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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

February 28, 2023: Temperance Milestones: The Early Republic

[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 three milestone moments in the movement’s early 19th century evolutions.

1)      1813: While the issue and debate continued to simmer (to steep? Not sure of the best alcohol-based pun here) for the two centuries following the 1623 Virginia law, it was with the 1813 founding of the Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance that a truly organized Temperance Movement began to develop in the Early Republic United States. To reiterate my last point in yesterday’s post, the Society did not initially advocate for total abstinence from alcohol, but rather opposed “the frequent use of ardent spirits and its kindred vices, profaneness and gaming.” But the more than 40 chapters founded in the Society’s first five years certainly reflects how broadly and passionately shared this perspective was in the first decades of the 19th century.

2)      1826: As its name suggests, the Massachusetts Society was still somewhat local in its efforts; but a few years later, another Boston-based organization, the American Temperance Society (ATS) or American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, explicitly took the movement national. The ATS was also far more overtly committed to abstinence as a principal collective goal, with members signing a pledge to abstain from drinking distilled beverages. Moreover, while that pledge was of course voluntary, the ATS soon shifted its efforts to arguments for mandatory legal prohibition, reflecting a significant and lasting shift in the movement’s goals. The more than 1.25 million members who joined the ATS in its first decade of existence (about 10% of the total US population in the 1830s) makes clear that this was a truly communal such shift.

3)      Philadelphia: This developing national temperance movement also led to countless new local organizations—in Philadelphia alone there were 26 distinct Societies operating in 1841, and an entire building (Temperance Hall) dedicated for the movement’s meetings and rallies. Two of those Societies reflect the breadth of the movement’s inspirations and motivations: the Pennsylvania Catholic Total Abstinence Society was founded in 1840 by an Augustinian priest and focused on issues of religious and morality; while the Philadelphia Temperance Society was led by doctors and focused much more on reform narratives of health and wellness. While the movement was certainly coalescing around abstinence and prohibition in this prominent Early Republic period, it remained a broad and varied representation of the landscape of American reform, activism, and society.

Next milestone tomorrow,


PS. What do you think?

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