Continued: National Prohibition of Alcohol in the U.S.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7



Alcohol was viewed positively while its abuse was condemned. "In 1673, Increase Mather praised alcohol, saying that 'Drink is in itself a creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness'" (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 10). Consistent with that belief, toddlers drank beer, wine, and cider with their parents and regular use was seen as healthful for everyone (Asbury, 1968, pp. 3-4; Sinclair, 1962, pp. 36-37; Popham, 1978, pp. 267-277). For more than 30 years, because of this belief, abstainers had to pay one life insurance company rates 10 percent higher than that for drinkers. This was because the abstainer was considered "thin and watery, and as mentally cranked, in that he repudiated the good creatures of God as found in alcoholic drinks" (Kobler, 1973, p. 26).

A historian has pointed out that:

Alcohol was pervasive in American society; it crossed regional, sexual, racial, and class lines. Americans drank at home and abroad, alone and together, at work and at play, in fun and in earnest. They drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn. At nights taverns were filled with boisterous, mirth-making tipplers. Americans drank before meals, with meals, and after meals. They drank while working in the fields and while traveling across half a continent. They drank in their youth, and, if they lived long enough, in their old age. They drank at formal events, such as weddings, ministerial ordinations, and wakes, and on no occasion-by the fireside of an evening, on a hot afternoon, when the mood called. From sophisticated Andover to frontier Illinois, from Ohio to Georgia, in lumber camps and on satin settees, in log taverns and at fashionable New York hotels, the American greeting was, "Come, Sir, take a dram first." Seldom was it refused. (Rorabaugh, 1979, pp. 20-21)


In colonial America, informal social controls helped maintain the expectation that the abuse of alcohol was unacceptable. There was a clear consensus that while alcohol was a gift from God its abuse was from the Devil. "Drunkenness was condemned and punished, but only as an abuse of a God-given gift. Drink itself was not looked upon as culpable, any more than food deserved blame for the sin of gluttony. Excess was a personal indiscretion" (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 132).

Informal social controls operated both in the home and in the larger community:

Central to the drinking culture of colonial life was the tavern (used here as a term to cover inns, taverns, and ordinaries-any licensed establishment where alcohol was served on the premises). The role of the tavern in colonial America and the attitudes toward it were quite different from what they would become in the nineteenth century. The tavern was considered an integral part of community life, second only in importance to the meetinghouse, which served as the church, town hall, and courtroom. The laws of most colonies required towns to license suitable persons to sell wine and spirits for the convenience of travelers and town dwellers; failure to do so could result in a fine. Contrary to the modem practice of keeping alcohol outlets a certain distance from schools and churches, colonial taverns were often required to be located near the meetinghouse or church. In towns that lacked a meetinghouse or in those where the meetinghouse did not provide sufficient warmth in winter, "religious services and court sessions were held in the great room of the principal tavern; there, ecclesiastical affairs were managed, the town selectmen and county justices met to conduct the business of government, and the voters assembled for town meetings" (Popham, 1978, p. 271). Those who attended these gatherings naturally took advantage of the hospitality of the tavern, the expenses not infrequently being paid out of town funds. People also came to taverns to see plays and concerts, to attend lodge meetings, to participate in lotteries, to read newspapers, and to engage in political debate. Taverns were, in fact, more important as centers of social activity than as places in which to drink. Most drinking took place in the home or at communal gatherings. (Popham, 1978, pp. 267-277; Conroy, 1984) (Prendergast, 1987, p. 27) 3

Tavern owners were expected not only to disperse food, drink, and hospitality, but also to monitor behavior and keep their customers in check (Aaron and Musto, 1981,pp.132-133).

When informal controls failed, there were always legal ones. Alcohol abuse was treated with rapid and sometimes severe punishment. Habitual drinkers "were whipped or forced to wear a mark of shame. Once so labeled, they could be refused the right to purchase liquor. During the seventeenth century, all of the colonies specified a fine or prescribed the stocks for the first drunkenness offense. Repeated offenders often received sentences to hard labor or corporal punishment" (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 11; also see Krout, 1925, pp. 27-28). While infractions did occur, the general sobriety of the colonists suggests the effectiveness of their system of informal and formal controls in a population that averaged about three and a half gallons of alcohol per year per person (Rorabaugh, 1991, p. 17). That rate was dramatically higher than the present rate of consumption.


As the colonies grew from a rural society into a more urban one, drinking patterns began to change. Rum became increasingly popular. As the American Revolution approached, economic change and urbanization were accompanied by increasing poverty, unemployment, and crime. These emerging social problems were often blamed on drunkenness. "This simplistic scapegoating of an intoxicant . . . now seems a predictable accompaniment of social unrest and economic problems. The basic scenario has been repeated often-opium, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, each takes its turn as demon for a day" (Mendelson and Mello, 1985, p. 15).

Following the Revolutionary War, the new nation experienced cataclysmic social, political, and economic changes that affected every segment of the new society. Social control over alcohol abuse declined, antidrunkenness ordinances were relaxed and alcohol problems increased dramatically. Drinking, which had been controlled by the tightly knit family and social fabric in the colonial period, increasingly became an individualistic activity associated with masculine aggression and antisocial behavior by the early nineteenth century (Peele, 1987, p. 69). Alcohol use became segregated by gender and age, which encouraged excessive consumption, and concern was frequently expressed over immoderate drinking. "As community life in the colonies became less cohesive and structured, the social sanctions that had kept drunkenness to a minimum began to lose their power (Schlaadt, 1992, p. 9).

