The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments

Larry Holzwarth - July 16, 2018

The social movement against any use of alcohol other than for medicine began in the United Kingdom, spreading to the United States as the temperance movement. It arose during a hard drinking age when the use of alcohol was fully accepted by the upper classes and the bourgeoisie, both of which came to condemn drunkenness among the poor and lower class. Both beer and wine were considered healthful beverages, but a growing backlash against distilled beverages began to develop in England, especially one drink believed to be the cause of all of the troubles of London’s poor – gin.

The gin craze in London, which lasted about forty years when gin could be distilled by anyone and their product was untaxed, produced cheap liquor and the inevitable backlash. Those of upper society, consuming wines and brandies, found the gin craze to be the ruination of the British working class. Temperance societies, which in the 1720s included coffee as an intoxicating liquor and coffee houses as dens of iniquity, began to preach against the ravages of drink. In the American colonies, gin was not the problem it was in London, and rum became the product of the demons of hell. The temperance movement in America predated its independence.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
In Hogarth’s Gin Lane, a drunken woman loses her baby, an undertaker prepares a burial, and the pawnbroker takes a craftsman’s tools, presumably in exchange for money to be used to buy gin. Wikimedia

Here are ten milestones in the evolution of the temperance movement which led to prohibition in the United States.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
The temperance movement relied, and still relies, on moral implications which had little basis in fact in the majority of cases. Wikimedia

The early temperance movement in the United States

In the beginning, the temperance movement in the United States was church based, with small groups forming in congregations, for the most part men who mutually pledged to each other to practice moderation when consuming alcoholic beverages. At the time the complete exclusion of alcohol was unwise, particularly in cities and larger towns, where the water supply was often questionable as to its quality. Locally brewed beer, which was the only kind of beer there was, and wine were considered healthful beverages. Distilled spirits, which in America consisted of brandy and rum, and to a lesser extent whiskey, were the beverages focused upon by the temperance groups.

In the developing western areas, farmers found it was easier to move their crops to market – particularly corn, rye, and barley – in liquid form, and whiskey distilling grew. Temperance groups, focused on moderation rather than abstinence, began to form outside of the churches, though often with their support. Wesleyan, Calvinist, and Methodist congregations were all in theological agreement with the practice of moderation. Following the War of 1812 there began in the United States a religious and moral movement called the Second Great Awakening, and during the period the issues of abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and temperance became linked.

In 1826, at the height of the Second Great Awakening, the first calls on a national level for the prohibition of the sale of alcoholic beverages were heard. The American Temperance Society was formed, and driven by religious fervor, expanded rapidly to include over 1 million members within a decade, across several states. The Second Great Awakening also saw the birth of Mormonism and the creation of Seventh-Day Adventism, both of which called for abstinence. The consumption of alcohol, in the eyes of the most fevered of the reformers, became the great national shame, its production and sale the great national sin.

In the United Kingdom a similar movement developed, driven largely by Presbyterian ministers and congregations, and the movement, as in America, was soon linked to women’s suffrage. A healthy exchange of correspondence between the movements across the Atlantic led to the development of temperance newspapers, magazines, and propaganda. By 1831, Presbyterian churches on both sides of the Atlantic required a pledge of total abstinence, signed in the presence of the congregation, before salvation could be received. Temperance became irretrievably linked to total abstinence and the prohibition of alcohol.

The Mormon Word of Wisdom is a health code written while the Mormons were living in the vicinity of Kirtland, Ohio. The Word of Wisdom includes total abstinence from alcohol. At the time it was written Joseph Smith was a consumer of alcohol, a practice which he continued following the move to Nauvoo, Illinois, and Smith did not counsel total abstinence. The Word of Wisdom was viewed as advice, rather than law, which it became in 1921. Later apologists attempted to portray Smith as a teetotaler, refusing alcohol even as an anesthetic, but contemporary reports document his social drinking of beer and wine, as well as other “violations” of the Word of Wisdom.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
A cartoon pokes fun at a temperance man, who were viewed by those inclined to drink as self-righteous and unreasonable. Often they were. It also contains a pun on the word “bier”. Wikimedia

A temporary triumph of reason

Not all temperance societies were formed and driven from the pulpit. In 1840 artisans and mechanics in Baltimore, Maryland, formed a society originally consisting of six men, who pledged to be mutually supportive of each other in practicing total abstinence from alcohol. They called themselves the Washington Temperance Society, proselytized to other alcoholics, which at the time were called drunkards, by telling them of their own experiences with alcohol, and taught them the route to sobriety. The society was formed more than a century before Alcoholics Anonymous, which copied many of their practices.

