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Wednesday, March 1, 2023

March 1, 2023: Temperance Milestones: Three Reformers

[400 years ago this week, the first temperance law in American history was passed. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that 1623 law and four other milestone moments in temperance history!]

On takeaways from a trio of temperance reformers across the 19th century.

1)      Sylvester Graham (1794-1851): As that hyperlinked article argues, Graham’s temperance activism was just one small part of his truly multi-layered efforts for health and wellness reform. But my older son dressed up as and interpreted Graham for an APUSH project earlier this year, and in his honor (and in tribute to Graham’s most enduring legacy, the undeniably tasty Graham Cracker) I wanted to include the quirky and influential Graham in this post. Moreover, Graham did hold a position for years with one of the organizations I highlighted yesterday, the Philadelphia Temperance Society, so he did see alcohol abstinence as an important part of his overall health reforms. While analyzing the longitudinal history of the temperance movement over these 400 years is one important way to think about this issue, it’s equally worthwhile to connect each specific moment latitudinally to other elements of its era and society, as Graham’s multi-faceted efforts remind us.

2)      Neal Dow: But some reformers did laser-focus on temperance throughout their lives and careers, and while Portland, Maine’s Neal Dow (1804-1897) did other important work as well—including with the Underground Railroad and as a Civil War Brigadier General—temperance was the through-line, leading to his nickname as the “Father of Prohibition.” Active in the movement since his early 20s, it was with a pair of closely linked mid-century elections that he really took his efforts to the next level: he was elected president of the Maine Temperance Union in 1850 and then mayor of Portland in 1851. Dow saw his political role as an extension of his movement activism, to the point where in 1855 he ordered state militia members to open fire on rioters who opposed his “Maine Law,” the first in the nation to prohibit all alcohol. Dow even tried to take those political goals truly nationwide, running for President in 1880 as the nominee of the Prohibition Party. In those and other ways, the political history of prohibition is inseparable from the career of Neal Dow.

3)      Carrie (sometimes Carry) Nation (1846-1911): While Dow did order that moment of militia violence, his own activisms remained more on the organizational and legal levels, as was the case with the 19th and early 20th century temperance movement as a whole. But all social movements feature a variety of perspectives and tactics, and not long after Dow’s presidential run the temperance movement came to be dominated by a figure who preferred much more direct and violent action. Believing herself called from God to oppose all things alcohol—“a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what He doesn’t like,” as she strikingly put it—Nation’s activist weapon of choice was neither words nor laws, but a literal weapon, the hatchet with which she attacked both liquor bottles and the businesses that served them (leading to the nickname “Hatchet Granny”). While Nation was part of the broader community of the Anti-Saloon League about which I’ll write tomorrow, she was also profoundly and powerfully individual, as were each of these influential temperance reformers.

Next milestone tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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