Many antebellum reformers attacked the scourge of drunkenness. This engraving
depicts the kind of barroom antics that most reformers wanted to squelch.
But drinking had more serious consequences as well. Many alcoholic men
spent their paychecks on liquor, leaving their families to suffer. Others
became abusive. The movement to attack drunkenness took root principally
among the Evangelical Protestant sects that flowered during the Second
Great Awakening of the early nineteenth century. In communities across
the north, activist evangelicals formed voluntary associations for the
reform of individuals' characters. These groups sought to keep their own
members on the straight and narrow. But, as importantly, they also sought
to reform their neighbors habits. By 1840, these groups made up a core
constituency of the Whig Party, and informed its policy of moral reform.
This reform movement drove most Democrats to distraction. As a party devoted
to individual liberty and increasingly comprised of immigrants who cherished
cultural traditions featuring alcohol consumption, Democrats seethed when
evangelical Whigs sought to reform them. This issue became one of the
parties' major points of departure during the Second Party System (1840-1860).