Beginning of the Temperance Movement in the U.S.

The beginning of the temperance movement in the U.S. is easy to understand. The American Revolution, urbanization and other changes were associated with social and economic problems. These problems emerged along with increasing alcohol abuse. But many people believed that alcohol consumption caused these societal problems.

It was in this environment that people began seeking a solution for drinking problems. One suggestion had come from Dr. Benjamin Rush. He had argued that the excessive use of alcohol was harmful to physical and psychological health. (1) His views stimulated the beginning of the temperance movement.

Apparently influenced by Rush’s belief, about 200 farmers in Connecticut formed a temperance association in 1789. Similar associations were formed later in Virginia (1800) and New York State (1808). Within the next decade other temperance organizations existed in eight states. Some were statewide organizations. (2)

Temperance Organizations

The temperance  movement advocated temperance or moderation rather than abstinence. And its future looked bright. But many of the leaders overestimated their strength. They expanded their goals. Took positions on gambling, profaning the Sabbath, and other moral issues. They also became involved in political bickering. Not surprisingly, their movement stalled by the early 1820s. (3)


During the early 1800’s, temperance societies offered two pledge options: moderation in drinking or total abstinence. After those who pledged the preferred total abstinence began writing “T.A.” on their pledge cards, they became known as “teetotalers.” (4) At least that’s one theory.

But some leaders continued pressing their cause. The American Temperance Society began in 1826. So did the American Temperance Union. They both benefitted from a renewed interest in religion and morality. Within 10 years the former claimed more than 8,000 local groups and over 1,500,000 members. (5) By 1839, 15 temperance journals existed. (6)  Simultaneously, many Protestant churches began to promote temperance.

From Temperance to Total Abstinence

Temperance Goals

During the 1830s and 1840s, most temperance organizations began to call for total abstinence from all alcohol. They argued that the only way to prevent drunkenness was to eliminate drinking. Temperance groups tended to become became the abstinence groups. And new abstinence groups formed. They included, among others,  Sons of Temperance, the Congressional Temperance Society, the Templars of Honor and Temperance, and the Cadets of Temperance. (7) They would later be joined by many more temperance organizations. One of the most powerful would be the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). With the passage of time, “The temperance societies became more and more extreme in the measures they championed.” (8)

“Root beer” was a temperance product. It was developed to replace beer in popularity… it did not. (9)

Temperance Techniques

The movement now insisted that no one should be permitted to drink any alcohol. And it did so with religious fervor and increasing stridency. (10) Even when compared to the sophisticated use of mass media today, the temperance movement still rivals the best in terms of scope, commitment, and response. (11)

No effort in our era at mass communications about alcohol comes close to matching the outpouring of materials for the mass audience by the temperance movement in the nineteenth century. For decades the American public was flooded with temperance pamphlets, temperance novels, temperance newspapers, temperance sermons, and temperance lectures. It was the longest sustained and perhaps the largest organized effort at mass communication about a social issue that the country has ever seen. (12)

Prohibition was Controversial

The prohibition of alcohol by law became a major issue in every campaign. They ranged from the national and state level down to those for school board members. The issue generated deep bitterness. “It is hard for us today to grasp how profoundly this controversy pervaded every facet of American life for a century. Religious and political party affiliation were so intertwined with the prohibition issue, and feelings ran so high, that it became a rule of polite society not to allow them in conversation.” (13)

Paving the Road to Utopia

A temperance leader asserted that “This [prohibition] is Christ’s work… a holy war, and every true soldier of the Cross will fight in it.” (14) Understandably, ministers were influential and important to the cause. (15) Many mobilized their flocks by preaching that alcohol was

the great anaconda, which wraps its coils around home altars to cripple them, to make room for Bacchus. The vampire which fans sanity to sleep while it sucks away the lifeblood. The vulture, which preys upon the vials [sic] of the nations. It defies God, despises Jesus Christ, sins against the Holy Ghost, which is sinning against light and knowledge. Above all it murders humanly. (16)

In promoting what many prohibitionists saw as their religious duty, they perfected the techniques of pressure politics. (17) Women in the movement even used their children as pawns to march, sing, and otherwise

“Use a little wine….”

Because the temperance movement began to teach that drinking alcohol was sinful, it had to confront the contrary fact that Jesus drank wine. Its solution was to insist that Jesus drank grape juice rather than wine. (18)

The Bible says to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Timothy 5:23). This admonition caused serious problems for temperance writers. They argued that alcohol was a poison and that drinking it was a sin. So they insisted that the Bible was actually advising people to rub alcohol on their abdomens.  (19)

Later, temperance activists hired a scholar to rewrite the Bible by removing all references to alcohol beverage. (20)

exert pressure at polling places. They were often dressed in white and holding tiny American flags near polling places. When signaled, the children would descend upon known “wets” as they neared the voting booth.

