Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem

As the end of the 1800s approached, so called Scientific Temperance Instruction was widely mandated. Virtually every state, the District of Columbia, and all U.S. possessions had strong legislation mandating that each and every student receive anti-alcohol education.

However, the content of the Scientific Temperance Instruction was anything but scientific. The textbooks endorsed by the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) reflected the view that "any quantity of alcohol in any form was toxic and when consumed regularly produced inheritable disorders into the third generation."2 One such textbook asserted as "scientific" the idea that:

sometimes one is sick or suffers very much because of wrong things that his parents or grand-parents did.... Over in the poor- house is a man who does not know as much as most children four years old ... because he is the child of drinking parents whose poisoned life blood tainted his own. Many men and women are insane because they inherit disordered bodies and minds, caused by the drinking habits of their parents; and the descendants of "moderate drinkers" differ in this way as well as those of the drunkard.... This is called the law of heredity ... one of God's laws, and just like earthly laws, helps right living and punishes those who disobey.3

Another approved textbook asserted that "One of the most destructive agents man has brought into use is alcohol" and explained:

It has often been observed that children of intemperate parents frequently fail to develop into manhood or womanhood. They may not be deformed, but their growth is arrested, and they remain small in body and infantile in character. . . . Such are examples of a species of degeneracy, and are evidences of the visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the children, which may extend even into the third and fourth generations.4

By the early 1890s, the extensive exaggerations, distortions, and gross inaccuracies in textbooks endorsed by the WCTU were increasingly criticized by leading scientists and educators. The latter included the presidents of Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and Vassar.

In 1893, a group of highly respected scholars formed the prestigious Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem.5 It sought to determine facts rather than promote any theory or point of view.6

A subcommittee, headed by faculty from Harvard and Clark University, found the WCTU's program of temperance instruction seriously defective. The committee contended that children should not be taught and forced to memorize "facts" that they would later find to be incorrect. This instructional approach was seen as inappropriate and doomed to backfire.

By making such unqualified assertions as "Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison," the WCTU-approved textbooks clearly conveyed the false impression that alcohol is poison in any amount and is always harmful.7 By constant repetition of the word poison and by making numerous exaggerations and false statements, the approved texts attempted to mislead and frighten young people into abstinence.

The Committee of Fifty believed that instruction should be based on facts so that students could form their own educated opinions. They "should not be taught that the drinking of a glass or two of wine by a grown-up person is very dangerous."8 This was diametrically opposed to the view expressed by a prominent WCTU leader that "To teach the danger of forming the awful, insidious, inexorable appetite [for alcohol], is the especial province of the teacher"9 and of Mary Hunt, who referred to the enormous "harvest of death that might result from the universal teaching that the drinking of one or two glasses of wine is not 'very dangerous'" and asserted that "such teaching would be nothing less than crime."10

The investigating committee conducted a survey of all members of the American Physiological Society as well as of 45 physiologists, hygienists, and specialists in allied sciences holding prominent positions abroad. The goal was to "obtain valuable expert opinions from practically the entire scientific world" regarding Scientific Temperance Instruction.11 Although a number of the scholars opposed the consumption of alcohol, every respondent from the American Physiological Society except one "oppose[d] the so-called 'scientific temperance instruction' as it is now being promoted in the schools, the strong conviction of a number being that it is resulting in more evil than good."12 Of the foreign scientists, only one reported being in support of the approved textbooks. "Even [August] Forel, perhaps the most energetic and brilliant advocate of total abstinence in Europe, who goes so far as to maintain that alcohol in all doses is a poison, remarks, in speaking of educational methods: I think that in America somewhat unwise methods have been adopted'"13

The committee expressed concern over the ideological and propagandistic nature of WCTU-approved textbooks and of the "Scientific Temperance Instruction" movement:

As is generally the case when feeling and prejudice run high, the temptation has been irresistible to either manufacture evidence or stretch it over points that it does not cover; to call "scientific" everything that happens to agree with [its] particular prejudices, and to relegate to the limbo of human error all the evidence that appears for the other side.14

After extensively documenting "'scientific temperance' propaganda,"15 the committee noted that "It is little wonder that educators and teachers oppose 'scientific' temperance"16 because "the text-books are written with a deliberate purpose to frighten the children, the younger the better, so thoroughly that they will avoid all contact with alcohol."17 Indeed, a "study of what children actually remembered from their [Scientific Temperance Instruction] physiology classes reported one pupil's response: Alcohol 'will gradually eat away the flesh. If anyone drinks it, it will pickle the inside of the body.'"18

The committee attempted to use contemporary social scientific methods to study alcohol and to avoid the moralism of the prohibitionists. It concluded that occasional and regular moderate drinking did not cause health problems, that drinking did not inevitably lead to drunkenness, and that alcohol education should be based on a recognition that "Intoxication is not the wine's fault, but the man's."19

The committee was clearly displeased about "the manner in which scientific authorities are misquoted in order to appear to furnish support to 'scientific temperance instruction.'"20 Then, after reviewing the results of three studies of Scientific Temperance Instruction practice and outcomes, the committee concluded that "under the name of 'Scientific Temperance Instruction' there has been grafted upon the public school system of nearly all our States an educational scheme relating to alcohol which is neither scientific, nor temperate, nor instructive."21

Mary Hunt prepared a Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty in which she charged the authors of the report with being prejudiced against abstinence instruction, blasted them for what she insisted were gross misrepresentation of facts, argued that alcohol was a dangerous drug, and insisted that the WCTU- endorsed textbooks were completely accurate. She then had the Reply entered into the Congressional Record22 and distributed more than 100,000 copies.23

The zealotry of temperance activists led to the enactment of National Prohibition. However, widespread bootlegging, the growth of organized crime, violence, and many other problems resulting from the failure of National Prohibition led the American public to reject it by three-to-one.

