History of Drinking in America: Part Three


Lyman Beecher – American Temperance Society Co-founder

This is part three in a series recounting the history of drinking in America leading up to Prohibition.  While we hear a lot about the consumption of alcohol during Prohibition, seldom discussed is the importance of alcohol (and its consumption) at earlier dates in American history.  This research was very interesting and I hope you enjoy it! 

Read part one here.

Read Part two here.

While social historians point to the Jacksonian age as an influence on drinking – the messages self reliance, masculinity and rugged individualism seemed tailor made for  the hard drinker and distiller – drinking in America was also buoyed by European immigration and the growth of cities in pre-Civil War America.  From 1830 to 1860 two million Irish immigrated to the United States, bringing with them a culture of drinking and public house frequenting.[1]  Escaping political persecution and famine, these Irish settled mostly in busy Northern urban centers.  They often faced discrimination (both racial and religious due to their Catholicism), abject poverty, and dangerous factory work.  In an effort to connect their communities and escape their difficult living conditions, Irish men bonded together through social gatherings and drinking Irish whiskey.  “Faced with an openly hostile environment, and both unable and unwilling to Americanize, the immigrants seized upon drinking as a major symbol of ethnic loyalty.  That is they drank hard to assert their Irishness.”[2]  Visiting the public house for a drinking session also served another purpose.  By congregating among themselves, the Irish used the pub as a way to keep off the streets and out of trouble.  This cause was supported by Irish American leaders, who could use these visits to organize politically and pass out free drinks to elicit support.  While the Irish pub served its political purposes well (in cities like Boston, Chicago, and New York the Irish would wield considerable clout) )rter) it also lead to higher rates of inebriation and the pervasive stereotype of the ‘drunken Irishman’,

Germans were the second largest group to immigrant in the antebellum period.  From 1830 to 1860, 893,000 Germans immigrated to the United States.[3]  Much like the Irish, the Germans brought their own culture of drinking with them.  Preferring Lager beer to Whiskey, German run breweries began popping up in the German immigration centers of St. Louis and Milwaukee in 1840.  These German breweries – Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, Schmidts, Coors, Schiltz, and others – set up local saloons where their beer could be enjoyed.  Unlike Irish immigrants, Germans were not negatively associated with their drinking.  While Irish normally drank liquor, the German preference for beer seemed more respectable.  German brewing helped promote drinking as part of American culture (and perhaps, also helped assimilate recent German immigrants) in the period prior to the Civil War.  Throughout most American cities, saloons and pubs catered to immigrants and other members of the working class, providing them with a place to congregate with members of their social and ethnic group.

As drinking, urbanization, and immigration increased prior to the Civil War, so too did the modern temperance movement.  Like its predecessor, the temperance movement that emerged in the 1820s and 1830s was heavily influenced by the writings of Benjamin Rush who “laid out nearly all the fundamental lines of argument” of the concerned reformers. [4]  One such reformer was Lyman Beecher, a Connecticut Presbyterian minister who began lecturing on the evils of alcohol in New England in 1814.  A dynamic preacher who linked alcohol to all of societal ills (including spousal and child abuse), Beecher became a celebrity whose published sermons spread throughout the United States and Europe, fueling the cause of temperance across the globe.  As Beecher gained popularity, many other protestant ministers followed suit, fueling the Second Great Awakening in the United States which took aims at societal reform – including the abolition of slavery and temperance.

In 1826, Beecher helped form the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance in Boston, MA.  Later taking the name the American Temperance Society, the group organized temperance revival meetings and wrote songs and pledges promoting abstention from all types of alcohol.   Membership in the group exploded – by 1834 the American Temperance Society had over one million members and had chapters in every state and United States territory.[5] Their message regarding alcohol was simple; alcohol was an addicting substance which overpowered its users and tore at the fabric of families and societies.  While the American Temperance Society name suggested a primary focus on alcohol, the organization was also concerned with the expansion of women’s rights and the abolition of slavery, which lead many Northern African Americans (including an all black group called the Sons of Soil) and women to champion their cause.