The Anti-Saloon League

The Anti-Saloon League stressed its religious character. It was working for God. So anything it did was considered moral and justified. After all, it was working to bring about the Lord’s will.

It didn’t necessarily include the outright purchase of a politician, nor did it preclude such a buy if the situation warranted. In general, however, it consisted in swarming into a contested area and bringing every imaginable sort of pressure to bear upon the candidates and officeholders. Of saturating the country with speakers and literature. In laying down a barrage of abuse, insinuation, innuendo, half-truths, and plain lies against an opponent. And in maintaining an efficient espionage system which could obtain reliable knowledge of the enemy’s plans. Sometimes the required pressure could be applied through a man’s business or professional connections. Again, something might be accomplished through his family and relatives, in which case the local clergyman and the ladies of the W.C.T.U. were very helpful. (21)

Not surprisingly, one League leader would later write that the lies he told in promoting prohibition “would fill a big book.” (22)


Decades later, their propaganda, strong organization, and political tactics would pay off. They helped in passing the 18th Amendment establishing National Prohibition. A leader of the Anti-Saloon League testified that prior to its passage in Congress, he had compiled a list of 13,000 business people who supported prohibition. They received their instructions at the crucial time.

We blocked the telegraph wires in Congress for three days. One of our friends sent seventy- five telegrams, each signed differently with the name of one his subordinates. The campaign was successful. Congress surrendered. The first to bear the white flag was Senator Warren Harding of Ohio. He told us frankly he was opposed to the amendment, but since it was apparent from the telegrams that the business world was demanding it he would submerge his own opinion and vote for submission. (23)

The League was so powerful that even national politicians feared its strength. The 18th Amendment might well not have passed if a secret ballot had made it impossible for the League to have punished the “disobedient” at the next election. (24)

beginning of the temperance Washington with liquor

In this Currier and Ives print of 1848, George Washington bids farewell to his officers. He has a toast in his hand and a supply of liquor on the table.

Reflecting the power of the temperance movement, a re-engraved version in 1876 removes all evidence of alcohol. Gone is the glass from Washington’s hand. The liquor supply is replaced with a hat.

beginning of the temperance Politically correct Washington

Wayne Wheeler

What was written about Wayne Wheeler, Counsel for the Anti-Saloon League was true, to a lesser degree, of many other temperance leaders.

Wayne B. Wheeler controlled six congresses, dictated to two presidents of the United States, directed legislation in most of the States of the Union, picked the candidates for the more important elective and federal offices, held the balance of power in both Republican and Democratic parties, distributed more patronage than any dozen other men, supervised a federal bureau from outside without official authority, and was recognized by friend and foe alike as the most masterful and powerful single individual in the United States. (25)

Civil War

The Civil War interrupted the temperance movement while Americans were preoccupied with that struggle. Then, after the war, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was founded. Of course, the organization did not promote moderation or temperance but rather prohibition. One of its methods to achieve that goal was education. It believed that if it could “get to the children” it could create a dry sentiment leading to prohibition. (26) The beginning of the temperance movement was well under way.

Establishment of Mandatory Alcohol Education

Calls for alcohol education in the U.S. were heard as early as 1869. In that year a temperance writer, Julia Coleman, addressed the Fulton County (NY) Teachers’ Institute on the subject. (27) Similar appeals were made by others over the next few years. In 1873 the National  Temperance Society called for instruction in both public and private schools on the effects of alcohol on the human system. (28)

Mary Hunt
beginnings of the temperance
Mary H. Hunt

At about the same time, Mary Hunt, a former school teacher visited her local school board in Massachusetts. She persuaded  it to establish temperance instruction in the schools.