By 1840 the temperance movement in America was in full throat, and from pulpits and in temperance group meetings the call was for the complete prohibition of alcohol, not because of health or societal problems, but because the consumption of alcohol was a sin, and the failure to call for its abolition was equally a sin. The Washingtonians focused on the needs and support of individual drunkards, ignoring the religious overtones, and eventually came to oppose the condemnation implied by religious zealots regarding those addicted to alcohol. The group expanded to more than 600,000 by the time of the American Civil War.

In the 1840s the rising politician Abraham Lincoln spoke in the Illinois Legislature in praise of the non-judgmental approach of the Washingtonians in addressing the issue of drunkenness (the terms alcoholic and alcoholism had yet to be coined) and in the same speech criticized the self-righteous shrieking of the religion based temperance movement. The Washingtonians themselves were strictly non-religious and non-spiritual, but they were not necessarily against either religion or spirituality. This brought them under attack from the various religion based anti-alcohol movements, and even led to the creation of new groups.

The Washingtonians were condemned from the pulpits and public temperance meetings as being a humanist group. Their refusal to condemn the drunkard as first being sinful and being “cured” only through salvation was declared to be heretical, since they placed themselves before God. The attacks on the Washingtonians were strident, and the group, having little formal organizational structure, responded individually, when they responded at all. Christian temperance groups also publicized the failures of drunkards to reform using the Washingtonian’s methods, often displaying lapsed drinkers at their own meetings before offering them salvation.

In the 1850s the group splintered as its various branches became involved in other social issues of the time, including abolitionism, women’s suffrage, and prohibition. It also suffered from the attacks of the religious societies, and by the time of the Third Great Awakening in the 1850s the group was for all practical purposes extinct. Treating a personal alcohol problem in a humane and reasonable manner was unacceptable to the temperance societies, which would accept nothing less than the complete elimination of the sin of alcohol from American society, along with the abolition of slavery which would create a more perfect America in their eyes and in the eyes of the Lord.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
A card certifying membership in Band of Hope, a temperance society which still exists as Hope UK. National Library of Wales

The Third Great Awakening

In 1847 in the British industrial city of Leeds, a new approach in the battle against alcohol was formed which was called the Band of Hope. A Baptist minister and advocate for total abstinence from alcohol named Jabez Tunnicliff decided that the way to achieve total abstinence was to begin with children, teaching them the moral failings from its use and the godliness of teetotalism. Band of Hope was pointedly directed at the children of drinking men. Band of Hope soon expanded into the salvation of adults and other temperance activities, including issuing a card for those who signed a pledge to abstain from alcohol.

In the United States another religious revival swept the country, tied to the three great social reforms of the period, which were women’s suffrage, abolition of slavery, and prohibition of alcohol. The Third Great Awakening straddled the American Civil War, and reformed drunkards were expected to use local churches and other evangelical means to reform other drunkards. In New England these groups were known as ribbon clubs, and they spread the word through the mid-west and after the Civil War throughout the South. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) was founded primarily to provide an alternative urban destination for young men besides the bar or the brothel.

In urban areas the first Gospel missions began to appear around this time, offering the homeless and displaced food and shelter in exchange for sobriety and a pledge for abstinence. Though these movements were less coercive than some of the earlier Christian temperance movements, they still emphasized that the drunkard was trapped in the ravages of sin and as man was helpless against the devil alone, the only path to sobriety was through salvation, and the only means of staying on the path to true salvation was complete abstinence. For the first time the proponents of prohibition began to be called “drys”.

