The 19th Century Temperance Movement


Most people know something about the years of prohibition from 1920 to 1933. But what most people do not realize is that it has its roots in the 19th century. This was when the movement got its start and strategy.


The temperance movement is a social movement against the consumption of alcohol. This can be achieved through religious views, sympathy, abstinence or new laws. Some groups used sympathy and peer support (what we would think is more of a modern idea) and some used the church pulpit and scare tactics.

A group of artisans in Baltimore in the year 1840 founded “The Washingtonian’s”. They pledged complete abstinence and used peer stories and support to help others recover from the effect of alcohol. They thought coercion was a highly ineffective method, though this was the method preferred with most temperance groups at the time. The Washingtonian’s meetings were open to the public, encouraged group participation and were open to both men and women. They did not believe that drink destroyed the person’s morality but that they could be healed through sympathy and support.

Abraham Lincoln spoke to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society on February 22, 1842. In his speech, he critiqued the early methods of the movement as they were too forceful to work effectively.  He understood that reason was the solution to the problem of intemperance, praising the current methods of the Washingtonian movement.


Only five years later, the Washingtonian movement was declining in prominence. Evangelist reformers had worn down the society from years of attacking them due to the fact that they refused to admit alcoholism as a sin. Many of the members would go back to drinking after a short time and this helped erode the image of the group. As the years went by the membership had increasingly divided views on laws governing alcohol sales and consumption. Many other groups sprang up with similar methods as the Washingtonian society though: Sons of Temperance and The Good Samaritans. These groups used many of the same methods in their organizations except they had closed meetings and membership qualifications.


After 1850, most of the movement was motivated to change the laws of the land rather than help rehabilitate the citizen. In these movements drunkenness was seen as a sin and prayer meetings were held instead of support sessions. Many groups that might be familiar to you today started in this time: Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Cary Nation headed up a chapter of the WCTU in her hometown and made headline across the United States.  She smashed bars in the Midwest with her hatchet along with an ardent group of followers. This lead to a sign being placed in bars across the country saying “All nations welcome except Cary Nation”.


Many times the Temperance movement overlapped with the abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage. A side effect of this movement is the idea to introduce clean drinking water to the public via fountains called “temperance fountains” aka a water fountain. During the 1840’s and 1850’s many states started passing laws prohibiting the sale and consumption of alcohol. At this time, the US government let each state decide for itself what it wanted to do with this issue. Alcohol consumption dropped by half between the years of 1830 and 1840 from the existence of this movement.


Around 1870, a group of physicians founded “American Association of the cure of Inebriety” (AACI). This group was a scientifically based treatment group. The two goals of the group were to convince the medical community how serious this disease was (and still is) and to prove that asylum treatment programs were effective. Treatment for this group was physical and moral based. One of the beliefs of this group was that alcoholism was genetic.


The most famous group that many people associate with this movement is the “Anti-Saloon League”. They were founded in 1893.  Susan B Anthony headed this group and believed that women had to have the ballot in their hands to effect change in the temperance movement. This group was one of the big supporters of the prohibition law in the 20th century.


Through the steady work of all these groups during the 19th century, they made it possible to bring prohibition and the Volstead act into actuality in the early 20th century. Some look at the goals of these groups as folly (total abstinence of alcohol and liquor) but I feel like these experiences helped the nation find its way out of prohibition and into a more compassionate and scientific view of alcoholism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s