally been drunk in the United States in moderate doses, or drams, throughout the day in the company of family members or fellow workers, punctuated by excessive drinking at communal celebrations several times each year. 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. Rorabaugh attributed this development to the impact of rapid economic and social change and the culture of mass democracy.
The shifting relationship between employers and artisans provides an illustration. Before the effects of the industrial revolution began to be felt in the early nineteenth century, journeymen who worked in small shops could hope someday to become masters owning their own shops. The rise of the factory system formalized the relationships between employer and employee and diminished the probability of economic advancement. Rorabaugh found that frustrated workers demanded expanded drinking privileges on the job and battled with employers over shop drinking policies. Alcohol, which had been a symbol of steady habits and a brotherhood of craftsmanship, now became a tool of resistance, a companion in despair, and a belligerent affirmation of liberty. The rowdy drinking practices of canal workers shared this spirit of protest and affirmation. Hard-driven and relatively powerless in the workplace, canal workers expressed their refusal to be dominated by asserting control over their leisure time. Canalmen's legendary binges not only provided a boisterous refuge from their rough employment but defiantly proclaimed that they alone would set the standards of their personal conduct.
After 1800 the connections between a male culture of drinking and the expression of democratic citizenship also grew more prominent. Although all Americans drank, men by far were the heaviest imbibers. Rorabaugh estimated that in the late 1820s half the adult males in the population consumed two-thirds of the distilled spirits. With increasing frequency, men did a portion of their drinking in taverns or at work, out of the company of wives and children. Regular public access to alcohol became one of the prerogatives of citizenship. The relaxation of eighteenth-century tavern regulations meant that legal and customary restraints on the consumption of alcohol bore down most visibly on noncitizens: slaves, children, and women. Drinking by slaves was controlled by statute law and the will of slaveowners, who doled out spirits during harvests and for Christmas sprees. Women and children were barred by custom from taverns and did most of their drinking in the home. The rise of domesticity in the nineteenth century solidified expectations of virtue and restraint for female behavior and closed women off from active participation in the public world of drink and fraternity.
Changes in the regulation of public drinking reflected the decline of deference and the enthusiasm for liberty that marked the onset of mass democracy. Colonial law had regulated taverns to various degrees. Distinctions were made between public houses, which provided accommodations to travelers and were allowed to serve strong drink, and retail liquor shops, which sold jugs and bottles to be consumed elsewhere. In some locales, tavernkeepers were barred from selling to confirmed drunkards. "Tippling" laws specified how long townspeople could drink in taverns; a Connecticut statute from the early nineteenth century forced drinkers to move on after an hour. But Americans increasingly shrugged off such restraints on individual behavior. Westward expansion and the proliferation of taverns on the frontier made regulation modeled on colonial communities unsuitable. Existing laws fell into disuse as free men dismantled the structure of eighteenth-century authority. Even informal controls on drinking became outmoded in the changing American social landscape. When workers boarded in the house of their employer, as was common before the sharp changes of the 1820s, their behavior came under watchful eyes. The new industrial relations of the nineteenth century moved workers out of the sight and the moral authority of employers. Both by intent and by happenstance, Americans were on their own when it came to drinking.
The culture of drinking that permeated American society between 1800 and 1830 reflected both anxiety and optimism. Rapid social change and the instability of fortunes drove many Americans to the bottle with greater frequency. At other times Americans drank to assert their independence, their egalitarian ideals, and their status as citizens in a democracy. The same factors influenced the temperance movement, which worked to curb the outburst of drinking that after 1800 became so visible. Fear of disorder and anxiety over the fate of the family, the moral order, and the nation itself prompted temperance activism. The frequency of street and tavern riots in New York City, for instance, escalated steadily after 1800, then between 1825 and 1829 surged to a stunning figure of sixty-three disturbances. Anarchy seemed to prevail in neighborhoods such as the city's notorious Five Points slum, where the streets bristled with groceries and taverns packed with "drinking, swearing, and fighting" patrons.
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. During the great push for improvement in the first half of the nineteenth century, temperance, in the assessment of the historian Steven Mintz, was "the unifying reform, drawing support from countless middle-class Protestants, from skilled artisans, clerks, shopkeepers, laborers, free blacks, and Mormons, as well as from many conservative clergy and southerners who were otherwise hostile to reform." It also became a major vehicle for women's activism. In that sense, temperance was also an expression of democracy.
