Early in the years following the American Revolution (1775–83), alcohol consumption in the United States increased dramatically. Saloons were built in every city and village and provided a setting for illegal activities such as prostitution (the selling of sex), which led to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and gambling. Domestic violence became more commonplace as men spent the family money on too much alcohol, leaving wives and children with little or nothing to eat.

Reformers (people working for change) saw a problem and took measures to correct it. At first, they encouraged people to cut down on the amount of drinking, but eventually they called for total abstinence (no drinking at all). In their eyes, drinking was a sin that led to disease, crime, and the ruin of family relationships. In 1836, those advocating temperance (avoiding excess) formed the American Temperance Union and called for an end to all alcohol consumption.

The temperance movement took hold of government and politics, and by 1855 thirteen states had banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. By the end of the American Civil War (1861–65), most of these laws had been repealed, but six states were still dry (without the legal manufacturing and sale of alcohol).

Drinking became a major issue in the Progressive Era (roughly 1900–13), a time of major reform. Prohibition came to be seen as a way to help the poor and protect the young. During World War I (1914–18), Prohibition became a patriotic issue because several of the largest breweries were owned by immigrants from Germany, the United States’s enemy in the war.

In 1919, Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing the manufacturing and sale of alcohol nationwide. Passage of the Volstead Act immediately followed, outlawing even those beverages containing as little as 0.5 percent alcohol (beer and wine). Although many Americans initially were in favor of Prohibition, they thought that only hard liquor, like whiskey, would be outlawed. They were not in favor of banning the consumption of beer and wine, and thus the Volstead Act prompted many to withdraw their support of Prohibition.

Prohibition was never enforceable. The American public simply did not consider moderate drinking a sinful activity and refused to have its morality policed by the government. Prohibition was finally overturned in 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment.

May 1657
Prohibition begins in Massachusetts

Prohibition began in Massachusetts in May 1657. The General Court of Massachusetts made the sales of “strong” liquors such as rum, wine, and brandy illegal in the state.

May 1709
New York Passes Law

In May 1709 New York legislators passed a law preventing the selling or giving or rum or other strong liquors to Indians in Albany County, which they renewed periodically until June 1713, when they let it expire.

Georgia Bans Spirits

Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, by Thomas BurfordGeorgia, the last of the thirteen original colonies, had the first prohibition act that banned spirits for a while. General James Oglethorpe, Governor of Georgia, procured from the British Parliament an act prohibiting the importation of ardent spirits into his colony in Georgia. Oglethorpe was a British General and member of Parliament seeking to resettle debt prisoners in Georgia. The decree issued by His Majesty King George II, to General James Oglethorpe  read

"Whereas it is found by Experience that the use of Liquors called Rum and Brandy, in the Province of Georgia are more particularly hurtful and pernicious to Man's Body and have been attended with dangerous Maladies and fatal distempers… NO Rum or Brandy nor any other kind of Spirits or Strong Waters by whatsoever name they are or may be distinguished… shall be imported or brought to shore."

Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, by Thomas Burford

Dr. Benjamin Rush's Portrait by Thomas SullyDr. Benjamin Rush published his pamphlet ‘An Enquiry into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors upon the Human Body, and Their Influence upon the Happiness of Society’. Drunkenness and its consequences he attributed almost solely to the use of ardent spirits, or ‘those liquors only which are obtained by distillation from fermented substances of any kind.’ Fermented liquors, wine, cider and beer, he thought, ‘can seldom be drunken in sufficient quantities to produce intoxication’ without exciting such disgust to the of fender as to forbid a repetition of the indulgence; and that they were, moreover, ‘when taken in a moderate quantity, generally innocent, and often have a friendly influence upon health and life.’  He promoted his ideas that alcoholism is an ‘odious disease’ for which his recommended cures included ‘whipping the patient severely,’ blistering the ankles, bleeding, and purging with toxic substances. 

Dr. Benjamin Rush, by Thomas Sully
Liquor Outlawed in Indian Fur Trade

Chief Little Turtle by Ralph DilleMany Native American leaders decried the abuse of alcohol among their people. At the request of Chief Little Turtle and a group of Quakers, Congress gave the President  authority “to take such measures from time to time as may appear to him expedient to prevent or restrain the vending or distribution of spiritous liquors among all or any of the said Indian Tribes....