Surprisingly, in spite of the dismal failure of Prohibition and the serious problems it created, many people and organizations today support neo-prohibition ideas and strongly defend the many vestiges of Prohibition that continue to exist.

 

References

  • 1. Nietz, John A. Old Textbooks: Spelling, Grammar, Reading, Arithmetic, Geography, American History, Civil Government, Physiology, Penmanship, Art, Music—Taught in the Common Schools From Colonial Days to 1900. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961. p. 294.
  • 2. Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1973, p. 140)
  • 3. Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: G. P. Pumam's Sons, 1965, pp. 193-194)
  • 4. Sheehan, Nancy M. National pressure groups and provincial curriculum policy: Temperance in Nova Scotia schools 1880-1930. Canadian Journal of Education, 1984, 9, 73-88. P. 104.
  • 5. Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: G. P. Pumam's Sons, 1965, p. 330)
  • 6. Billings, John S., et al. The Liquor Problem: A summary of Investigations Conducted by the Committee of Fifty, 1893-1903. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1905, p. 4.
  • 7. Timberlake, James H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963, p. 49.
  • 8. Billings, John S., et al. The Liquor Problem: A summary of Investigations Conducted by the Committee of Fifty, 1893-1903. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1905, pp. 35-36.
  • 9. Bader, Robert S. Prohibition in Kansas: A History. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1986, p. 100.
  • 10. Hunt, Mary H. Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty. Boston: Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1904, pp. 17-18. See also 58th Congress, 2d Session. Senate. Document No. 171.
  • 11. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p.14.
  • 12. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, 15.
  • 13. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 17.
  • 14. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 23.
  • 15. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 25.
  • 16. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 31.
  • 17. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 32.
  • 18. Tyack, David, B., and James, Thomas. Moral majorities and the school curriculum: Historical perspectives on the legalization of virtue. Teachers College Record, 1985, 86, 513-537. Pp. 518-519.
  • 19. Billings, John S., et al. The Liquor Problem: A summary of Investigations Conducted by the Committee of Fifty, 1893-1903. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1905, pp. 30, 35,41.
  • 20. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 35.
  • 21. Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903, p. 44.
  • 22. Hunt, Mary H. Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty. Boston: Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1904. See also 58th Congress, 2d Session. Senate. Document No. 171.
  • 23. Mezvinsky, Norton. The White-Ribbon Reform, 1874-1920. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1959, p. 184.
  • Bader, Robert S. Prohibition in Kansas: A History. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1986.
  • Billings, John S. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: Investigations Made by and Under the Direction of John 0. Atwater, John S. Billings and Others. Sub-Committee of the Committee of Fifty to Investigate the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903.
  • Billings, John S., et al. The Liquor Problem: A summary of Investigations Conducted by the Committee of Fifty, 1893-1903. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1905.
  • Furnas, J. C. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. New York: G. P. Pumam's Sons, 1965.
  • Hunt, Mary H. Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty. Boston: Woman's Christian Temperance Union, 1904. See also 58th Congress, 2d Session. Senate. Document No. 171.
  • Kobler, John. Ardent Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1973.
  • Mezvinsky, Norton. Scientific temperance instruction in the schools. History of Education Quarterly, 1961, 7, 48-56.
  • Mezvinsky, Norton. The White-Ribbon Reform, 1874-1920. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, 1959.
  • Nietz, John A. Old Textbooks: Spelling, Grammar, Reading, Arithmetic, Geography, American History, Civil Government, Physiology, Penmanship, Art, Music—Taught in the Common Schools From Colonial Days to 1900. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1961
  • Sheehan, Nancy M. The WCTU and education: Canadian-American illustrations. Journal of the Midwest History of Education Society, 1981,115-133.
  • Sheehan, Nancy M. National pressure groups and provincial curriculum policy: Temperance in Nova Scotia schools 1880-1930. Canadian Journal of Education, 1984, 9, 73-88.
  • Timberlake, James H. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement, 1900-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963.
  • Tyack, David, B., and James, Thomas. Moral majorities and the school curriculum: Historical perspectives on the legalization of virtue. Teachers College Record, 1985, 86, 513-537.

Resources on the Committee of Fifty

  • Calkins, Raymons. Substitutes for the Saloon: An Investigation Made for the Committee of Fifty. NY: Houghton, 1901.
  • Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem. A Summary of the Work of the Committee of Fifty. Boston, MA: Caustic-Claflin Co. OCLC #81503809.
  • Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem. Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem Organization and Membership List. Cambridge, MA: Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem, 1897.
  • Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem. Economic Sub-Committee. Report of the Economic Sub-Committee Submitted to the Committee of fifty, 1899. OCLC # 44414922.
  • Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem. Draft of a Bibliography of the Liquor Problem in Its Relations to Economic Conditions, Poverty, and Crime. 1895. OCLC #44414614.
  • Committee of Fifty for the Investigation of the Liquor Problem. Minutes of the Meetings of the Committee of Fifty. Cambridge, MA: 1893-1900. OCLC #49454732.
  • Wines, Frederick H., and Koren, John. Report to the Committee of Fifty. Cambridge, MA: 1895. OCLC #12087106.

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