Origins of Reform and the Temperance Movement

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the Benevolent Empire and its related reform movements during the early 19th century
  • Describe the arguments for and against the temperance movement

Antebellum reform efforts were aimed at perfecting the spiritual and social world of the individual, and as an outgrowth of those concerns, some reformers took up the physical health of the American citizenry as their cause. Many Americans viewed alcohol abuse and the problems associated with it as a major social issue, leading to the rapid growth of the temperance movement. Other reformers offered plans to increase overall physical well-being, including plans for diet, exercise, and supplements meant to increase vigor. Still others celebrated new scientific disciplines like psychology and phrenology that would supposedly unlock the mysteries of human behavior and, by doing so, advance American civilization.

The Benevolent Empire

After the U.S. Constitution made religious freedom the law of the land, citizens faced a dilemma: how to cultivate a moral and virtuous public without the force of a state-sponsored religion. Most Americans agreed that a decent and moral citizenry was essential for the U.S. to succeed as a nation, but there was a widespread perception that society’s moral foundation was weakening. Narratives of moral and social decline, known as jeremiads (from the “Lamentations of Jeremiah” in the Old Testament), had long been embedded in Protestant story-telling traditions, but jeremiads took on new urgency in the antebellum period. In the years immediately following American independence, “traditional” Protestant Christianity was at low tide, while the Industrial Revolution had led to a host of social problems associated with urban growth and large-scale commerce. The Second Great Awakening was in part a spiritual response to such changes, revitalizing Christian spirits while also providing an institutional antidote to the insecurities of a rapidly changing world by inspiring both personal and social reform. These new societies proliferated in the United States between 1815 and 1861, melding religion and reform into a powerful network known as the Benevolent Empire, which included such organizations as the American Bible Society, the American Home Missionary Society (which organized domestic missions within the U.S.), the American Temperance Society, and the American Tract Society.

The Benevolent Empire departed from the Second Great Awakening’s early populism, as middle-class ministers dominated the leadership of antebellum reform societies. Because of the Industrial Revolution, middle-class evangelicals had time and resources to devote to reform campaigns, where they exercised their sense of moral superiority over the working-class rabble and the privileged upper-class to try and create a respectable, hard-working middle-class culture. Middle-class women, in particular, played a leading role in reform activity. Traditional gender roles required women to operate within the “private sphere” of society and so middle-class women without day jobs became increasingly responsible for the moral maintenance of their families and communities. These women came together in order to deal with issues that primarily affected women and children, such as alcohol abuse, education reform, prostitution, gambling laws, and health reform. Their leadership signaled a dramatic departure from previous generations when such prominent roles for ordinary women would have been unthinkable.

Perfectionism and Disinterested Benevolence

Different aspects of evangelical Protestantism, middle-class culture, and American individualism combined to encourage reform during the 19th century. One of the great names in reform was Charles Grandison Finney, the radical revivalist, who promoted the idea of perfectionism. Premised on the belief that truly redeemed Christians would be personally motivated to live free of sin and thus emulate the life of Christ, Grandison’s message of perfectionism encouraged his followers to join reform movements and create God’s kingdom on earth. The idea was to try and perfect oneself as an example to others, while also trying to reform societal institutions that caused others to sin. The idea of disinterested benevolence, which argued that true Christianity requires that a person give up self-love in favor of loving others, also turned many evangelicals toward reform, encouraging people to support causes that did not affect them personally. In this way, Christians were able to push themselves toward the goal of eliminating sin from themselves and their nation.

God’s Kingdom on Earth

Some reform preachers achieved the same support for reform movements by their advocacy of postmillennialism. In this worldview, Christ would return after humanity had enjoyed one thousand years of peace within a society based on Christian ethics. It was the duty of converted Christians to improve the world around them in order to pave the way for Christ’s redeeming return. Although ideological and theological issues like these caused more and more schisms within Protestant groups, church leaders often worked on an interdenominational basis to establish reform societies and draw their followers into the work of social reform.

