- Historic Sites
The Secret Life Of A Developing Country
September/october 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
At a drunkard’s funeral in Enfield, Massachusetts, in the 1830s —the man had strayed out of the road while walking home and fallen over a cliff, “his stiffened fingers still grasping the handle of the jug” —Rev. Sumner G. Clapp, the Congregational ist minister of Enfield, mounted a log by the woodpile and preached the town’s first temperance sermon before a crowd full of hardened drinkers. In this way Clapp began a campaign to “civilize” the manners of his parishioners, and “before many years there was a great change in the town; the incorrigible were removed by death, and others took warning.” Drinking declined sharply, and along with it went “a general reform in conduct.”
Although it remained a powerful force in many parts of the United States, the American way of drunkenness began to lose ground as early as the mid-1820s. The powerful upsurge in liquor consumption had provoked a powerful reaction, an unprecedented attack on all forms of drink that gathered momentum in the Northeast. Some New England clergymen had been campaigning in their own communities as early as 1810, but their concerns took on organized impetus with the founding of the American Temperance Society in 1826. Energized in part by a concern for social order, in part by evangelical piety, temperance reformers popularized a radically new way of looking at alcohol. The “good creature” became “demon rum"; prominent physicians and writers on physiology, like Benjamin Rush, told Americans that alcohol, traditionally considered healthy and fortifying, was actually a physical and moral poison. National and state societies distributed anti-liquor tracts, at first calling for moderation in drink but increasingly demanding total abstinence from alcohol.
Liquor consumption provoked a powerful reaction: an unprecedented attack on drinking.
To a surprising degree these aggressive temperance campaigns worked. By 1840 the consumption of alcohol had declined by more than two-thirds, from close to four gallons per person each year to less than one and onehalf. Country storekeepers gave up the sale of spirits, local authorities limited the number of tavern licenses, and farmers even abandoned hard cider and cut down their apple orchards. The shift to temperance was a striking transformation in the everyday habits of an enormous number of Americans. “A great, though silent change,” in Horace Greeley’s words, had been “wrought in public sentiment.”
But although the “great change” affected some Americans everywhere, it had a very uneven impact. Organized temperance reform was sharply delimited by geography. Temperance societies were enormously powerful in New England and western New York and numerous in eastern New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. More than threefourths of all recorded temperance pledges came from these states. In the South and West, and in the laborers’ and artisans’ neighborhoods of the cities, the campaign against drink was much weaker. In many places drinking ways survived and even flourished, but as individuals and families came under the influence of militant evangelical piety, their “men of business and sobriety” increased gradually in number. As liquor grew “unfashionable in the country,” Greeley noted, Americans who wanted to drink and carouse turned increasingly to the cities, “where no one’s deeds or ways are observed or much regarded.”
Closely linked as they were to drink, such diversions as gambling, racing, and blood sports also fell to the same forces of change. In the central Massachusetts region that George Davis, a lawyer in Sturbridge, knew well, until 1820 or so gaming had “continued to prevail, more and more extensively.” After that “a blessed change had succeeded,” overturning the scenes of high-stakes dice and card games that he knew in his young manhood. Impelled by a new perception of its “pernicious effects,” local leaders gave it up and placed “men of respectable standing” firmly in opposition. Racecourses were abandoned and “planted to corn.” Likewise, “bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and other cruel amusements” began to dwindle in the Northern countryside. Elsewhere the rude life of the tavern and “cruel amusements” remained widespread, but some of their excesses of “sin and shame” did diminish gradually.