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Monday, February 27, 2023

February 27, 2023: Temperance Milestones: 1623

[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 a couple historical and movement lessons from that 400th anniversary.

As with many things early 1600s, it’s difficult to find too much specific information about the groundbreaking temperance law enacted in Virginia on March 5th, 1623. The colony’s first royal governor Francis Wyatt and the recently-established colonial legislature deemed that date Temperance Day in an attempt to prohibit, as the law put it, “public intoxication.” That was just the first public and political step in a century-long debate in the colony over alcohol and its effects, as traced at length in Kendra Bonnett’s 1976 PhD dissertation Attitudes toward Drinking and Drunkenness in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (I’ll admit to having only briefly skimmed the beginning of that thesis for this post, but it’s linked there for anyone who wants to read more!). While those specific Virginia and 17th century contexts are of course important to understanding this law, I want to use that 1623 moment to introduce a couple key lessons about temperance in America for this entire weeklong blog series.

For one thing, it’s crucial to understand how longstanding, widespread, and indeed foundational American temperance debates have been. Much of the narrative around this issue links it to early 19th century reform movements, which were certainly influential and about which I’ll have a lot more to say in tomorrow’s post. But it’s pretty striking and telling that one of the very first laws passed in collaboration by two of the first European American political entities—both Virginia’s royal governor and its colonial legislature were only four years old at the time—addressed the issues of alcohol, drunkenness, and temperance. Moreover, while we might expect that the other principal English colony at the time, Puritan Massachusetts, would enact such a law—and while the Puritans most definitely had strong opinions on strong drink, but similarly more in opposition to public drunkenness than alcohol itself—this took place in the far less overtly religious (or at least religiously governed) Virginia colony. Clearly the issue was consuming across the new colonies from their outset.

But it’s just as important to note what this groundbreaking law specifically did and didn’t do. The temperance movement is often closely associated in our collective memories with—if not directly defined by—the goal of prohibition, an understandable connection given that particular, prominent early 20th century Constitutional amendment and 13-year period (with which I’ll end the week’s series). Indeed, the association is so strong that one definition of “temperance” has come to be “abstinence from strong drink.” But I would argue that that definition emerged because of the association of the movement with prohibition, and that another definition—“the quality of moderation or self-restraint”—is more foundational to the word and movement alike. Virginia’ Temperance Day didn’t ban or even legally restrict alcohol, just “public intoxication”—a demonstrable lack of moderation or restraint in the consumption of such drinks. There’s at least a spectrum in play here, and one that would continue to shape the movement’s goals and laws throughout the subsequent 400 years.

Next milestone tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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