Under the leadership of ministers, intellectuals, scientists, and politicians reform societies tried to tackle many different social problems which they connected to sin and vice. Those concerned about drinking could join temperance societies; other groups focused on eradicating dueling and gambling. Evangelical reformers might support home or foreign missions or Bible and tract societies. Sabbatarians fought tirelessly to ban activities like shopping, working, and drinking on Sundays. Moral reform societies sought to end prostitution and redeem “fallen women” by bringing them into the church. Over the course of the antebellum period, associations and activists also worked to reform bankruptcy laws, prison systems, insane asylums, labor laws, and public education. They built orphanages and free medical dispensaries and developed programs to provide professional services like social work, job placement, and day camps for children in the slums.

Try It

The Temperance Movement

An Increase in Consumption

According to many antebellum reformers, intemperance (drunkenness) stood as the most troubling problem in the United States, one that eroded morality, Christianity, and played a starring role in the perceived corruption of American democracy. Americans consumed huge quantities of liquor in the early 1800s, including gin, whiskey, rum, and brandy. Indeed, scholars agree that the rate of consumption of these drinks during the first three decades of the 1800s reached levels that have never been equaled in American history. There were a number of factors that caused the level of alcohol consumption to skyrocket in the early 19th century. As the Midwest became cover over with farmland, it was more profitable for farmers to turn their corn into whiskey and then ship it out than it was to ship corn, which might spoil en route. This caused the market to become flooded with cheap whiskey at a time when many of the working poor had not previously been able to afford spirits and needed a release from the drudgery of their new industrial manufacturing jobs. Alcohol was also easier and cheaper to come by than milk, coffee, or tea and was safer to drink than water, which was not treated and could carry serious diseases. Some estimates place the amount of alcohol consumed (in terms of pure ethanol) at just under two bottles of 80-proof liquor per person per week in 1830.[1]

This dramatic increase in drinking by the American public was a cause for concern amongst many. Business owners were concerned that their employees would either miss work while sleeping off a hangover or come in to operate heavy machinery while intoxicated (previously, when many people worked on family farms, drinking during work hours was normal, as was a mid-day nap break). Health enthusiasts worried about the long-term effects of alcohol on the body. Christian groups preached the effects of alcohol on the family unit, including higher rates of domestic violence, poverty, adultery, patronizing brothels, and gambling. There was also an overall concern about crime, violence, and rowdiness in the streets.

Temperance Organizations

A variety of reformers created organizations devoted to promoting temperance, that is, moderation or self-restraint. Each of these organizations had its own distinct orientation and target audience. The earliest ones were formed in the 1810s in New England. The Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance and the Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals were both formed in 1813. Protestant ministers led both organizations, which enjoyed support from New Englanders who clung to the ideals of the Federalist Party and later the Whigs. These early temperance societies called on individuals to lead pious lives and avoid sin, including the sin of overindulging in alcohol, which could also, in turn, lead to other sins such as gambling, lust, adultery, or violence. They called not for the eradication of drinking but for a more restrained and genteel style of imbibing.

The Drunkard’s Progress

An illustration, The Drunkards Progress. From the First Glass to the Grave, shows a staircase that rises on one side and descends on the other. A scene of a drinking man is depicted on each step, with text describing his progressive downfall through drink: Step 1. A glass with a friend. Step 2. A glass to keep the cold out. Step 3. A glass too much. Step 4. Drunk and riotous. Step 5. The summit attained. Jolly companions. A confirmed drunkard. Step 6. Poverty and disease. Step 7. Forsaken by Friends. Step 8. Desperation and crime. Step 9. Death by suicide.” At the bottom is an illustration of a woman with her face in her hand, leading her child from their home.

Figure 1. This 1846 image, The Drunkards Progress. From the First Glass to the Grave, by Nathaniel Currier, shows the destruction that prohibitionists thought could result from drinking alcoholic beverages.

This 1840 temperance illustration charts the path of destruction for those who drink. The step-by-step progression reads:

Step 1. A glass with a friend.
Step 2. A glass to keep the cold out.
Step 3. A glass too much.
Step 4. Drunk and riotous.
Step 5. The summit attained. Jolly companions. A confirmed drunkard.
Step 6. Poverty and disease.
Step 7. Forsaken by Friends.
Step 8. Desperation and crime.
Step 9. Death by suicide.

Notice the figures in the center/bottom of the image: the woman and child. They appear to be leaving their home and the woman is obviously devastated. It was a common belief that a man who began drinking had doomed his family to poverty and homelessness because he would lose his job, spend all his time and money drinking, gamble away what little money he had, and eventually die and leave his wife and children penniless.