The Revolution had caused a shift in the beverages consumed. When the British blockade had prevented the importation of sugar and molasses, and thereby disrupted the production of rum, a substitute was sought to meet the demand for spirits in general and for provisions for the Revolutionary Army in particular. It was found in whiskey produced largely by Scot-Irish immigrants who had settled on the frontier (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 135).

Even before the Revolution, whiskey had become the preferred way to use surplus grains in the frontier settlements west of the Appalachian Mountains. The expansion of a corn belt in Kentucky and Ohio had created a corn glut. There were no roads in the region and most transportation was by packhorse. It cost more to transport corn or grain than it could bring on the eastern markets, so farmers distilled it into "liquid assets" that could easily be shipped or bartered. Practically every farmer made whiskey and it became a medium of exchange (Roueche, 1960, pp. 39^0). One wrote that "Distant from a permanent market, and separate from the Eastern coasts by mountains, we have no means of bringing the product of our lands to sale either by grain or meal. We are therefore distillers" (Rorabaugh, 1979, p. 54).

By 1810, there were at least 2,000 distillers producing more than two million gallons of whiskey (Roueche, 1960, p. 42). By the 1820s, whiskey sold for twenty- five cents a gallon, making it cheaper than beer, wine, coffee, tea, or milk (Rorabaugh, 1991, p. 17). Annual consumption may have been as high as ten gallons per person (Clark, 1976, p. 20; Asbury, 1968, p. 12). 4

This level of consumption was over four times the current rate. However,"liquor tended to be taken in small quantities throughout the day, often with meals. Instead of a morning coffee break, Americans stopped work at 11:00 a.m. to drink. A lot of work went undone but in this slow paced, preindustrial age this was not always a problem. A drunken stage coach driver posed little threat, since the horses knew the route and made their own way home" (Rorabaugh, 1991, p. 17).

But not all was well. Writing at the time, the famous observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, suggested that the sudden disappearance of traditional boundaries left people bereft and disoriented (Aaron and Musto, 1981, p. 136), with negative consequences for social control.

Describing the traditional mechanism that had earlier controlled drinking abuse, Aaron and Musto (1981, p. 137) have pointed out that:

Sanctions to regulate conduct, operating within an overall context of civic cohesiveness, were intended to shame the offender before the community. The stocks or the wearing of the letter "D" subjected the drunkard to ridicule, and such ceremonies of public humiliation were assumed to have a deterrent power. However, with frenzied economic and geographic mobility, exile became self-imposed. The rootless individual, seeking his fortune, living by his own wits, and answerable to no social superior, became celebrated as the national character ideal. The stable, self-policing community was demolished; the forms of behavioral management that grew out of an inherited concept of reciprocal rights and obligations became obsolete.

They (p. 137) explain that:

the combination of precipitate and bewildering change unmoored people from their sense of place, both social and physical. We do know that there was more drinking of hard liquor in settings that no longer even offered the pretense of other activities. The tavern or inn, where food and lodging provided a milieu that militated against intense drinking, gave way almost exclusively to the grogshop, essentially an early version of the saloon. Drinking became detached from earlier safeguards. And whereas before this process of detachment had provoked attempts to reassert controls, efforts at regulation became increasingly listless and ineffectual.

Solitary drinking, unencumbered by social control, increased during this time. "A sizeable number of Americans for the first time began to drink to excess by themselves. The solo binge was a new pattern of drinking in which periods of abstinence were interspersed every week, month, or season with one to three-day periods of solitary inebriation" (Rorabaugh, 1979, p. 144). "Middle- and upper- class Americans cut back their drinking drastically because it was no longer considered appropriate for an industrious life. As alcohol was eliminated from the ordinary daily routines of the middle class, when people did drink, they were more likely to go on binges where they drank all out" (Peele, 1989, p. 36).

For more on societal disorganization and alcohol abuse, visit What Causes Alcohol Abuse.


It was in this environment that people began seeking an explanation and a solution for drinking problems. One suggestion had come from one of the foremost physicians of the period, Dr. Benjamin Rush. In 1784, Dr. Rush argued that the excessive use of alcohol was injurious to physical and psychological health (Katcher, 1993, p. 275).

Apparently influenced by Rush's widely discussed belief, about 200 farmers in a Connecticut community formed a temperance association in 1789. Similar associations were formed in Virginia in 1800 and New York State in 1808. 5 Within the next decade other temperance organizations were formed in eight states, some being statewide organizations (Asbury, 1968, pp. 28-31).


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."

(Mendelson, J. H., and Mello, N. K. Alcohol: Use and Abuse in America. Boston, Massachusetts: Little Brown, 1983, p. 34.)

The future looked bright for the young movement, which advocated temperance or moderation rather than abstinence. 5 But many of the leaders overestimated their strength; they expanded their activities and took positions on gambling, profanation of the Sabbath, and other moral issues. They became involved in political bickering and by the early 1820s their movement stalled (Asbury, 1968, p. 31).

But some stalwart leaders persevered in pressing their cause forward. The American Temperance Society was formed in 1826 and benefltted from a renewed interest in religion and morality. Within 10 years it claimed more than 8,000 local groups and over 1,500,000 members (Fumas, 1965, p. 55). By 1839, 15 temperance journals were being published (Cherrington, 1920, pp. 98-123). Simultaneously, many Protestant churches were beginning to promote temperance.

... Continued on NEXT PAGE

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

References and Readings

filed under: [pending]

This site does not dispense medical, legal, or any other advice and none should be inferred.
For more fine print, read the disclaimer.