An amendment was added to the Trade and Intercourse Acts that outlawed the use of liquor in the Indian fur trade. The Acts stipulated that private traders must purchase trading licenses to trade with the Indian tribes. The federal trading license allowed the traders to take liquor with them for use by the boatmen. The factory posts (Reservation Stores)  could not compete with traders that illegally, or legally, took alcohol to the Indians.

Chief Little Turtle by Ralph Dille, Based upon a portrait by Gilbert Stuart
First U.S. Temperance Organization Founded

Lebbeus Armstrong

The first U.S. temperance organization was founded in 1808 in Moreau, Saratoga County, New York. Its foundation was the work of Billy J. Clark, an early physician, with help from Reverend Lebbeus Armstrong, he founded the Temperance Society of Moreau and Northumberland, New York.


Lebbeus Armstrong, Lithograph
Rev. Dr. Beecher Starts His Series of Six Sermons

Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher photo by Mathew B. Brady

A clergyman, mild of manner but as granitic in purpose was Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher, who would have no truck with "Sabbath-breakers, rum-selling, tippling folk, infidels and ruff-scuff," and whose move in 1810 from East Hampton, long Island, to Litchfield, Connecticut, is accepted by some historians as the real and proper beginning of the temperance movement in America. Soon afterward Dr. Beecher began his famous series of six sermons against the evils of selling or drinking alcohol and insisted that  Drunkenness is a sin which excludes [one] from Heaven.

Rev. Dr. Lyman Beecher photo by Mathew B. Brady
Temperance Societies Founded

The Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance was founded. It opposed not only rum but all of the ‘kindred vices, profaneness and gambling’ and ‘every [other] kind of…immorality.

Society for Suppression of Intemperance organized in Maine.

Connecticut Society for the Reformation of Morals founded, and Massachusetts Society for the Suppression of Intemperance founded.

American Tract Society Founded

The American Tract Society (ATS) was established May 11, 1825, in New York City. It is a publishing organization that publishes evangelistic Christian and temperance literature "to promote the interests of vital godliness and sound morality by the circulation of religious tracts calculated to receive the approbation of all Evangelical Christians." Within a few years of its founding, the Society was producing millions of pieces of Gospel literature-tracts, booklets, books, magazines, and Bibles. 

A distribution system was needed to get the literature to the people for whom it was intended, so they organized a system of traveling Christian literature salesmen [colporteurs] was enlisted by the Society, and they took the literature into the streets, homes, and churches of America. Thus an "army" of colporteurs traveled across the country in the 19th century selling and distributing the Society's literature, leading worship services, and counseling with those they met. By 1851 it had distributed about 5,000,000 temperance tracts. Today, the ATS still continues it mission.

American Temperance Society, Early Days

First known as the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, the American Temperance Society, was established by two Presbyterian ministers. One, Lyman Beecher, was strongly anti-Catholic and also a racist who refused to permit African-American students in his classes at the theological seminary. The other, Justin Edwards, said the organization was to promote temperance while letting drunkards "die off and rid the world of ‘an amazing evil.'" It currently publishes Listen: A Journal of Better Living.

In 1826, a group of ministers in Boston organized the American Society for the Promotion of Temperance, which organized lectures, press campaigns, an essay contest, and the formation of local and state societies.

A favorite device was to ask each person who took the pledge to put by his or her signature a T for ‘total abstinence’. With that a new word entered the language: teetotaler.

American Temperance Union (ATU) Beginnings

The American Temperance Society held a convention in Philadelphia in 1833 that created the United States Temperance Union. A special committee was appointed to determine the ways and means of unifying the work of all societies. Nothing was done, however, until 1836, when the committee called for a convention of societies of the United States and Canada to meet at Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in August. Some 348 delegates from 19 states and from Canada assembled. In an effort to integrate the Canadian societies, a reorganization took place, and the name was changed to the American Temperance Union (ATU).

Massachusetts Passes Fifteen Gallon Law

In 1838, the state of Massachusetts passed a temperance law banning the sale of spirits in less than 15-gallon quantities; though the law was repealed two years later, it set a precedent for such legislation. The law stated "Sec. 1. No licensed innholder, retailer, common victualler, or other person, except as herein after provided, shall sell any brandy, rum, or other spirituous liquors, or any mixed liquor, part of which is spirituous, in a less quantity than fifteen gallons, and that delivered and carried away all at one time, on pain of forfeiting not more than twenty dollars, nor less than ten dollars, for each offence, to be recovered in the manner and for the use provided in the twenty-sixth section of the forty-seventh chapter of the Revised Statutes."



