American Temperance Society: It Led to Prohibition

The American Temperance Society (ATS) began in Boston on February 13, 1826. It was first called the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance.


I.   Goal

II.  Goal Changed

III. Resources

Two Presbyterian ministers co-founded the group. They were Justin Edwards and the better-known Lyman Beecher.

I. Goal

Justin Edwards said the purpose of the organization was simple. It was to promote temperance while letting drunkards “die off and rid the world of ‘˜an amazing evil.'”

Lyman Beecher shared that goal. However, he was strongly anti-Catholic and racist. He even refused to admit African-American students to his classes at Lane Theological Seminary.

The formation of the American Temperance Society marked the beginning of the national temperance movement in the U.S. Within five years there were 2,220 local chapters in the country. The total number of members was 170,000.

And within ten years there were over 8,000 local groups. Total membership had grown to over 1,500,000. Moreover, all had taken a pledge to abstain from drinking distilled spirits.

II. Goal Changed

American temperance society
Justin Edwards

The ATS was like most other temperance groups at the time. It called for abstention only from drinking spirits. Thus, members could drink beer and wine.

This reflected the myth that spirits were more alcoholic than the other beverages. But standard drinks of beer, wine and  spirits all have the same amount of alcohol. It’s 0.6 ounces per drink.

A standard drink is:

  • A 12-ounce bottle or can of regular beer.
  • A 5-ounce glass of dinner wine.
  • A  shot (one and 1/2 ounces) of 80 proof spirits.

With the passage of time temperance groups increasingly pressed for abstention from all alcohol. Then they pushed for the legal prohibition of alcohol. Not simply voluntary abstinence.

The ATS currently publishes Listen: A Journal of Better Living.

III. Resources: American Temperance Society

American Temperance Society
Lyman Beecher

American Temperance Society. What Does It Mean to You? A Pictorial Look at the Past. Washington, D.C.: ATS, 1976.

American Temperance Society and American Temperance Union. Boston: Seth Bliss and Perkins, Marvin, 1835. (Reprinted by Arno Press, 1972)

Carlson, D. “Drinks He to His Own Undoing”: Temperance Ideology in the Deep South. J Early Repub, 1998, 18(4), 659-691.

Dickinson, W. Temperance. The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Nashville, TN: Tenn Hist Soc, 1998.

Temperance Movement. Ohio History Central.