The first stirrings of anti-liquor sentiment that can be connected to the emergence of the temperance movement in the 1820s took place in the 1780s. Quakers and Methodists, denominations that had long counseled caution in the use of distilled liquor, sharply intensified their hostility to spirits during that decade of American independence, demanding that church members stop participating in the liquor trade and condemning the personal consumption of ardent spirits. In 1784 Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and former surgeon general of the Continental Army, published his influential temperance tract, An Inquiry into the Effects of Spirituous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society, which would circulate for years in pamphlet form as a forceful expression of new, more critical attitudes toward the use of alcohol. Key features that would distinguish early-nineteenth-century temperance reform were already present in the views of Rush and the church bodies. They both considered distilled liquors to be dangerous but sanctioned the use of fermented drinks such as beer, wine, and cider. They advised personal abstinence from distilled liquors but not legal prohibition. Finally, they looked beyond the ruined lives of individual drunkards to insist that intemperance threatened the social order itself. Their religious, moral, and medical arguments were aimed primarily at changing the behavior of moderate drinkers so as to undermine the American culture of drinking.
Rush in particular linked the effects of strong drink on the human body to its larger impact on the fortunes of the newly independent republic. Dedicated to the success of the new nation, he suggested education policies, dietary principles, and behavioral norms suitable for the cultivation of virtuous citizens. His commitment to temperance fit the same purpose. In the Inquiry, Rush broke with mainstream medical opinion by denying the health-giving properties of alcohol. To the contrary, he claimed that the alcohol in distilled liquor (Rush shared the common view that fermented drinks were free of the damaging effects of alcohol) upset the body's internal balance and over time produced physical disease and behavioral vices such as idleness, fighting, swearing, and criminality. The chronic use of spirits broke down the body and corroded the virtues necessary to sustain self-government. Rush devised a "Moral and Physical Thermometer" to illustrate the progressive deterioration of health and morals caused by intemperance and included it in later editions of the Inquiry. In the 1790 version, chronic intemperance led not only to melancholy, madness, and jail time but to anarchy and hatred of just government. If the American culture of drinking were to grow unchecked, Rush feared the onset of a government "chosen by intemperate and corrupted voters." Without a virtuous citizenry, "the republic would soon be in danger." Thus to Rush, beer and cider were "invaluable FEDERAL liquors" which promoted cheerfulness and political stability as against the "Antifederal" influence of ardent spirits, "companions of all those vices that are calculated to dishonor and enslave our country."
Elite concern over the moral and political order prompted the organization of the earliest nineteenth-century temperance societies. The first association founded exclusively to promote temperance, the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance (MSSI), took shape in 1813 amid economic and political turbulence. Before 1800 the Bay State was notable for its commercial prosperity, the influence exercised by its Congregationalist clergy (including orthodox Calvinists and rationalist Unitarians who, after 1805, would break away to establish their own denomination), and the political authority of its Federalist party. Jefferson's embargo and the War of 1812 spread economic hardship through coastal communities, hampering trade, driving down population, and increasing the strain on the poorhouses. The decline of deference brought sharp challenges in religion from dissenting sects, primarily Baptists and Methodists, and in politics from Jeffersonian Republicans who drew upon the support of religious dissenters and modest property holders to win several elections after 1807.
The MSSI represented an attempt by an embattled elite to protect public virtue from the corruption of popular intemperance. Its exclusive organization consisted of a parent society in Boston and some forty auxiliary bodies in neighboring towns; members were elected and paid annual dues of two dollars. They were mostly prosperous men, members of the Congregational or Unitarian churches, and overwhelmingly Federalist in their political convictions. Although the MSSI stressed the desirability for temperance among its members, its chief concern was in curbing lower-class drinking and the social disorder that stemmed from "the misrule of sordid appetite," To that end the MSSI encouraged employers to stop furnishing spirits to their workers and pressed local and state authorities to enforce tavern regulations, crack down on illegal dramshops that sold liquor by the drink, and carefully review license holders.
In the end, however, the MSSI proved itself out of step with the temperance innovations of the nineteenth century. Rather than zealously seeking out converts and spreading its message through pamphlets, handbills, and other printed materials, the MSSI restricted its membership and issued few publications. Although it stressed the need for law enforcement, it did not act forcefully to bring about policy changes. Instead the MSSI relied on the prestige of its membership to influence public affairs and private behavior. It sought to instill deference rather than self-control. In short, the MSSI fought the democratic spirit of the age instead of reflecting it. By 1818 the association was in serious decline; by 1823 it had practically disappeared. In that year MSSI leaders acknowledged defeat.