Washington Temperance Society Founded

On April 5, 1840, six friends met at Alexander Chase’s Tavern on Liberty Street and vowed never again to drink any “spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider." They held weekly meetings to share their experience as ex-drinkers with each other and friends. A few key elements distinguished the group that would go on to call themselves the Washington Temperance Society. Unlike other temperance societies of the day, they avowed only personal abstinence from alcohol, and refused to endorse legislation to make drinking illegal for all. They even allowed distillers and barkeeps to join their ranks, so long as they promised not to drink themselves. And, while other temperance societies denounced alcoholics for their wickedness, the Washington Temperance Society preached the possibility of reform, speaking to each other as ex-problem drinkers. 

Oregon Passes Law

Oregon passes a law prohibiting the sale of intoxicating liquors to Indians and in 1844 passes a general prohibitory law, first state or territory to enact such a law, on record was passed by the Territorial Legislature of Oregon. This prohibitory liquor law of Oregon was strengthened in 1845, and was eventually repealed in 1849.

The Maine Law

Neal Dow, daguerreotype

June 2, Maine enacted the first statewide prohibition in the country, against the production and sale of alcohol when the Dow Prohibition law passes the Maine House by a vote of 86 to 40 and the Senate by a vote of 18 to 10, and is signed by the Governor on June 2.  The law provides for the confiscation of liquors stored for sale, and only permits mall drops of Alcohol reserved for medicinal, mechanical, or manufacturing purposes. This was possible thanks, in part, to Portland Mayor Neal Dow. Dow was a lifelong, steadfast teetotaler, and co-founded the Maine Temperance Society when he was 23. He was so intense that he later acquired the nickname “the Father of Prohibition.” See 1855 Rum Riot

Mayor Neal Dow daguerreotype
Portland Rum Riot

Neal Dow, Portland’s Mayor, was a vocal opponent to the country’s influx of immigrants, who in his opinion, drank far too much. Those foreigners (mostly Irish ones) fought back on June 2, 1855—four years after the passage of the Maine law that Down had championed. They angrily gathered outside Portland City Hall after reports that the mayor was storing alcohol in City Hall vaults. Then the Portland Rum Riot ensued. An estimated 3,000 impassioned citizens circled the building, banging on the doors and throwing rocks. Bottles of alcohol in the storage area were broken. Dow, who was outraged, called in the militia and ordered them to shoot at the crowd. One man was killed and seven were injured.

At this time 13 of the 40 states had prohibition laws of some kind.

Military Intoxicating Drink Ban

President Lincoln signs an act of Congress forbidding the selling or giving of intoxicating drinks to soldiers. Generals Butler, McClellan and Banks issue orders expelling all liquors from their respective commands. A gill of whisky is allowed by Congress to each man in the navy in case of excessive fatigue and exposure. Revised Army Regulations, issued by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, August 10, re-establishes the ration of one gill of whisky per man daily, in case of excessive fatigue or severe exposure.  The disaster of Bull Run is credited largely to account of drunkenness.

Tax Introduced

To help finance the Civil War, the federal government imposed a license fee of twenty dollars on retail liquor dealers, a tax of a dollar a barrel on beer, and twenty cents a gallon on distilled spirits.

Prohibition Party Formed

The Prohibition Party was formed. It is the oldest “third party” in the US and has nominated a candidate for president of the US in every election since 1872. Also known as the Dry Party, the Prohibition Party was formed in 1869 for American political candidates who were in favor of the prohibition of alcohol in the country. The party believed that prohibition could not be achieved or maintained under the leadership of either the Democratic or Republican parties. Dry candidates ran for local, state and national offices and the party's influence peaked in 1884. In the 1888 and 1892 presidential elections, the Prohibition Party held 2 percent of the popular vote.

Women's Crusade

Eliza Thompson (Mother Thompson)The Woman’s Crusade began in Hillsboro, Ohio, on December 24, a day after a lecture by Boston minister Dr. Diocletian Lewis, a minister who had a drunken father which had contributed to his desire for temperance and abstinence. He believed that women needed to be educated on the social evils of alcohol. Eliza Jane Thompson, née Trimble, born in Hillsboro, Ohio in 1816, the daughter of Governor Allen Trimble, and the wife of a local judge, led seventy-five other women in the community marched on the saloons, demanding that they pledge to no longer serve alcohol. 