Then, together with Julia Coleman, Ms. Hunt extended the campaign to other school districts in the state. They promoted a series of graded lessons on hygiene and physiology prepared by the former teacher. (29) They also promoted a textbook written  by Ms. Coleman. (30)

Scientific Temperance Instruction

In 1879 Ms. Hunt accepted an invitation from Frances Willard to speak to the WCTU’s national convention. Her subject was “Scientific Temperance Instruction.” She presented her vision of “thorough text-book study of Scientific Temperance in public schools as a preventive against intemperance.” (31) Ms. Hunt became chair of a new standing committee. The following year (1880) a Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges replaced the committee. Ms. Hunt was its national head. (32)

Mary Hunt used her new position with authority. She called on each WCTU local to visit its school board to demand that Scientific Temperance Instruction be taught. Around the country, locals held mass meetings and petition drives converged on school boards to press their case. This led Ms. Hunt to observe that “It is not too much to say that the school boards of the country … are in a state of siege” at the hands of WCTU members. (33) Reflecting her strong drive, she spoke at 182 meetings in 1880. (34)


But the results were disappointing to the Mary Hunt. School boards were not as pliant as expected and it was difficult to remove recalcitrant board members. While Ms. Hunt was having difficulty promoting her temperance instruction, the prohibition movement was experiencing serious difficulties as well. During the decade, 12 of 20 prohibition referenda were defeated. In addition, states were often failing to enforce those bills that did manage to pass.

This led Ms. Hunt to conclude that voters “must first be convinced that alcohol and kindred narcotics are by nature outlaws, before they will outlaw them.” (35) She decided to use legislation to coerce the moral suasion of students. After all, they would be the next generation of voters. This gave birth to the idea of the compulsory Scientific Temperance Instruction Movement. (36)

Mary Hunt’s Strategy

Mary Hunt’s strategy was for WCTU members to pressure state legislators and promote the nomination and candidacy of pro-temperance candidates.

Ms. Hunt used her strategy first in Vermont. Highly organized members campaigned for temperance candidates. They developed letter writing campaigns. Obtained temperance endorsements from leading citizens. Presented legislators with a deluge of petitions. And then they packed open hearings on a proposed bill.

The strategy worked. The bill passed by a large majority and became law in 1882. (37) Ms. Hunt developed and pioneered the use of tactics used ever since by lobbyists and pressure groups.

Results Improved

But Mary Hunt was not entirely pleased with her first effort. The Vermont law was general and vague. She feared that a few lessons presented to a few students could be interpreted as compliance. Therefore, things were different in the next state campaign. Ms. Hunt worked to ensure that the proposed bill would require that temperance instruction be given to all students in all schools in Michigan. (38) One provision required schools to teach the harmful physical effects of alcohol. Another required teachers to pass an examination on the effects of alcohol. The Michigan law, passed in 1883, became a model for subsequent legislation in other states. (39)

Mary Hunt’s Leadership

Ms. Hunt proved to be a brilliant strategist and leader. State prohibition laws had not been faring well. Temperance could be a political minefield capable of destroying a politician. Prohibition of alcohol was an issue that shook state politics in the 19th century. Even politicians in favor of temperance didn’t want to alienate voters by proscribing drink.

Children, however, were another matter.  By the turn of the century every state and territory had laws mandating the teaching of the evils of alcohol. Many of these laws were more specific and binding than legislation on any other branch of the curriculum. (40)

Laws Strengthened

However, many of the compulsory laws were still not strong enough to suit Mary Hunt. Even while she was pressing some states to enact legislation, she was waging campaigns to strengthen existing laws. For example, due to Ms. Hunt’s continued efforts, Vermont’s easily evaded 1882 legislation was amended in 1886. Even the model Michigan act was amended to include the same provisions as the revised Vermont law. (41) From there, Ms. Hunt carried the amendment fight on to other states.

Not surprisingly, many school officials were unsympathetic or resistant to outside interference. An Ohio temperance activist complained that “school examiners, school boards and school superintendents are, many of them, indifferent to the law-ignore it-and are not dismissed.” She observed that “no law will enforce itself.” (42)

Monitoring Compliance

Accordingly, Ms. Hunt asserted that “It is our duty not to take the word of some school official, but to visit the schools. and carefully and wisely ascertain for ourselves if the study is faithfully pursued by all pupils.” (43) To this end, she asserted that local WCTU members must visit their local schools. There, theyy should  observe the temperance lessons, examinations, recitations, and textbooks. (44) The WCTU had about 150,000 members scattered in communities across the nation in 1892. Thus, it was in an excellent position to monitor compliance.

“When, in an unusual gesture of defiance, teachers in New York State protested a highly prescriptive temperance law, the WCTU mobilized influential local members to make sure that teachers were obeying the statute.” (45) Not surprisingly, both supporters and opponents used military metaphors to describe Hunt’s organization and methods.


