Beginnings of Temperance in America (U.S.)

Temperance Movement Began Slowly

The beginnings of temperance in America started very slowly. And they began modestly. Temperance meant drinking temperately or moderately. Temperance proponents might urge people not to drink too much. They might urge them to reduce the quantity and/or frequency of their drinking. But most often, they would encourage them to drink beer or wine instead of spirits. (Spirits are rum, gin, whiskey and other distilled beverages. They’re often called liquor.)

The idea that people should not drink spirits was based on a myth. The myth is that spirits are more alcoholic than beer or wine. But standard drinks of beer, wine, and spirits have the same amount of alcohol. It’s 0.6 ounces of pure alcohol. Alcohol-wise, they’re all the same.

This myth may have been started by Dr. Benjamin Rush. He wrote a famous pamphlet claiming that spirits were bad for people. He urged them to drink beer and wine instead. His paper was based entirely on speculation. He didn’t do any research on the subject.1


The first attempt to impose prohibition in the New World occurred. Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts attempted to prohibit all alcoholic beverages in Boston.2   The beginnings of temperance started then.


• Pennsylvania prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages to Native Americans.3
• New Hampshire prohibited the sale of alcohol so-called drunkards. Their names had to be posted in drinking establishments.4


Gen. James Oglethorpe prohibited distilled spirits in the colony of Georgia. The prohibition failed.5


The first sobriety circles were formed among Native Americans. These sometimes became the bases for temperance groups.6


A health argument in favor of temperance was first made by Nathaniel Ames.  In his Almanack he wrote that

‘Strong Waters were formerly used only by the Direction of Physicians but now Mechanicks and low-li’d Labourers drink Rum like Fountain-Water, and they can infinitely better endure it than the idle. unactive and sedentary Part of Mankind, but DEATH is in the bottom of the cup of every one.’7


•  Minister John Wesley was concerned over problems caused by intemperance. This led him  to denounce what he considered the sin of distilling. He called for its prohibition.8
•  The Free African Society, a temperance group, was formed. It excluded ‘men of drinking habits.’9


beginnings of temperance

Dr. Benjamin Rush

Dr. Benjamin Rush published his famous pamphlet, Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind. He promoted drinking beer and wine instead of spirits. He also considered alcoholism to be an “odious disease.” His “cure” involved whipping alcoholics severely, blistering their ankles, bleeding them, and purging them with toxic substances. His ideas were strange to say the least. He  promoted his belief that being a black person came from an inherited skin disease. What he called negroidism was, he thought, related to leprosy. Intermarrying, Rush argued, help spread the disease. He wrote that with proper treatment a black person could be cured and made white.10


Rev. Philip Otterbein formed the first United Brethren in Christ church in the U.S. He prohibited those who drank spirits from having communion.11

1786beginnings of temperance

Thomas Sewall was a temperance activist. He created eight colored drawings of what he called “alcohol diseased stomachs.” These promoted abstinence through fear.  One temperance leader sent a copy to every household in the state of New York. He also sent 150,000 copies to poorhouses, prisons, hospitals and schools.12


About 200 farmers in Litchfield County,Connecticut, formed a temperance group. This was a major step in the beginnings of temperance. It only discouraged drinking spirits. Thus, it was unaware of alcohol equivalence and its importance.13 .


Chief Little Turtle

Chief Little Turtle

• Native American Chief Little Turtle and a group of Quakers were concerned about alcohol abuse. At their request Congress authorized the President   ‘to take such measures from time to time as may appear to him expedient to prevent or restrain the vending or distribution of spiritous liquors among all or any of the said Indian Tribes….’14
• Members of the Congregational Church in Saratoga County, New York formed a  temperance society.15


The Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance  began. It considered drinking alcohol to be immoral.16


• The American Tract Society (ATS) began. It publishes evangelistic Christian and temperance literature. By 1851 it had distributed about 5,000,000 temperance tracts. The ATS continues it mission today.17
• The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance  began. It was the effort of two Presbyterian ministers. One, Justin Edwards, said the group was to promote temperance. This was while letting drunkards “die off and rid the world of ‘˜an amazing evil.'” The other, Lyman Beecher, was strongly anti-Catholic. He was also a racist who refused to permit African-American students in his classes at the theological seminary. The society is now the American Temperance Society. It currently publishes Listen: A Journal of Better Living.18


There were about one thousand temperance societies in the U.S. They had a combined membership of about 100,000.19


The beginnings of temperance usually, but not always, involved persuasion. But persuasion was too slow for many temperance activists. So they increasingly turned to forced temperance. Actually, to forced alcohol abstinence. This was no longer temperance. Yet the name stuck.

We’ve seen the beginnings of temperance. Now let’s discover the Emergence of Temperance.


1.  Rush, B. Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon The Human Body and Mind, J Stud Alco,, 1943, 4, 323,325-326.

2. Ford, G. Wines, Brews, & Spirits. Seattle: Gene Ford, 1996, p. 17.

3. Cherrington, E.H. The Evolution of Prohibition. Westerville, Ohio: Am Issue, 1920, p. 32.  (Includes good coverage of the beginnings of temperance.)

4. Cherrington, p. 33.

5. Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits. NY: Putnam’s Sons, 1973, p. 35.

6. White, W.L. Slaying the Dragon. Bloomington, IL: Chestnut Health, 1998.

7. Lee, H. How Dry We Were. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963, p.22.

8. Cherrington, pp. 37-38.

9. Cherrington, p. 49.

10. Rush, B.,  ibid. Rush, B. Observations intended to favour a supposition that black color (as it is called) of the Negroes is derived from the leprosy. Trans Am Philol Soc., 1799, 4.

11. Cherrington, p. 66.

12. Kayser, . A Medical Center. Washington, DC: George Washington U Press, 1973.

13. Dr. Lee’s ‘Temperance Textbook,’ 1876, p. 148. Cited by Winskill, P.  History of the Rise and Progress of the Temperance Reformation. Crewe, England: Mackie, Brewtnall & Co., 1881, p 7.

14. Kobler, pp. 41-42.

15.  History of American Beer.

16. Lee, H,   p. 23.

17.  American Tract Society. Rorabaugh, W.J. The Alcoholic Republic. NY: Oxford U Press, 1979.

18.  A Pictorial Look at the Past. Washington, D.C.: American Temperance Soc., 1976.19.  Maxwell. M. The Washingtonian Movement. Q J Stud Alc., 1950, 11, 410-452.