Friday, March 25, 2011


I recently visited the Unitarian church, and listened to an excellent sermon on Temperance. It’s not a popular topic, and one I had never heard addressed at a liberal church. Temperance is moderation, and while that may not be popular thing, moderation is a virtue worth espousing. In America, Temperance has come to mean abstention from alcoholic beverages, and it’s not a widespread practice. Temperance, teetotaling and Prohibition are distinct historical movements.

I come from a long line of teetotalers. I had a visit from my beloved cousin last week, and we had a chance to discuss family traditions. 150 years after my ancestors first advocated that position, Temperance is still practiced. For my cousin, Temperance involves abstention from hard liquor, and avoiding public drinking. My cousin has, I think, stayed true to the political and practical origins of the movement. My ancestors wrote prolifically on the topic of Temperance, and it was one of the many liberal causes they espoused.

It seems strange from today’s vantage to see Temperance as progressive. In the 19th century, however, it was a liberal cause. In the early 19th century, potable water wasn’t always available, and where it was, it often had a brackish, mineral taste. In America, the two most popular beverages were whiskey and hard cider. Wine wasn’t widely available, nor was beer: that would change in the latter half of the 19th century. It’s estimated that Americans over age 14 consumed around 7 gallons of pure alcohol annually between 1800-1830. That’s a lot of alcohol. In war time, soldiers were paid partially in whiskey, and given a daily ration of whiskey and hard cider. In addition, wages were paid in whiskey. Public projects like barn raisings and even canal digging involved prodigious amounts of drinking.

Against this background, reformers sought to change drinking patterns and public drunkenness. By 1830, liberals, and some religious conservatives, took what was known as the “short pledge.” The “short pledge” was a pledge to avoid drinking hard liquor, and abstaining from public drunkenness. There was no concept of alcoholism as a disease, and excess drinking was seen as a personal moral weakness.

Temperance was linked to the women’s movement. While my ancestors didn’t identify as Christian, organizations such as the Women’s Christian Temperance Union advocated women’s suffrage, as well as ending poverty. The motto of this organization was “Do Everything,” and these worthy women did. Social reformers like Jane Addams supported the work of the WCTU. Susan B. Anthony supported the cause of Temperance, and my ancestors joined an organization called the Independent Order of the Good Templars, a Temperance group that was open to both sexes, something rare in that age.

Gradually, Temperance and Teetotalism joined forces. There was no consensus, though; some individuals took the “long pledge” which was the renunciation of all alcoholic beverages. These folks were called the “cold water people,” because that’s what they drank. Temperance and Teetotaler advocates began to espouse prohibition by the early 20th century, and the movement changed from a personal perfection campaign to a political one. We tend to lump Temperance, Teetotaling and Prohibition together; they were originally distinct, and there was never complete agreement among the three movements.

My family were not all in favor of Teetotalism; my great-great grandmother left many recipes that required a “rich wine sauce.” That being said, I don’t recall seeing liquor in either of my grandparents’ homes. Public drinking was taboo, and my grandfather would sooner go hungry than get a hamburger from the town bar, which he disparagingly called “the tavern.”

Radicals like Carrie Nations have given Temperance a bad name. She was not typical of the cause; Temperance advocates did not take hatchets to every unlicensed saloon in town. Most Prohibitionists wanted to close taverns for two good reasons: they did not allow women, and were owned by brewers. Before Repeal, all saloons were owned by distillers, and bartenders were encouraged to sell product at all cost. Saloons did contribute to drunkenness.

Prohibition was, by and large, a failure. Closing saloons didn’t eliminate organized crime. Rather, crime syndicates branched out from prostitution and gambling to selling bootlegged liquor. Prohibition advocates sought to close saloons and eliminate hard liquor. It was doomed from the start because of the Volstead Act. The Volstead Act limited the amount of alcohol in beer to .5%, near beer. Normally, beer has about 5% alcohol. By limiting the amount of alcohol to .5%, Prohibition criminalized beer and wine, something Temperance advocates were divided over. Also, it was never illegal to have liquor in the home, and personal consumption of alcohol was never outlawed. Buying liquor for distribution was illegal. Churches, doctors and pharmacies were exempt, along with personal home use.

What does Temperance mean today? Was Prohibition a total failure? To answer the last question first, Prohibition accomplished two things. When it was repealed, bars could no longer be owned by distillers, and weren’t forced to sell product. Today, alcohol consumption is half what it was in the early 19th century: Americans over 14 drink less than 3 gallons of pure alcohol a year. As for advocating people to take either the short pledge or the long pledge, that’s not my business. Temperance, moderation in alcoholic consumption isn’t a bad idea, and temperance in all aspects of our lives is a worthy goal.