The cause of temperance spread throughout the United States in the 1840s as more groups were created with alcohol abstinence in mind (the groups were usually religious in nature, but not always).  In 1840, The Washington Temperance Society, whose members were known as the Washingtonians, were formed by a small group of reformed drinkers who believed that by sharing personal stories and conducting membership meetings they could turn drunkards sober (a mission similar to the modern Alcoholics Anonymous).  In seven years their membership grew to over 600,000, with most of its members self declared alcoholics.[6]  Much like other temperance groups of the era they hoped that personal pledges against alcohol would lead to a reduction of intemperance in America and in turn improve society.

As the cause of temperance spread, America’s attitude toward drinking changed.  Between 1830 and 1840, the average alcohol consumption rate dropped about three gallons per drink age person, one of the largest drops in American history.[7] While the early temperance movement favored personal choice in the reduction of drinking, reformers soon began creating laws that limited or outlawed the consumption of alcohol.  An early victory occurred in 1832, when Lewis Cass (Secretary of War under Andrew Jackson) ended the practice of distributing spirit rations in the navy. Throughout the middle part of the Nineteenth Century, ‘drys’ (nickname for those who favored temperance) worked to restrict alcohol licenses for taverns, where the majority of alcohol was being consumed in America.  These battles were essentially a standoff with little progress being made.  Taverns operated without licenses or used their political connections to prevent any real progress from being made.

Into the 1840s and 50s, temperance groups started requesting meetings with politicos and advocating state and local dry laws.  While most of these attempts were unsuccessful, it signaled a change in focus for many temperance advocates.  By the middle of the Nineteenth Century, many temperance groups began to focus on the prohibition of alcohol altogether, rather than a promotion of teetotaling (a term which originated with pledges to sustain from all alcohol) as a personal choice.

In 1846 a group of prohibitionists lead by Portland Mayor Neal Dow began to push for a statewide ban on intoxicating liquor in the state of Maine.  By 1851, they had achieved their goal and “the crusade to ban liquor in America won its first major victory.”[8] While it was a victory for those in the temperance movement, the victory was short-lived.  Immigrants and working class people rebelled against the law, leading to riots and eventual repeal.  In other states, temperance advocates likewise turned their efforts to prohibition helping to create various laws banning liquor and other alcoholic drinks.   At the same time, a party called the Native American Party (commonly referred to as the Know Nothings) began to appear throughout America.  The group was notably anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, which lead to the party seeking a restriction of immigration as well as restrictions of liquor (which Know Nothings felt exacerbated the immigrant problem).  While various political parties had temperance candidates running for regional and elected office in the 1850s, the Know Nothings linked the two under the same political platform.

While novel that Know Nothings articulated such a platform, it was hardly unusual for nativism and temperance to be linked.   Men like Mayor were notoriously anti-Catholic and immigrant, and many people in temperance crowds had nativist leanings.  However, most political parties successfully skirted these issues on a national level.  The 1850s was awash with many divisive issues – including nativism and temperance – but also the issue of slavery.  Various regional parties sprouted out of these issues, further confusing the political landscape.  In the end, the issue of slavery overpowered all others.  “Temperance movements all over America lost their momentum and in time, one by one…state Prohibition laws were repealed.”[9]  The question of slavery came to dominate the political landscape both before and after the American Civil War.  Temperance Advocates had to take a back seat to the more pressing issues of the era.

[1] Lender and Martin 58-59.

[2] Ibid, 60.

[3] Lender and Martin, 61.

[4] Levine, 450.

[5]Clark, 32

[6] Ibid., 33.

[7] Lender and Martin, 72.

[8] Akhil Reed Amar, America’s Constitution: A Biography (New York: Random House), 415.

[9] Edward Behr.  Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996), 31.

7 thoughts on “History of Drinking in America: Part Three

  1. Simply a great story! This is right up or alley! 😀

  2. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Four

  3. Pingback: History For Free | History of Drinking in America: Part Five

  4. I don’t even know how I ended up here, but I thought this post was great.
    I do not know who you are but certainly you are going to
    a famous blogger if you are not already 😉 Cheers!

  5. I’m am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I wanted to read how alcohol impacted our early history. This is very enlightening. Thank you.

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