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Historical Themes


By Julie Roy Jeffrey, Ph.D.

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"Intemperance is the sin of our land," proclaimed evangelical minister, Lyman Beecher, "and if anything shall defeat the hopes of the world, which hang upon our experiment of civil liberty, it is that river of fire." While Beecher pointed to drunkenness as the national sin, other moral reformers identified the sin that threatened to ruin the nation differently. Women moral reformers decried male lust that ruined innocent females at the same time that abolitionists were condemning slavery as the vice that jeopardized the country's future. Still others insisted that improper diet or sexual indulgence (especially masturbation) lay at the root of the country's problems.

Moral reform was part of the voluntary effort to perfect American society that characterized the first half of the nineteenth century, but its agenda was more radical than benevolent reform. Rather than seeking to help the worthy poor or to spread evangelical practices and beliefs, moral reformers sought to rip out deep-seated human passions and inclinations and to transform institutions. Given their potentially disruptive social and economic goals, it is not surprising that moral reform societies drew members from a broader range of society than their more conservative benevolent counterparts.

The campaign against liquor was one of the most visible and energetic reform efforts. Alcohol was long part of American culture, but drink was increasingly perceived as a problem in the early nineteenth century. Temperance activism arose at a time when the consumption of distilled liquor was at an all time high. In 1810, whiskey and other distilled liquors constituted the country's third most important industrial product, and distilling was a notable economic activity on the frontier because of the high costs of shipping grain. But it was not just the quantity of spirits that was the problem. Drinking fit less and less well with the pace of industrial life and the work and behavioral values that were becoming central in middle class culture.

Early reformers attacked excessive drinking and encouraged moderation. In 1825, a tract published by the American Tract Society laid out the case for the necessity of abstinence. Lyman Beecher, one of the most prominent temperance advocates, reinforced this message in a series of influential sermons that reached a broad audience when they were later published. The argument for and against drink was starkly and simply made. Sobriety was equated with virtue and drunkenness with vice. Clergy played an important role in spreading this message and attracting followers. As one minister warned, "an army of drunkards [were] reel[ing] into Hell each year!" In various churches sobriety became an important indicator of redemption. Revivals promoted temperance and linked it to conversion.

The campaign against drunkenness made social sense in the changing economic climate. At a time when families increasingly depended on male wages, drunkenness could mean the loss of income and even of employment. The fear of poverty was intertwined with the realization that family violence was often linked to drinking. Both reinforced the religious message that drinking was a sin.

In 1825, Beecher had urged Americans to organize voluntary temperance societies, and they did on the local and state level. In 1826 a national organization, the American Temperance Society, was formed, and six years later, the United States Temperance Union. The latter organization vigorously pressed the temperance argument and eventually adopted the teetotal pledge. Taking the pledge never to drink liquor became one of the rituals of the temperance movement. Temperance meetings were somewhat sedate affairs, often featuring a lecturer who outlined the problems with drink. Printed propaganda was anything but staid, however. It featured vivid messages about the consequences of drink. Stories in the Temperance Record, published in the 1840s, made the point that even a few drinks would result in drunkenness, family and financial calamities, and even death. Whether he read the propaganda or not, Abraham Lincoln was one of many who, by the 1840s, agreed that drunkenness represented the most serious threat to the nation's future. In the 1840s, a working class temperance movement emerged. Called Washingtonian Societies, these popular associations focused on getting drunkards rather than moderate or nondrinkers to sign the pledge. Their lively meetings featured confessions from former drunkards and spirited singing. Although short lived, the Washington Societies inspired the formation of other working class temperance organizations, like the Sons of Temperance (1843). Northerners and southerners were both active in temperance. Churches sponsored early temperance activities in the South, and the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists all used their disciplinary powers over their members to promote sobriety. After 1840, temperance efforts in South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi were similar to northern, although it is likely that southern women were less involved than were northern women in the reform. In 1850, the year of the Sons of Temperance's greatest popularity, 44.3% of the membership lived in southern slave states. An important shift away from persuasion and towards compulsion came with the move to pass prohibition legislation in the 1840s and 1850s. The efforts to ban the sale, distribution, or distilling of liquor was contentious on the local and state level and contributed to the collapse of the second party system.

Men and women both became temperance advocates, but female moral reform was primarily a female cause. While the stated goals were to eliminate prostitution and rescue the prostitute, the moral reform movement's understanding of prostitution suggest that the target was actually the double standard and unrestrained male sexuality. Arguing that women prostitutes were victims rather than sexual predators, female moral reform societies identified men as "the seducer[s], worse than murderer[s]," "often the worst enemy of the other sex" and generally without "virtue sufficient" for "trust." Early attacks in publications exposed, sometimes by name, important men who frequented houses of prostitution or who seduced women in the privacy of their offices. Other publications, like the Friend of Virtue highlighted male responsibility for the seduction of innocent young poor women. Efforts to rescue young women from lives of prostitution and to force their seducers to marry them all expressed a radicalism that drew male anger.

The New York Female Moral Reform Society (1834) became one of the country's leading moral reform organizations. It actively recruited support by using hired agents to make their case in many communities outside of the New York City. Within five years, the society had 445 auxiliaries and changed its name to the American Female Moral Reform Society to reflect better its farflung membership. Like temperance societies, American moral reformers also became involved in politics, an area of life that supposedly was outside of woman's sphere. In 1838, the American Female Moral Reform Society sponsored a huge petition drive aimed at criminalizing seduction and abduction. New York women alone collected 40,000 signatures which they sent to the state legislature in 1841. Other women in other states were also active in the drive.

Later in the decade, under a new name, the American Female Moral Reform Society took on a new mission and established a home for "the friendless' and organizations to teach poor women skills. Some at the time and later interpreted the shift away from male sexuality towards protection of women as a move in a conservative direction.

Abzug, Robert. Cosmos Crumbling: American Reform and the Religious Imagination (1994)
Carlson, Douglas W. "'Drinks He to His Own Undoing': Temperance Ideology in the Deep South, Journal of the Early Republic, 18 (winter 1998).
Ginzberg, Lori. D. Women in Antebellum Reform (2000)
Mintz, Steven. Moralists and Modernizers: America's Pre-Civil War Reformers (1995).
Tyrrell, Ian. Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800-1860 (1979).
Walters, Ronald G. American Reformers, 1815-1860 (1978).

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