Every day, led by Eliza Thompson (‘Mother Thompson’) women visited the saloons and the drug stores where liquor was sold. They prayed on sawdust floors or, being denied entrance, knelt on snowy pavements before the doorways, until almost all the sellers capitulated. These direct, non-violent “Visitation Bands” were successful and quickly spread first across the state of Ohio and then to a total of 22 other states from New York to California. "Mother Thompson" and others claimed often dramatic conversions by saloon keepers. In other cases, the retailers simply gave up after being picked on for weeks by the Visitation Bands. 

Eliza Jane Trimble "Mother" Thompson, ca. 1900.
Woman’s Christian Temperance Union Founded

Annie WittenmyerThe largest and most influential women’s organization was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Founded in November 1874, in Cleveland, Ohio it expanded throughout the nation during the 1880s. Annie Wittenmyer, an experienced wartime fund-raiser and administrator, was elected president at the WCTU’s founding in 1874. During her five-year tenure the WCTU developed a network of more than 1,000 local affiliates and began publishing the journal Our Union, and by 1890, the WCTU counted some 150,000 members, most of whom were white, urban, middle class Protestant Women.

Sarah Ann (Annie)  Turner Wittenmyer
Frances Willard Becomes WCTU President

Frances Willard

Dissension in the WCTU arose as a segment of the WCTU led by Frances Willard who called for the addition of suffrage to the group’s platform enjoining abstinence from alcohol. In 1879 Wittenmyer, who opposed such a move, was replaced by Willard. After Willard became president of the WCTU, she led the organization in being active in working for a living wage, the 8-hour day, women's suffrage, peace and other issues. Led by Frances Willard, the dynamic president of the WCTU between 1879 and 1898, the WCTU focused on stopping alcohol abuse but also agitated for prison reforms, aid for homeless children, pre-school education (kindergartens), sex education, aid to working women, and women’s suffrage. The WCTU did more than any other organization to mobilize women in support of progressive social reforms.

Frances Willard
State Prohibition Law Struck Down

The Supreme Court struck down state prohibition laws if they forbid the sale of alcohol that was transported into the state in its original passage, on the basis of the federal power to regulate interstate commerce. Thus, hotels and clubs could sell an unopened bottle of liquor, even if the state banned alcohol sales.

Also in 1888, Frances Willard elected president of the World's WCTU.

Start of The Anti Saloon League

On May 24, 1893 in Oberlin, Ohio, a new American temperance organization was formed, the Ohio Anti-Saloon League. The organization worked for unification of public anti-alcohol sentiment, enforcement of existing temperance laws, and enacting of further anti-alcohol legislation. A resolution was passed to elect the Rev. Howard Hyde Russell as state superintendent of this new organization.

The same year, a similar organization was founded in the nation's capital. These two organizations formed the nucleus for the National Anti-Saloon League.

Root Beer Ban

Charles Elmer Hires, a Philadelphia pharmacist, came up with a beverage Hires' Root Beer during the 1870s. In 1895 the WCTU simply called for a nationwide ban on his “beer” product, which had become wildly popular in drugstores around the country.  The WCTU's vicious crusade against a non-alcoholic beverage sold by a teetotaler lasted for three years. Despite its tendency to base its policies on junk science, the WCTU was a pretty powerful national force at the time, and Hires' sales went into the tank. Eventually he got an independent lab to test his root beer's alcohol content, and the results arrived in 1898. Hold on to your hats, folks: the root beer was not the booze-rich syrup of Satan. In fact, the lab found that a bottle of Hires' root beer contained roughly the same amount of alcohol as half a loaf of bread.

American Anti Saloon League Founded

The American Anti Saloon League (ASL) was officially founded on December 18, 1895 in Washington, D.C. The ASL, became the most successful single issue lobbying organization in American history, willing to form alliances with any and all constituencies that shared its sole goal. Under the motto "The Saloon Must Go," the organization worked to unify public anti-alcohol sentiment, enforce existing temperance laws and enact further anti-alcohol legislation. At first, the League appealed to local churches to carry its message to the people. Once they had established a loyal following, the League leaders focused their efforts on getting individual politicians elected who supported the cause.

Billy Sunday Begins Preaching

Billy Sunday, ca. 1910. Michael T. "Nuf Ced" McGreevy Collection

William Ashley "Billy" Sunday began his preaching career and became one of the major promoters of temperance. Sunday was a former Center fielder in baseball's National League. His professional baseball career began with the Chicago White Stockings in 1883; he moved to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in 1890, to the Philadelphia Athletics, where he was batting .261 and had stolen 84 bases when he left baseball for the Christian ministry. Following Repeal, his sermons became more extreme and reactionary, promoting a specific type of Americanism that excluded those who were not native-born fundamentalist Christians. Until Billy Graham, no American evangelist preached to so many millions, or saw as many conversions—an estimated 300,000.

