Historical Note on Temperance Reform in the Early 19th Century


Jack Larkin, Chief Historian, OSV

Drink was everywhere in early America. “Liquor at that time,” recalled the Massachusetts carpenter Elbridge Boyden, “was used as commonly as the food we ate.” Americans drank in enormous quantities. Their yearly consumption at the time of the Revolution has been estimated at the equivalent of three-and-a-half gallons of pure, two-hundred proof alcohol for each person. After 1790 American men began to drink even more. By the late 1820s imbibing had risen to an all-time high of almost four gallons per capita.

The primary historical resources in this section document America’s first campaign against drink. This pattern was unchallenged until early in the nineteenth century, when local efforts to curb drinking by individual clergymen were amplified by the founding of the American Temperance Society in 1826, sponsored by a wide range of groups and individuals. Temperance reformers acted for a variety of reasons, but we can describe four powerful perspectives on temperance that motivated most advocates and shaped their arguments and campaigns. For many of them, of course, all four were linked together. One perspective was that of social order. Many reformers feared that drunkenness—particularly the increasing prevalence of binge drinking—was a threat to law abiding society and economic prosperity. How could men act as responsible workers and vote as responsible citizens if they were insensible with drink? Another cornerstone of temperance reform was evangelical religion. Religiously motivated temperance advocates came to see drinking as a sin—a way of giving in to the animal or depraved self that was incompatible with Christian morals, self-control and spiritual awakening. A third temperance perspective focused on damage to the family. Looking at family destitution and violence, reformers reckoned the cost to American wives, mothers and children of heavy drinking by their husbands and fathers. A fourth point of view was medical, as more health-minded reformers popularized a radically new way of looking at alcohol. Americans had traditionally considered strong drink to be healthy and fortifying; after 1810, many physicians and writers on health were telling their patients and readers that alcohol was actually a poison.

In the 1830s and 1840s national and state societies generated an enormous output of antiliquor tracts, and hundreds of local temperance societies were founded to press the cause, first of moderation in drink but increasingly of total abstinence from liquor. The temperance campaign proved extremely successful, particularly in New England and New York. Most New England communities became sharply divided between drinkers and non-drinkers. By the 1840s, liquor consumption had fallen to less than half its previous level, and hundreds of thousands of men had signed pledges of total abstinence. Much of this change proved more or less permanent—since the mid-nineteenth century, per capita alcohol consumption in the United States has never gone back to pre 1820 levels.

Since the 1830s, the United States has seen other “temperance” crusades—in particular the Prohibition movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, and today’s seemingly endless “War on Drugs.” Because most Americans today approve of moderate alcohol use, these early temperance reformers, with their passionate and moralistic advocacy of total abstinence, may well seem both amusing and dismaying. Yet by rescuing a substantial number of men from alcoholism they did in fact achieve a great deal of good for American society.