Who do you think was the intended audience for this engraving? How do you think different audiences (children, women, drinkers, nondrinkers) would react to the story it tells? Do you think it is an effective piece of propaganda? Why or why not?

Temperance and the Second Great Awakening

In the 1820s, temperance gained ground largely through the work of Presbyterian minister Lyman Beecher. In 1825, Beecher delivered six sermons on temperance that were published the following year as Six Sermons on the Nature, Occasions, Signs, Evils, and Remedy of Intemperance. He urged total abstinence from hard liquor and called for the formation of voluntary associations to bring forth a new day without spirits (whiskey, rum, gin, brandy). Lyman’s work enjoyed a wide readership and support from leading Protestant ministers as well as the emerging middle class; temperance fit well with the middle-class ethic of encouraging hard work and a sober workforce.

In 1826, the American Temperance Society was formed, and by the early 1830s, thousands of similar societies had sprouted across the country. Members originally pledged to shun only hard liquor. By 1836, however, leaders of the temperance movement, including Beecher, called for a more comprehensive approach. Thereafter, most temperance societies advocated total abstinence; no longer would beer and wine be tolerated. Such total abstinence from alcohol is known as teetotalism.

Teetotalism led to disagreement within the movement and a loss of momentum for reform after 1836, because some temperance activists believed that beer and wine were acceptable and some did not. However, temperance enjoyed a revival in the 1840s, as a new type of reformer took up the cause against alcohol. This new burst of enthusiastic temperance reform came from the Washington Temperance Society (named in deference to George Washington), which organized in 1840. The leaders of the Washingtonians came not from the ranks of Protestant ministers but from the working class. They aimed their efforts at confirmed alcoholics, unlike the early temperance advocates who mostly targeted the middle class to try and prevent alcoholism from developing.

Washingtonians welcomed the participation of women and children, as they cast alcohol as the destroyer of families, and those who joined the group took a public pledge of teetotalism. Americans flocked to the Washingtonians; as many as 600,000 had taken the pledge by 1844. The huge surge in membership had much to do with the style of this reform effort. The Washingtonians turned temperance into theater by dramatizing the plight of those who fell into the habit of drunkenness. Perhaps the most famous fictional drama put forward by the Washington temperance movement was Ten Nights in a Bar-Room (1853), a novel that became the basis for popular theatrical productions. The Washingtonians also sponsored picnics and parades that drew whole families into the movement. The group’s popularity quickly waned in the late 1840s and early 1850s, when questions arose about the effectiveness of merely taking a pledge. Many who had done so soon relapsed into alcoholism and more radical members of the temperance movement began to rally around the idea of codifying abstinence into law.

Temperance and the theater

Cheap stage plays, which could be performed in many different locations for a wide variety of audiences, were popular entertainment during the 19th century and also acted as a way to quickly spread a political or social message. The temperance movement adapted these plays to act as a sort of “revival meeting,” except they were for proclaiming the evils of alcohol instead of the Christian message. The message was boiled down into a simple, quick form that could be visualized and easily understood by those with little education. Theater performances, particularly the low-budget, outdoor, traveling affairs were somewhat taboo in many Protestant Christian circles, and so these were normally aimed at working-class, Catholic, and immigrant audiences.

Drawing of a bar fight.

Figure 2. An illustration from an 1882 print of Ten Nights in a Barroom, showing the death of Joe Morgan’s daughter.

The first of these plays was called The Drunkard and was first shown in 1844. It tells the story of a nefarious lawyer named Mr. Cribbs who tries to ruin his employer, Edward Middleton, by getting him drunk one night. When Edward returns to his home, he finds his mother-in-law dead and assumes that he is responsible because he was drunk. He abandons his family and Cribbs takes advantage of this by trying to obtain the rights to the wealthy estate. Edward’s wife and daughter are left starving and homeless while they search for him in the city. The play ends with Edward giving up his drinking and returning to his family, but the hyperbolic lesson that The Drunkard attempted to portray to 19th-century audiences was that simply one night of heavy drinking was enough to ruin a person, particularly a respectable man.

This and other influential temperance propaganda, such as the 1854 novel Ten Nights in a Barroom and What I Saw There, by Timothy Shay Arthur were aimed at demonstrating the evils of alcohol. The narrator tells the story of Joe Morgan, a pitiful town drunk who spends all his time at the local tavern being served by a shady barman named Simon Slade. Their alcohol consumption leads to brawls, death, heartache, and remorse.

