The desire to control alcohol consumption, or advocate temperance, has been a goal of humanity throughout countless periods of history. Many countries have had organized temperance movements, including Australia, Canada, Britain, Denmark, Poland, and of course, the United States. The American temperance movement was the most widespread reform movement of the 19th century, culminating in laws that completely banned the sale of all alcoholic beverages. The movement progressed from its humble local roots to nationwide organizations with millions of members and large amounts of political power. The growth of the temperance movement resulted from the changes in society between the original American settlers and the post-Revolutionary War citizens. The Revolutionary War is the catalyst for the movement, and the new society that emerges out of it is the cause of the development of the American temperance movement.
If one was to look at colonial America with no knowledge of the future, the thought of millions of people promoting alcohol regulation and abstinence would be unimaginable. As hard as it is to assign general characteristics to colonial America, it is clearly evident that alcoholic beverages were extensive in consumption, to the point where they were among the main forms of liquid nourishment. It was so extensive that "Estimates for 1790, at the end of the colonial period, place per capita consumption of absolute alcohol (the alcohol content of alcoholic beverages) at three gallons, about one and a half times the amount of per capita consumption in the United States today. Despite staggering consumption rate, the relatively high level of per capita consumption failed to produce widespread concern about drinking.
The widespread consumption failed to produce a temperance movement in colonial America because the drinking was greatly integrated within the society. When alcohol is integrated into a society, it is consumed in organized situations that adhere to community norms. Situations such as "family meals
weddings, funerals, ordinations, church raisings, court days, militia training days, corn husking, and haying all required ample amounts of alcohol" (Blocker 4). Alcohol was frequently brewed at home, making it a noncommercial, wholesome drink. The consumption also did not lead to a growing temperance movement because it was difficult to see the drunkards outside where they could be problem. At this point in American history, the drunkards were distributed in isolated farms instead of concentrated streets in cities and towns (Ezell 69 pg 169 of american temperance book). Alcohol was consumed among both women and men, children and adults, and in family or community environments, so it was not seen as an importunate issue within the colonies.
If alcohol regulation was not an issue within the original colonies, then when and how did it begin and what caused it? Towards the end of the colonial period, people were beginning to understand the harmful effects of alcohol. In 1784, Benjamin Rush published An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind, an incredibly influential pamphlet that presented his information on the detrimental effects of alcohol. In this pamphlet, Rush created a distinction between fermented beverages, which were used in the bible, and distilled spirits, which were not. He claimed that the distilled spirits had dangerous qualities and that the fermented beverages were actually beneficial to the human body, and advocated abstinence from the distilled spirits. He concluded that "we see poverty and misery, crimes and infamy, diseases and death, are all the natural and usual consequences of the intemperate use of ardent spirits" (Blocker 7). Rush's pamphlet was the first mark of a new post-Revolutionary society that was no longer indifferent towards alcohol.
The American Revolution can be seen as the catalyst for the American Temperance movement, and it...
Bibliography: American Temperance Society. "Permanent Temperance Documents of the American Temperance Society". New York, Arno Press, 1972.
Blocker, Jack S. "American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform". Boston : Twayne Publishers, c1989
Ezell, Marcel D. "Early Attitudes toward Alcoholic Beverages in the South" Red River Valley Historical Review 7, 1982.
Nott, Eliphalet. "Lectures on Temperance". New York : Sheldon, Blakeman, 1857
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