Temperance, most notably associated with alcohol use, refers to moderation or restraint in one’s consumption of alcohol. Temperance movements are social movements that attempt to convince others, either through morality or law, to refrain from drinking alcohol or at least moderate their alcohol consumption. These movements, some of which are still active today, have a long history. The thought of moderation regarding alcohol consumption was evident in the earliest American colonies; these ideas eventually resulted in the creation of the Eighteenth Amendment and Prohibition.
Colonists generally practiced moderate drinking throughout the 18th century. However, by the beginning of the 19th century, people began to recognize an increase in the use of alcohol. Founded in 1826, the American Temperance Society began gathering pledges calling for abstinence from alcohol. By the mid-1830s there were more than 8,000 local temperance societies in the United States, establishing temperance reform as a national movement. These organizations viewed the ever-growing immigrant-laden cities as the epicenters for moral weakening and wickedness, attributing alcohol use as the foundation for their purportedly deviant lifestyle. As a result, temperance groups and the movement itself continued to grow in popularity through organized church efforts, pamphleteering, and lectures, all of which attracted a wide range of supporters.
A major part of the temperance movement was the national Prohibition movement, also referred to as “the noble experiment.” The prohibitionists directing this movement believed that alcohol was a dangerous drug that disrupted the moral order within the family and community and destroyed lives. As a result, they believed that it was the responsibility of the government to prohibit the sale of alcohol. Between 1880 and 1890, the National Prohibition Party, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and the Anti-Saloon League of America put pressure on their local politicians to amend the Constitution.
In January 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was ratified, banning the sale and manufacture of alcohol with the sole exception of industrial use, marking the beginning of the Prohibition era. The means for its enforcement followed with passage of the Volstead Act. The law marked a triumph for the moral order, although enforcement was spotty at best and it sparked considerable public opposition. In 1933, the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition, after which the temperance movement began to fade.
Since the movement’s heyday, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been the best-known contemporary temperance effort. Although this organization promotes total abstinence from alcohol, it primarily focuses on alcoholism as a disease and has no interest in the government shutting down the liquor industry. Other modern organizations that reflect some elements of the temperance movement are Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD). These organizations have had a great impact on drinking and driving laws in the United States, such as increasing penalties, lowering the amount of alcohol required to be considered drunk, and raising the legal drinking age.
- Musto, David F., ed. 2002. Drugs in America: A Documentary History. New York: New York University Press.
- Pittman, David J. 1997. Society, Culture, and Drinking Patterns Reexamined. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies.
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