The anonymous narrator also makes a pointed attempt at supporting temperance legislation. He makes sure to mention how the tavern patrons seem to be supporters of the Maine Law, an 1851 statute that essentially made Maine a “dry” state, despite their own drinking habits. The author’s goal was to demonstrate that even heavy drinkers knew that it was wrong, but that they were powerless against the temptation of alcohol. This paternalistic notion was behind much of the legislation associated with the temperance movement because it assumed that people could not control themselves when drinking. This type of theatrical propaganda was quite effective and by 1855, twelve other states had also passed total prohibition laws, more than 65 years before nationwide prohibition went into effect.

Temperance and the Law

Temperance reformers lobbied for laws limiting or prohibiting alcohol, and states began to pass the first temperance laws. The earliest, an 1838 law in Massachusetts, prohibited the sale of liquor in quantities less than fifteen gallons, a move designed to make it difficult for ordinary workmen of modest means to buy spirits. The law was repealed in 1840, but some Massachusetts towns then took the initiative to keep up the law by passing local ordinances banning alcohol. In 1845, close to one hundred towns in the state went “dry.”

An 1839 Mississippi law, similar to Massachusetts’ original law, outlawed the sale of less than a gallon of liquor. Mississippi’s law illustrates the national popularity of temperance; regional differences notwithstanding, citizens in northern and southern states agreed on the issue of alcohol. Nonetheless, northern states pushed hardest for outlawing alcohol. Maine enacted the first statewide prohibition law in 1851. New England, New York, and states in the Midwest passed local laws in the 1850s, prohibiting the sale and manufacture of intoxicating beverages.

21st-Century Temperance and Prohibition

In between 1845 and 1933, when federal prohibition was repealed, many counties in the U.S. made the choice to stay dry permanently. These local statutes either completely ban the sale of alcohol or severely restrict it (these are called “moist” counties). Today, there are still many dry counties and towns in the U.S., mostly in the south. Some of these counties prohibit sales of liquor only on Sundays, some are completely dry (meaning no alcohol sales at all, even beer and wine), and some allow sales of beer and wine while prohibiting hard liquor. 

Map of the U.S. showing counties where alcohol is all or partially banned. Most all of the west is totally "wet" but many places in the south and east are somewhat dry, with only a few locations in and around Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi being totally dry.

Figure 3. A map of the US showing wet (blue), dry (red), and moist (yellow) counties. The original map was created in 2012 but has been updated as recently as January 2021 to reflect the recent passage or repeal of ordinances.

Try It

Watch It

This video recaps many of the major changes and reform movements taking place in the first half of the 19th century, including the Second Great Awakening, the temperance movement, and abolitionism.

You can view the transcript for “19th Century Reforms: Crash Course US History #15” here (opens in new window).


Benevolent Empire: a term for the coalition of 19th-century reform movements that sought to create a more morally upright, Christian society in the US through public campaigns, written materials, and laws

disinterested benevolence: the idea that people, particularly Christians, should become involved in charity or reform work that did not actually affect or benefit them, in the interests of putting other people before themselves

dry (county/town/state): a county/town/state which had (or still has) prohibition laws in place that ban the sales of alcohol and liquor

jeremiads: a literary work usually focused on laments or complaints of the problems in a society

postmillennialism: a Christian theological construct taken from the Book of Revelation which holds that the Second Coming of Christ will only happen after humanity maintains God’s Kingdom on Earth for 1,000 years

Sabbatarianism: a reform movement that tried to prohibit certain activities like working, drinking, shopping, and entertainment on Sundays

teetotalism: complete abstinence from all alcohol

temperance: a social movement encouraging moderation or self-restraint in the consumption of alcoholic beverages

Washingtonians: a temperance movement offshoot that used theatrical productions to convince audiences of the evils of alcohol consumption and focused their efforts on reforming alcoholics instead of preventing people from drinking in the first place

wet: a term for counties/towns/states that do not have any prohibition laws in place. Moist is the term for counties/towns/states that have partial prohibition, such as a ban on liquor, but not beer or wine; or a ban on alcohol sales only on Sundays or only in certain establishments or in certain amounts

  1. Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2010), 8.