The concept of temperance simply refers to moderation or self-restraint. On the American political scene, however, it is also used to refer to political opposition not simply to immoderate use of alcohol, but even any use of alcohol. It has also been used as a label for opposition to all manner of "immoral" things aside from alcohol.
It is commonly believed that the American drive for temperance can be traced back to the Puritans, but that it is not entirely true. It may be that the desire to create a society where a person can be morally pure is indeed a legacy of the Puritans, but they themselves did not consider alcohol consumption to be immoral. As a matter of fact, drinking was an important part of both the social and economic life of the American Colonies. During the early 1800s, the per-capita consumption of distilled spirits was around three times what we have today!
Early Temperance Efforts:
It was around this time that the first organizations dedicated to reducing alcohol consumption were fromed. A leader of one of the first was Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe (the causes of temperance and abolition were often closely associated with one another).
At first these groups opposed alcohol on rather utilitarian grounds, but eventually the literature they produced characterized alcohol as a tool of the devil to lure people away from the righteous path - thus the label "demon rum" came into wide use. There was some early success and, by 1855, thirteen states had prohibition laws on the books. The Civil War reversed these accomplishments, however, and by the end only two of those states continued to ban the sale of alcohol.
Women's Christian Temperance Union:
The second wave of reform efforts started later in the 19th century, and this time it was often combined with the efforts to achieve equal rights for women. Men's use of alcohol was portrayed as part of the wider disregard for women, their needs, and the fact that they merited equal consideration at home and in the political arena. Thus, in 1874 the Women's Christian Temperance Union was created in Cleveland and achieved some impressive gains under able leaders.
The WCTU still exists today, working to support the rights and welfare of both women and children. It is supported almost entirely by Protestant churches and has offices around the world where its members try to educate people about the harmful effects of alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances.
An even more successful temperance organization was the Anti-Saloon League, a group formed with specifically religious motivations in mind. It was backed by national Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian groups - but their purposes were not simply to ban alcohol. To many, heavy alcohol use was simply a symptom of wider social evils - immigration of Catholics, increasing urbanization, increasing industrialization, weakening of traditional social norms, etc. Thus, combatting alcohol was regarded as a means for combatting and eliminating all of the above as well. Their efforts eventually led to the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment on December 18, 1917.
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