The drys scored some victories against the “wets” during this period, including local restrictions on where and when alcoholic beverages could be sold. An 1845 Michigan law gave municipal governments the authority to regulate or ban sales of alcoholic beverages. In 1851 Maine passed a law prohibiting alcohol, the first of several such laws passed before the Civil War. States became known as wet or dry. Under Maine’s law, alcohol was only allowed for “medicinal, mechanical, or manufacturing”, and the law was met with strong opposition, including rioting. The law was repealed in 1856, but the earlier victory redoubled the efforts of the temperance movements.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union, founded in Ohio in 1874, became an international organization in 1875, and in its constitution explained its goal as, “entire prohibition of the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors as a beverage”. The WCTU viewed (and still views) alcohol as a societal ill rather than a weakness of an individual, a position it also adopted over the use of tobacco. Besides taking the position of prohibition (which it still advocates) the WCTU became an active proponent of the women’s suffrage movement, since in its official view women were morally superior to men, who needed the influence of their votes to stave off social evils.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
The pledge for the Maine Chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Every chapter had its own pledge, but they shared reference to God’s help, without which alcohol could not be overcome. Wikimedia

The temperance movement grows larger

In 1864 the Salvation Army was founded in London, taking the military as its organizational structure, with its own flag, its own hymns, and its own uniforms. It was and is a protestant Christian religious denomination, founded to save the worst of London’s sinners; drinkers, prostitutes, and gamblers. In the eyes of its founder, former Reformed Methodist minister William Booth (who titled himself a general) the mission of the Salvation Army could be described as the three S’s. “The three S’s best expressed the way in which the Army administered to the ‘down and outs;'” said Booth, “first, soup; second, soap; and finally, salvation.”

Funding for the Army was the responsibility of Booth’s wife Catherine, who approached the well-to-do of London seeking financial support for the new religion, which demanded its converts, henceforth to be known as its soldiers, refrain from alcohol and tobacco, gambling, drugs, and other nefarious activities as they completed their duties of recruiting new members. In 1880 the Salvation Army invaded the United States and was soon at the forefront of the temperance movement in America, pushing for the removal from society of the temptations presented by the brewers, distillers, and importers of alcohol. It soon developed an enemy army.

At first in England, and later in America, pub owners and their loyal customers formed what they called the Skeleton Army, which disrupted Salvation Army parades and recruiting pitches, using the time honored technique of showering speakers with rotten eggs and vegetables, as well as more dangerous missiles. Several riots occurred in British cities as a result of clashes between the Salvationists and the Skeletons. The Skeletons emerged in opposition to the habit of Salvation Army soldiers positioning themselves outside of saloons and pubs, recording the names of who entered and attempting to convert them with the promise of free food just down the street.

In 1893 a new organization arose from the growing international temperance movement in Oberlin, Ohio, which before the Civil War had been a hotbed of abolitionism. The new Anti-Saloon League had a single goal, which at first it directed at the state level in Ohio, but soon became national. That goal was the national prohibition of alcoholic beverages. It spread throughout the nation quickly, allying itself with the church based temperance movements and the national temperance organizations. One of its chief premises was that the saloon led to the corruption of local governments, preventing the resolution of issues critical to workers and their families.

The alliances between the various temperance factions had by the turn of the century created a national propaganda campaign in the United States which accused the liquor and brewing industries of corrupting politics at the national level, saloons and bars as corrupting it at the local level, and the morals of the nation threatened by drink. The inability of women to vote was also attributed by suffragettes to alcohol in part, as drinking men sought to protect the saloon where they often ate lunch or enjoyed an after work libation. The saloons soon faced another enemy, one more dangerous than the drys and the suffragettes.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
Bible in one hand, hatchet in the other, a picture of reasonableness and compromise, Carrie Nation was often accompanied by hymn singers as she destroyed a saloon’s stock of alcohol. New York Times

Carrie Nation

Mental illness ran in the family of Carrie Moore, whose mother believed that she was Queen Victoria, causing the family to move many times in Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas. After the end of the Civil War Carrie met a former Union Army doctor, whom she married in 1867, and whom she left the following year after giving birth to a daughter. The doctor died in 1869, supposedly from the ravages of alcoholism. In 1874 Carrie married for a second time, to David Nation, a lawyer and minister who was 19 years older than his new bride. After failing at farming in Texas and at saddlemaking and running a hotel. the Nations moved to Medicine Lodge in Kansas in 1889.