By the turn of the century, the Scientific Temperance Instruction movement directed by Ms. Hunt had proved to be highly successful. As a result, virtually every state, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. possessions had strong laws requiring anti-alcohol education. And some textbook authors even prepared different editions of their books to meet the differing legal requirements of various states. (46) Furthermore,  legions of determined and vigilant WCTU members throughout the nation  closely monitored compliance down to the classroom level. Scientific  Temperance Instruction was now mandatory across the country.

But what did it teach? What beliefs did the temperance movement promote? To answer that, we  now turn to the amazing story of Temperance Beliefs and Teachings.  

  1. Katcher, B. Benjamin Rush’s educational campaign against hard drinking. Am J Pub Health, 1993, 83, p. 275.
  2. Asbury, H. The Great Illusion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972, pp. 28-31.
  3. Asbury, p. 31.
  4. Mendelson, J. H., and Mello, N. K. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America. Boston, MA: Little Brown, 1983, p. 34.
  5. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. NY: Putnam,1965, p. 55.
  6. Cherrington, E. The Anti-Saloon League Yearbook. Westerville, OH: The League,  1920, pp. 98-123.
  7. Blocker, J. “Give to the Winds Thy Fear.Boston: Twayne,  1985, pp. 67-72. Good description of the early beginning of the temperance movement.
  8. McConnell, D. Temperance Movements. In: Seligman, E, and Johnson, A. (Eds.) Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. NY: Macmillan, 1963, p. 569).
  9. Goshen, C. Drinks, Drugs, and Do-Gooders. NY: Free Press, 1973, p. 14.
  10. Royce, J. Alcohol Problems and Alcoholism. NY: Free Press, 1981, p. 40.
  11. Wallack, L. Mass media campaigns. Health Ed Q, 1981, 8, p. 211.
  12. Room, R. The Prevention of Alcohol Problems. Berkeley, CA: Social Research Group, Working paper F-63, 1977, p. 22.
  13. Royce, pp. 40-41.
  14. Furnas, p. 165.
  15. Schmidt, L. “A battle not man’s but God’s.” J Stud Alco, 1995, 56, 110-121.
  16. Isaac, P. Prohibition and Politics. Knoxville: U Tennessee Press, 1965, p. 21.
  17. Odegard, P. Pressure Politics: The Story of the Anti-Saloon League. NY: Columbia U Press,1928.
  18. Hanson, D. Preventing Alcohol Abuse. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995, ch 3.
  19. Edwards, G. Alcohol. NY: St. Martin’s, 2000, p. 167.
  20. The American Mix, 2001, 1(1), 4.
  21. Asbury, pp. 101-102.
  22. Asbury, p. 102).
  23. Pollard, J. The Road to Repeal. NY: Brentano’s, 1932, p. 107.
  24. Sinclair, A. Prohibition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962, p. 110.
  25. Childs, R. Making Repeal Work. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Alco Bev Study, 1947, p. 217.
  26. Sheehan, N. The WCTU and education. Hist Ed Q, 1981, 9, p. 118.
  27. Mezvinsky, N. Scientific Temperance Instruction in the Schools. Hist Ed Q, 1961, 1,  p. 48).
  28. Mezvinsky, ibid.
  29. Ohles, J. The imprimatur of Mary H. H. Hunt. J School Health, 1978, 48, p. 477.
  30. Bordin, R. Women and Temperance. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers U Press, 1990, p. 135.
  31. Billings, J, et al. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem. Boston: Hougton, Miffin, 1903, p. 21.
  32. Billings, p. 22.
  33. Zimmerman, J. “The Queen of the Lobby”: Mary Hunt, scientific temperance instruction, and democratic education. Hist Ed Q, 1992, 32, p. 2.
  34. Ohles, p. 477.
  35. Zimmerman, pp. 5-6.
  36. Zimmerman, p. 6.
  37. Mezvinsky, p. 49.
  38. Mezvinsky, ibid.
  39. Bordin, pp. 135-136.
  40. Tyack, D., and James, T. Moral majorities and the school curriculum. Teach Coll Rec, 1985, 86, pp. 515-516.
  41. Mezvinsky, p. 51.
  42. Zimmerman, p. 8.
  43. Zimmerman, p. 9.
  44.  Hunt, M. A History of the First Decade of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges. Boston: Washington Press, 1892, pp. 53, 58.
  45.  Tyack and James, p. 517. Many teachers resented this intrusion into their professional autonomy. One WCTU “compliance monitor” reported on teacher reaction. “None of [them] have taken very kindly to the new departure of being watched, questioned or advised by their constituents.”  (Zimmerman, p. 20)
  46. Nietz, J. Old Textbooks. Pittsburgh: U Pittsburgh Press, 1961, p. 294.