The Temperance Issue in the Election of 1840: Massachusetts


Andrew Baker

The temperance issue had been enmeshed in Massachusetts politics for a number of years prior to 1840. As temperance enthusiasm grew in the 1820s and 1830s, individual towns began to debate whether to restrict the issuance of liquor licenses. The culmination of the effort to promote temperance by legal means came in 1838 when the Boston Temperance Society promoted a law to prohibit the sale of liquors in quantities less than fifteen gallons. The law passed the predominantly Whig legislature and was signed by the Whig governor, Edward Everett.

The fifteen gallon law was plainly discriminatory and undemocratic. It was intended to prevent the sale of hard liquor at retail over the bar in taverns. Poorer men were cut off almost completely from liquor, whereas the wealthier who could buy in large quantities and drink at home were not affected at all. The law did not limit beer and cider sales, but its discriminatory nature displeased many of the moderate temperance advocates, as well, of course, as the anti-temperance forces.

The state election of 1839 hinged on the 15-gallon law. Although Everett's democratic opponent, Marcus Morton, was in fact a temperance advocate, the Whigs were responsible for the law's passage and the issue quickly became a partisan one. In Worcester County, the Whigs were divided on the issue and a group calling themselves the Liberal Whigs split off and supported Morton. The result in 1839 was a slim victory for Morton.

The election campaign of 1840 resulted in an apparent reversal of positions on the temperance issue. Utilizing the obvious popularity of the "log cabin and hard cider" slogans, the Whigs pulled out the cider barrel as a symbol of their affinity with the common man's way of life. The Democrats of Massachusetts pointed out the seeming inconsistency of the temperance Whigs and accused the Whigs of promoting intemperance and even of lacing the cider with harder spirits. The Whigs, however, claimed that the cider barrel was merely a symbol, that cider was used sparingly with true sobriety. They likewise accused the Democrats of inconsistency with their seemingly holier-than-thou attitude. However, though some writers and speakers on both sides went to extremes in their accusations, neither side was really inconsistent in its stances on temperance in 1840; temperance and anti-temperance advocates could be found in both parties.

Although temperance was undoubtedly a secondary issue in the election of 1840 except for a few fanatics on both sides, it did probably affect the campaigning of the moderates on both sides.

Temperance Whigs were probably quieter in 1840 than they had been in 1839, while anti-temperance Democrats were also a little less vociferous in 1840 than they had been the year before. Storekeepers, tavern keepers and distillers were probably most affected by the attempts to legislate temperance. In Oxford, a number of the prominent Democrats were traders or tavern keepers with a license to sell. Asa Knight was a Democrat and if he had been a Massachusetts resident, he might have opposed the fifteen-gallon Act as deleterious to his business. However, with the exception of the proponents of total abstinence and the few members of the upper class who saw the law as a means of controlling the poor, most temperance advocates considered the issue a minor one. Salem Towne, a temperance advocate, does not seem to have been concerned about any inconsistency over the issue, for he was probably making cider himself. Thus, for most, the temperance issue was probably more peripheral or symbolic than anything else.

Copyright: Old Sturbridge Inc.