Ten years after the failure of the MSSI, one million Americans enrolled in more than six thousand voluntary associations had pledged themselves to abstain totally from the use of spirits. A revolution in temperance sentiment had occurred. The emergence of temperance reform as a mass movement in the 1820s exuded optimism as much as it reflected anxiety over the fate of individuals and the nation. Temperance reformers celebrated free will to the same extent that they required adherence to social duty. Most of all, temperance reform in the 1820s demanded immediate and life-altering action.
The contradictory impact of the market revolution advanced these developments. On the one hand, changing economic circumstances prompted men to drink more, either to assert their independence or to oppose their deteriorating status in the new order. But the market revolution also put a premium on sobriety, order, and rationality and offered to reward dedicated effort. However substantial their fear of disorder or their wish to control the behavior of others, most temperance advocates confidently embraced the ideology of progress and the promise of opportunity in an expansive society. Merchants and manufacturers stopped drinking in order to take up the discipline of the market revolution, and they encouraged their workers to internalize the same traits of sober self-control. A New York farmer who stopped providing whiskey to his hands proudly reported that they "labored like sober, rational men, and not like intoxicated mutineers." In the South, temperance sentiment was strongest among middle-class town dwellers and skilled workers in Virginia, Georgia, and North Carolina. It languished in the hinterland, where the market revolution had not penetrated. 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. To use the terminology of the historian Ian Tyrrell, temperance attracted improversmen and women who acted on their faith in the future.
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. Growing out of specific local circumstances, doctrinal disputes within the established churches, and the overall rootlessness of the age, the revivals roared through regions where the dislocations accompanying social change were most pronounced: first the frontier, then western New York along the path of the Erie Canal, and finally New England. The new evangelical thrust of the Awakeningemphasizing the need for personal, emotional contact with Godspurned the passive Christianity of orthodox Calvinism, with its learned theological debates and distant impersonal Deity. The revivalists offered thousands of Americans the chance to seize control of their lives by embracing salvation through dramatic personal acts of conversion. The age of democratic individualism found its religious parallel in the revivals as sinners chose to be saved.
Charles Grandison Finney, the Presbyterian evangelist whose fiery revivals from 1823 to 1831 reduced western New York to a "burned-over district," was the chief exponent of an active Christianity that soon invigorated secular reform. "Religion is something to do," he stressed, "not something to wait for." 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. This doctrine emphasized the perfectibility of humankind but also underlined the impossibility of tolerating wickedness. To zealous Christians, secular reform became a critical accompaniment of religious expression. As Finney put it, "their spirit is necessarily that of the reformer. To the universal reformation of the world they stand committed." Evangelical urgency thereafter infused the struggle against intemperance and slavery, which most reformers identified as the chief sources of evil in American society.
Lyman Beecher, the influential Congregationalist evangelist from Connecticut, stated the new situation in a series of six sermons delivered in 1825 and published the next year in pamphlet form. "Intemperance is a national sin," he thundered, "carrying destruction from the centre to every extremity of the empire, and calling upon the nation to array itself, en masse, against it." The practice of drinking spirits should be abolished, he argued, just as slavery had been uprooted in the North. Theodore Dwight Weld, the prominent abolitionist, also tied the nation's destiny to its battle with alcohol. "All your country requires is, that you stop drinking ardent spirit," he declared in an 1832 oration. To those in the crowd who doubted their ability to control their appetite for liquor, Weld appealed to the logic of the revivals. "Didn't Jesus die on the cross?" he implored. "Can't you stop drinking?"
There was a close connection between the "new measures" adopted by the promoters of the revivals and the growing power of temperance reform. After Finney completed his celebrated Rochester revivals in 1831, a New York religious newspaper noted "that the Temperance Reformation and Revivals of Religion have a peculiarly intimate relation and bearing upon each other." Temperance not only fed off of the enthusiasm of the revivals but off of the methods of the revivalists. The ministers of the Second Great Awakening put a premium on organization and publicity. "What do the politicians do?" Finney asked. "They get up meetings, circulate handbills and pamphlets, blaze away in the newspapers, send coaches all over town with handbills ... all to gain attention to their cause and their candidates." Christians in pursuit of a holier cause should do no less, he insisted. In seeking converts, religious organizationsthe American Bible Society (1816), the American Sunday School Union (1824), and especially the American Tract Society (1825)pioneered in the use of printed materials and voluntary associations to saturate Americans with vigorous moral appeals. The widespread distribution of printed matter and the fellowship of voluntary organizations became essential features of temperance reform in the 1820s.
Meet the Author
Thomas R. Pegram teaches American history at Loyola College in Baltimore, Maryland. He has also written Partisans and Progressives.
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