David Nation worked as a preacher and Carrie operated a small hotel. She also started a branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Carrie’s daughter from her first marriage by then exhibited the mental health issues which had plagued Carrie’s mother (delusions, among other symptoms) and Carrie began to pray for direction in her life. According to what she later wrote, Carrie’s prayers were answered in a divine vision in which she was directed by the Almighty to smash saloons with rocks. Specifically, the saloon to be smashed was in Kiowa, and the direction to smash it was accompanied by the reassurance, “I’ll stand by you.”

In accordance with her orders, Carrie visited Dobson’s Saloon on June 7, 1900, announced to its patrons that she was there to save them, “from a drunkard’s fate”, and proceeded to use rocks to smash the business’s fixtures and stock. It was her husband’s suggestion, offered sarcastically, that she should switch to using a hatchet; she took up the suggestion and he divorced her the following year. Arrested repeatedly, her bail and fines were paid for through speaking and appearance fees and WCTU donations. Between 1900 and 1910 Carrie was arrested more than thirty times and became nationally famed and feared.

Carrie also became a vocal supporter of women’s rights and the suffragette movement, and led marches in several towns and cities of women supporters of prohibition in the Home Defender’s League, which argued that the existence of saloons was a threat to the safety and security of the family and home. Carrie proclaimed that she was a, “bulldog running along the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like”, and became a leading proponent of women abandoning the wearing of tight clothing and corsets, which she claimed damaged the internal organs by compressing them together, and were in any case degrading to women.

Later in life Carrie Nation capitalized on her notoriety, appearing in vaudeville in the United States and on a tour of music halls in Great Britain, where she was booed off one stage and driven off another by objects thrown at her by the audience. She began selling photographs of herself holding her famous hatchet, and toy hatchets as souvenirs in order to make money. She died in a hospital for those suffering from addictions and mental disorders in Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1911. Following her death the Women’s Christian Temperance Union did much to lionize her, including overstating charitable works and other activities for which there was little historical evidence.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
With the Anti-Saloon League manning the pump in the background, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union flushes a Honolulu brewery with healthful water in this cartoon. Wikimedia

Momentum for prohibition grows

By 1900 the temperance movement was impacting virtually every area of American life, and had made several inroads overseas. Nearly all states had at least some communities which banned alcohol, and several states were entirely dry. The temperance movement and evangelical religious movements were inextricably linked. The Anti-saloon league had succeeded in obtaining some forms of prohibition, such as no Sunday sales of alcohol. In 1880 the Cincinnati Reds Professional Baseball Club was kicked out of the National League for the crime of selling beer at their ballpark on Sunday, which was not viewed as a sin in the city’s large German community.

During the Gilded Age, urban saloons were often connected to breweries, especially in cities with large German and Irish populations such as St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati. These cities also contained other large industries and working men were often offered free lunches along with their steins of beer, featuring heavily salted foods to increase thirst. Also during the Gilded Age the size of a man’s girth was viewed as a measure of his affluence, and conspicuous consumption to the point of obesity was common, though food was never blamed for its overconsumption as alcohol was when it was taken to excess.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century the battle lines between the wets and drys became more clearly drawn, along lines derived by the temperance groups and the propagandists who supported them. In industry manufacturers of soft drinks came to support the idea of prohibition as a means of increasing demand for their products. Wayne Wheeler of the Anti-Saloon League developed the tactic of pressuring dry supporters to vote for measures limiting alcohol regardless of party affiliation, in effect making Republicans and Democrats partisans for prohibition rather than party.

Wheeler’s use of pressure politics was so effective it became known as Wheelerism, and his constant use of the tactic in the 1910s was the single most effective weapon in the passing of the 18th Amendment, which launched Prohibition in the United States. Yet it likely still would not have passed were it not for events in Europe. As World War I began, German communities in the United States were marginalized and after America entered the war the German communities lost their influence entirely, as anti-German hysteria gripped American cities. It was during World War I that the 18th Amendment was finally ratified by most states.