Billy Sunday, ca. 1910. Michael T. "Nuf Ced" McGreevy Collection
Hatchet Nation

Carry A. Nation

On December 27, 1900, Carry A. Nation, née Carrie Amelia Moore, brought her campaign against alcohol to Wichita, Kansas when she smashed the bar at the elegant Carey Hotel. Earlier in the year, Nation abandoned the nonviolent agitation of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union in favor of direct action she called "hachetation." Since the Kansas Constitution prohibited alcohol, Nation argued that destroying saloons was an acceptable means of battling the state's flourishing liquor trade. Alone or accompanied by hymn-singing women, Nation, who was typically dressed in stark black-and-white clothing, would march into a bar and sing, pray, and shout biblical condemnations while smashing bar fixtures and stock with a hatchet. Between 1900 and 1910, she was arrested some 30 times for her “hatchetations”. Nation paid her jail fines from lecture-tour fees and sales of stick pins in the shape of hatchets, at times earning as much as $300 per week. The souvenirs were provided by a Topeka, Kansas, pharmacist. Engraved on the handle of the hatchet, the pin reads, "Death to Rum".

Carry A. Nation, © Kansas State Historical Society
Ernest Cherrington Joins Ohio Anti-Saloon League

Ernest Cherrington © Westerville Public LibraryErnest H. Cherrington joined the Ohio Anti-Saloon League and became one of its most powerful leaders. He became superintendent of the organization's Canton, Ohio affiliate. Cherrington was appointed to be the assistant superintendent of the Ohio Anti-Saloon League, and then promoted to be superintendent of the Washington (State) Anti-Saloon League. Cherrington also served as a writer or editor of three of the ASL’s publications, including “The American Issue” from 1909 to 1942, the “American Patriot” from 1912 to 1916, and the “National Register” from 1915 to 1916. Cherrington firmly believed that alcohol consumption would decline if temperance advocates educated children about the subject. To accomplish this task, Cherrington wrote “The Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem”, a six-volume reference work that the Anti-Saloon League made available to schools.

Ernest Cherrington © Westerville Public Library
Wayne Wheeler Heads ASL

Wayne Bidwell WheelerThe Anti Saloon League appointed Wayne Bidwell Wheeler as head. Wheeler had previously served as the group's secretary for its office in Columbus, Ohio, eventually becoming the superintendent of League offices in Cleveland, Ohio, and upon attaining his law license, Wheeler was appointed the Ohio Anti-Saloon League's principal attorney.

Under the shrewd and ruthless leadership of Wheeler, the ASL became the most successful single issue lobbying organization in American history, willing to form alliances with any and all constituencies that shared its sole goal.

Wayne Bidwell Wheeler
Purley Baker Becomes ASL Superintendent

Purley BakerPurley Albert Baker became superintendent of the national Anti-Saloon League in 1903, and five years later created the League's Industrial Relations Department to promote the idea that imposing prohibition would be a good business investment. He raised large sums of money to create a major information campaign, an important component of which was to demonize the producers of alcoholic beverages, virtually all of whom were German-Americans. For example, he asserted that Germans "eat like gluttons and drink like swine.”

Under the auspices of the Anti-Saloon League, the Lincoln-Lee Legion was established to promote the signing of abstinence pledges by children. Originally the Lincoln League, it was renamed the Lincoln-Lee League to obtain more signatures from children in southern states.

Purley Albert Baker
First D.C. March For Prohibition

Purley Baker

On December 10, a parade of over 4,000 Leaguers made up of members from the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Anti-Saloon League marched on Washington D.C. Led by Purley Baker, head of the Anti-Saloon League, they marched down Pennsylvania Avenue singing temperance songs, to the steps of the U.S. Capitol where waiting on the steps of the capitol to greet them were Congressman Richard Hobson from Alabama and Senator Morris Sheppard from Texas. ASL Superintendent Purley Baker gave the two legislators copies of the proposed 18th amendment to the constitution. Subsequently Hobson and Sheppard introduced it to their respective legislative bodies. The Hobson-Sheppard bill came up for a vote after the 1914 election and fell short of the 2/3 majority it needed.


Purley Albert Baker