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May 26, 2017

Some Background on the Prohibition Movement

Smith explains some reasons why the temperance movement switched from advocating voluntary methods to calling for coercive prohibitory laws during the 1830s.

In previous essays in this series I sketched some features of the temperance movement in nineteenth-century America, but I think it might prove helpful to provide additional details, especially given the considerable overlap between the prohibition movement and the abolitionist movement. I shall therefore postpone my final remarks about Lysander Spooner’s Vices are not Crimes until the next essay.

In 1830 a temperance publication (Journal of Humanity) praised the American Temperance Society, the leading reform organization, for its adherence to strictly voluntary methods. It “stands pledged to the public fully, and we trust irrevocably, never make any appeal to legislators or officers of the law, for the aid of authority in changing the habits of any class of their fellow citizens.”

When abstinence has been achieved by “legitimate means—such as the influence of example and appeals to the reason and conscience”—then this journal would report and praise such progress. But it would never endorse political efforts to bring about even this laudable goal. The “astonishing success of temperance efforts” in recent years was due largely to “the scrupulous care, with which agents and societies generally have avoided every measure that could lead to the association of their labors, even in the minds of the ignorant and prejudiced, with the operations of government and law.”

Moral suasionists (in contrast to prohibitionists) argued that vices could be corrected only by the light of truth, and that to punish sinners for their poor judgments—which is a weakness inherent in human nature—runs contrary to Christian principles. True virtue comes from within. To compel a person to abstain from alcohol may change his behavior from fear of punishment, but it does not constitute authentic moral reform. Unless a change comes from the reason and conscience of the individual it does not possess moral value. Only voluntary persuasion, not coercion, can bring about this goal. 

Another common argument against legal prohibition was especially interesting. If we allow a social problem to become the object of law, then political hacks will fall over themselves in an effort to gain votes by posing as champions of the cause in question. An important social cause will thereby degenerate into a debating point between political factions whose real objective is to gain or maintain political power. This would demean an important social crusade, needlessly divide those who favor the cause of temperance reform, and create a situation in which false promises and misrepresentations are rampant, as political factions criticize other factions for their incompetence in solving the problem while offering their own agendas as the only solution. And all this for the sake of gaining votes.     

Given the remarkable success of the voluntary temperance movement during the 1820s and early 1830s—hundreds of distilleries and taverns closed up shop for lack of business, and membership in temperance societies increased dramatically—why did so many leading reformers begin to call for prohibition during the mid-1830s? One reason had to do with the increasing influence of teetotalers—those “ultras” who called for total abstinence not only of distilled liquors but also of fermented drinks like wine and beer. The controversy over this matter was intense, and it caused a serious rupture in the temperance movement. The revolutionary physician Benjamin Rush (a close friend of Thomas Paine who suggested the title Common Sense for Paine’s highly influential pamphlet) was an early advocate of temperance who maintained that beer and wine could profitably be used to wean drunkards off hard liquor. Rush became something of an icon in the temperance movement, and many reformers followed his lead. But the ultras would have none of this; alcohol was alcohol in whatever form it was taken, so moral people should abstain from wine and beer as well as from whiskey and other spirituous liquors.

This controversy brought about a significant decline in the membership of temperance societies for the first time in years, as moderates (some of whom had no problem with drinking per se so long as it was not excessive) refused to affiliate themselves with the ultras. Some ultras made matters worse by attacking moderates as traitors to their cause. In addition, every state had licensing laws that regulated the manufacture and sale of liquor, but these laws were easily and frequently evaded. The ultras maintained that licensing laws, even if strictly enforced, gave the government’s permission to drink alcohol and so represented a sanction of drinking by government. This made state governments complicit in the sin of intemperance. No right-thinking Christian could possibly tolerate this situation, according to the ultras. This illogical leap from a government respecting the freedom of individuals to choose for themselves to supposedly sanctioning their choices remains with us today, as ultras in the war on drugs complain that the legalization of marijuana in some states amounts to a sanction, or approval, of its use by those state governments. (In this series I have usually avoided comparing the war on alcohol to the war on drugs; the similarities are obvious to my readers, for one thing. But in this case the temptation was too great.)

After the controversy over beer and wine had thinned the ranks of temperance societies, ultras became worried about the declining influence of their great crusade. Moreover, to generate a change in public opinion took a long time—far too long for those evangelical Christians who wished to hasten the second coming of Jesus by creating a moral society. (See my discussion of “postmillennialism” here.) A leading historian of the prohibition movement put the matter this way:

To some influential leaders…the slow process of changing public opinion by precept and example no longer seemed adequate. For ten years their proud boast had been that the only weapon necessary in their fight was moral suasion, but their early faith in the perfectibility of man was being sadly shaken by constant experience with man’s obstinate refusal to forsake the error of his ways. The demand for a change in methods was gathering force. Moral suasion had been weighed in the balance and found wanting….So legislation was urged as a last resort in a critical struggle. All the achievements of a decade would be lost, said certain alarmists, if legislative enactments were not invoked against manufacturers and vendors of intoxicating liquor. (John Allen Krout, The Origins of Prohibition, 1925, p. 171-72. Previous quotations were taken from Krout’s excellent book.)

I originally weaved my discussion of prohibition into this series on abolitionism by noting that the vast majority of abolitionists were also prohibitionists. The relationship was a close one indeed. It was also a tricky relationship. Temperance societies were popular in the South, and there was fear by temperance organizations in the North that they would offend Southerners if their cause became too closely associated with abolitionism. Quoting Krout (p. 176) once again:

After William Lloyd Garrison established The Liberator in 1831, many southerners began to distrust the temperance journals which came out of New England. They recalled that for several months in 1828 Garrison had been editor of the National Philanthropist, allied with the American Temperance Society, and they interpreted this editorial relationship as an indication that a strong bond of sympathy existed between temperance and abolition periodicals.  

As Krout pointed out later in his book (p. 289):

Indeed, the one group on which the prohibitionists could always rely was the anti-slavery element….The determined enemies of human bondage wanted to be considered foes of the traffic which enslaved men to the vice, intemperance. They never tired of pointing to the similarity between the two movements.

According to standard prohibitionist doctrine, the consumption of alcohol was primarily responsible for three great social evils: pauperism, insanity, and crime. It is scarcely coincidental, therefore, that Lysander Spooner focused on these three topics in his attack on prohibition.

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