Dry activists supported the 16th Amendment, which created the federal income tax, as a means to remove the argument of the wets that alcohol taxes were critical to the operation of the federal government. Knowing that the vote of women was essential to the support of national prohibition they also supported women’s suffrage, though the 19th Amendment was not ratified until after prohibition was the law of the land. The temperance movement was critical in the creation of the women’s right to vote and income taxes in the United States. It also created prohibition, which Winston Churchill called, “an affront to the whole history of mankind.”

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
Nathaniel Currier’s (of Currier and Ives) lithograph traces the drunkard’s tottering steps from his first drink to suicide, as his grieving widow and orphan are ignored. Library of Congress

Progress in the twentieth century

Although the temperance movement in Great Britain shared the goal of their comrades in America of eliminating alcoholic beverages entirely, they were realistic in appraising their chances of success. In the first decade of the 20th century the British temperance movement adopted the tactic of limiting the number of places where alcoholic beverages could be obtained, and then limiting the number of hours per day in which they could be open for business. Britain’s ruling Liberal Party adopted the policy of supporting local options and attempted to pass a law closing a significant number of pubs, but resistance by the Conservatives and the powerful brewing industry stopped them.

The temperance movement in the UK received a boost when the First World War began, and US President Woodrow Wilson issued limits to the sale of alcohol to nations at war. Officially neutral, the United States was divided for a time over whether to support the British and French or the Germans, such was the extent of the German community in America. The pro-German leanings led to much of the British generated war propaganda which identified the Germans as the “brutal Hun”, an image the Germans added to themselves with their U-boats, especially after the sinking of the Lusitania and the loss of American lives.

With limited alcohol from the United States and grain sales curtailed to support food production, the Liberal Party in the UK passed the Defense of the Realm Act in 1914. It was determined that watering beer to stretch its supply, lowering its alcohol content and weakening its taste, was an important contribution to the defense of the Empire. The hours in which pubs could operate were subject to licensing, longer hours required a more expensive license, and an additional tax was placed on beer and ale, at the rate of one penny per pint. In 1916, many of the pubs which were up to then operated by the breweries were nationalized by the government.

In other parts of the British Empire other methods were taken to curtail the sale and consumption of alcohol, urged by the temperance movement and enacted under the guise of war measures. New Zealand came close to enacting national prohibition several times during the course of the war. As with its neighbor Australia, laws were passed which severely limited the hours during which purveyors of alcohol could be open for business, and bars were required to close early. Canada passed similar laws, as well as limiting alcohol content in beer to 2.5%. For a short time, Canadians crossed to the United States for beer.

While the worldwide temperance movement still argued that the banning of alcohol was a moral Christian imperative, by 1915 the actual accomplishment of prohibition was in the hands of the politicians. In December 1917 the United States Congress passed a resolution calling for an amendment to the Constitution establishing national prohibition. By January 1919 it had been ratified in 36 states and became law. In October of 1919 Congress passed the Volstead Act – legislation which established the means of enforcing the new national law. Americans began to buy up existing stocks of alcohol before Prohibition began in 1920.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
During Prohibition, illegal Speakeasies became so prevalent in the United States that by 1929 movies were made about them. Wikimedia

Prohibition and the temperance movement

When the 18th Amendment was ratified the members of the temperance movement were ecstatic in the United States. Senator Morris Sheppard of Rhode Island, who wrote it, claimed, “There is as much chance of repealing the Eighteenth Amendment as there is for a hummingbird to fly to the planet Mars with the Washington Monument tied to its tail.” Temperance movement proponents, having achieved their cherished goal, had to find a new moral cause to impose upon their fellow citizens. Many turned their attention to the UK, eagerly hoping to secure a similar law there.

