The Incredible Evolution of the Temperance Movement in 10 Distinct Moments
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 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