Temperance in the Mid- to Late Nineteenth Century

The movement to ban alcohol and ostensibly,  to save the family, was spearheaded by such temperance leaders as Woman’s Christian Temperance Union leader Frances Willard,  who led the organization from 1879 until she died in 1898.  Her motto was “Do Everything,”  and the WCTU led very active campaigns advocating for a wide variety of civic changes: public water fountains, girl’s precision drill teams,  and mandatory temperance education in public schools.  However,  they were strongly preceded in this movement by patriarchal organizations such as the Washingtonians and the Sons of Temperance.  The Good Templars,  in contrast, allowed female members. Of course, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was dominated by female members.

One of the earliest temperance movements, according to Stolberg, was the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance,  formed in 1813 by Lyman Beecher, a Protestant minister.

This was a group of clergy and leading community members who hoped to prevent the “lower social class”  from drinking.  This group disbanded in 1823, not succeeding in their mission.

The Washingtonians 
Launched by six formerly hard-drinking men, the Washingtonians became a movement that attracted an astonishing 600,000 people who signed sobriety pledges. The organization also had sister organizations:  Martha Washington groups for women.  According to author William White, the Washingtonian movement all started with an argument at a tavern when the proprietor stated that temperance lecturers were all a bunch of hypocrites. Several of the men wondered if this was true, so they decided to attend a temperance lecture to discover for themselves if there was anything to it. Apparently they were considerably moved by the lecture because subsequently they and two of their fellow drinkers decided to form their own organization.  They created their own pledge,  which read:  “We,  whose names are annexed, desirous of forming a society for mutual benefit, and to guard against a pernicious practice which is injurious to our health,  standing and families, do pledge ourselves as gentlemen that we will not drink any spirituous or malt liquor, wine, or cider.” The members as well as the leaders of the Washingtonians were drawn from working class individuals, meeting weekly.

Author William White describes the weekly meetings of the Washingtonians in his book Slaying the Dragon, and his description of these meetings sounds remarkably like the format of today’s Alcoholics Anonymous meetings:  “Instead of the debates,  formal speeches,  and abstract principles that had been on the standard temperance meeting agenda, the main bill of fare at a Washingtonian meeting was experience sharing-confessions of alcoholic debauchery followed by glorious accounts of personal reformation. Following these opening presentations by established members, newly arrived alcoholics with bloated faces and trembling hands were offered the opportunity to join.  As each newcomer came forward,  he was asked to tell a little of his own story, then sign the abstinence pledge amid the cheers of onlookers.

This ritual of public confession and public signing of the pledge carried great emotional power for those participating. It evoked, at least temporarily, what would be described one hundred years later as ego deflation or surrender.”

The Washingtonians organization ultimately spurred more than 600,000 people to sign pledges of sobriety,  and thousands of their members marched in temperance parades.  However,  by 1845, the movement had lost most of its momentum.  Some experts have theorized that conflicts with religious groups were responsible for the decline of the movement,  while others said the organization had a weak internal structure or that other reasons were responsible for its demise.

Many former members of the Washingtonians joined the Sons of Temperance, another fraternal
order that was founded in 1842 and grew to about 250,000 members.

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