Almost immediately, medical professionals questioned the wisdom of prohibition, since much of the medicines of the day contained alcohol and prescribing distilled spirits had been a large part of their profession. Doctors recognized the therapeutic uses of alcohol, including beer, and were staunchly supported by the brewers. During the 1920s doctors wrote $40 million worth of prescriptions for “medicinal” alcohol, equivalent to about $500 million in the early 21st century. Doctors also expressed concern over the unsafe drinking habits which developed, as well as the dangers of bootleg spirits such as bathtub gin which were soon being consumed.

Some industrialists tried to claim that prohibition was working, measured by a decline in absenteeism among their workers, but others pointed to the ever increasing crime rate, the emergence of organized crime in the illicit liquor industry, and the increase in government corruption, as clear indications that it was not. The temperance movement began to lose its influence, despite the passage of the nineteenth amendment and the award of the vote to women. The Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union began to lose influence with both voters and the politicians they supported. By 1925 it was clear that Prohibition was a failure, but the wets lacked the votes to repeal the eighteenth amendment.

No amendment had ever been repealed in the history of the United States, although several had failed ratification, and the wets bided their time. As the 1920s wound down the national economy thrived, though it was fueled by a stock market which was out of control, funded with largely borrowed money. When the economy collapsed and the Great Depression began the government faced the need to stimulate the economy and support the banking system, neither of which it had the funds to complete. With a large portion of the American work force idle, the taxes formerly paid by alcohol sales, supplanted by the income tax, dried up.

The temperance movement and its allies opposed the return of alcohol production and sales in the United States with renewed vigor, but the failure of their so-called “Noble Experiment” was obvious to all but the most fervent of their devotees. In the Deep South the Anti-Saloon League had allied itself during the 1920s with the Ku Klux Klan to enforce prohibition, which significantly reduced its influence in the northern and western states. The temperance movement was unable to stem the growing demand for the return of alcoholic beverages, which as even they had to admit, never went away, but simply went underground.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
Congress took steps to ensure the ratification of the 21st Amendment would be in the hands of the people, rather than the possibly corrupted state legislatures, ending Prohibition. Wikimedia

The return of alcohol in the United States

Another factor which the temperance movement didn’t anticipate was the change in the roles played by women in society in the 1920s. The introduction of the speakeasy and the creation of new cocktails, coupled with jazz and all the other trimmings of the Roaring Twenties led to women joining men in nightclubs, bars, and saloons. Women of the younger generation, their right to vote secure, took up the habits of clubbing, drinking, and smoking. The flapper girl became a symbol of the age. The moralists in the temperance movement recoiled in shock, but their protestations fell on deaf ears. The fun of illicit consumption ensured that prohibition was dead.

Still, it remained the law of the land, and the federal government and state governments spent fortunes to enforce it, or at least give the appearance they were attempting enforcement. Even before the eighteenth amendment was ratified anti-prohibition organizations – the antithesis of the temperance movement – were lobbying against prohibition. More than forty such organizations existed by 1928, basing their arguments for repeal on everything from personal liberty to the loss of the revenue stream from lost taxes to the healthfulness of drinking beer and wine. During the depression, it was the tax argument which carried the most weight. The federal government needed the money.

On March 4, 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as President of the United States. On March 22, he amended the Volstead Act, exempting beer of up to 3.2% alcohol content by weight (about 4% by volume) to be produced and sold in the United States. Light wines were also allowed to be sold and consumed. Although many states hesitated to allow beer and wine within their borders, particularly in the religion dominated Deep South, Prohibition was no longer a federal law. Hundreds of local breweries across the country had not survived the 13 years of the nation being totally dry, but many were soon back in business.

The repeal of Prohibition via the twenty-first Amendment used a mechanism in the Constitution which had never been used to that time. Up until then, states had voted to ratify amendments in their legislatures. The writers of the twenty-first Amendment, supported by both Houses of Congress, specified that the amendment would be ratified by the states in ratifying conventions. The writers, (at the urging of FDR) used this method, which is authorized and described in Article V of the Constitution, to circumvent state legislators in the pockets of temperance movement organizations. As of 2018, the 21st Amendment remains the only Amendment to the Constitution so ratified.

Proposed by Congress in February, 1933, the 21st Amendment was ratified by December 5, and put in force on December 15. Besides being the only amendment to be ratified in the manner described, it is also the only amendment repealing an earlier amendment to the Constitution. It was a severe blow to the international temperance movement, but not a fatal one, as several of the organizations returned to the level from whence they came, focusing their efforts on the control of the consumption of alcohol on the local and state level in the United States, through the moral condemnation of alcohol, taught to youths in the schools.

The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
Officers of the national Anti-Saloon League in 1921. To enforce Prohibition in the South they allied themselves with the Ku Klux Klan, losing much of their moral authority in the North. Library of Congress

The temperance movement after Prohibition

Just because the federal government no longer prohibited the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages did not mean that all Americans had ready access to their favorite beverage, or the ability to enter a saloon or bar. Although as of 1966 no state was fully dry, many states retain dry counties, and within mixed counties dry communities such as towns, villages, and townships. Temperance movement adherents worked to retain this toehold after the removal of prohibition and continued to do so into the 21st century. In doing so they relied on their old allies, the evangelical protestant churches. The Anti Saloon League continued to support local prohibition, providing information under its current name, the American Council on Addiction and Alcohol Problems (ACAAP).

The ACAAP continues to argue for abstinence and works to reduce the availability of alcohol as well as advertising for products which contain alcohol. It is comprised of local temperance organizations and nearly two dozen national Christian denominations, and among its goals is the reduction of the supply of alcohol and demand for alcoholic beverages. The ACAAP’s member organizations were instrumental in restoring the minimum age to purchase alcoholic beverages to 21, and increasing federal excise taxes on alcoholic beverages, according to its website. The ACAAP advocates, “…voluntary abstinence as the best lifestyle choice for children and youth as well as for adults.”

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union remained after Prohibition ended, though each decade since the 1930s membership has decreased. At the turn of the 21st century there remained at least one WCTU organizational chapter in every American state and in 36 countries internationally. In the years after Prohibition was repealed it continued its efforts to recruit members willing to sign a pledge to refrain from the use of alcohol, and against tobacco. The WCTU continued in its efforts to limit the availability of alcohol after the failure of Prohibition, and lobbied the federal government to remove it from military bases and Indian reservations. In the latter they sometimes found support of tribal elders.

Around the world the temperance movement continued during the 1930s and during World War II, when it ran into allied government’s intent on supplying beer to the troops in the field and in Pacific Islands, as a means of bracing morale. The US government renewed the practice during the Korean War and the Vietnam War, despite protests from temperance groups that providing the troops with alcohol was immoral and encouraged binge drinking, with non-drinkers providing their allotment of alcohol to others who consumed too much. Temperance movements worldwide have also argued for lower blood alcohol content levels while operating a motor vehicle.

Alcoholism began to be considered a disease which could be treated medically and psychologically during the twentieth century, removing much of the moral stigma with which it was labeled by the temperance groups. That it was scientifically proven to be treatable by means other than salvation removed much of the self-appointed moral authority of the temperance movements, leading to their decline. They are not completely gone and probably won’t be anytime soon, and it is unlikely that they will again be able to impose their values and beliefs upon an entire nation. But if the history of the movement teaches anything, it is that they are likely to try.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“American Temperance Movements: Cycles of Reform”, by Jack S. Blocker, 1989

“Beware the First Drink! The Washingtonian Temperance Movement and Alcoholics Anonymous”, by Leonard U. Blumberg and William L. Pittman, 1991

“Woman and Temperance: The Quest for Power and Liberty”, by Ruth Bordin

“The Anti-Saloon League”, entry in Temperance and Prohibition, The Ohio State University, online

“Carry A. Nation: Retelling the Life”, by Fran Grace, 2001

“Wayne B. Wheeler” The Man Who Turned Off the Taps”, by Daniel Okrent, Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010

“The Liberals in Power, 1905-1914”, by Colin Cross, 1963

“Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933”, by Thomas R. Pegram, 1998

“American Women and the Repeal of Prohibition”, by Kenneth D. Rose, 1996

“Alcohol Prohibition in America is not over Yet”, by Scott Keyes, Pacific Standard, February 6, 2015