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The Temperance Movement: Definition, Leaders & Timeline

Instructor: David White
Through this lesson, you will learn about the temperance movement, including what its members believed and how they influenced American politics in the 20th century.

What was the Temperance Movement?

Of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, only a few are well-known to the general public. Some of us know that the 14th Amendment is responsible for establishing equal protection for all Americans and brought an end to slavery. And some of us are familiar with the 21st Amendment, which repealed the ban on manufacturing and selling alcohol in the United States. But while many of us may be familiar with the prohibition era of American history, how many are familiar with the important and sometimes strange events that led to the prohibition of alcohol in the first place?

Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, a group of citizens became concerned about the moral health of the American people. As members of what was known as the temperance movement, these individuals identified alcohol as one of the most harmful aspects of public life and advocated that people abstain from its use.

Beginning in the early 19th century in both England and the United States, the temperance movement spoke out against the power held by manufacturers of alcohol and the role that bars and pubs played in the lives of the working class. This era of the temperance movement was deeply rooted in strong Christian values and advocated abstinence from alcohol on moral grounds.

Groups like the WCTU advocated for a ban on all alcohol in the U.S.
Temperance groups

What were Their Beliefs?

Early members of the temperance movement were frustrated with the British Parliament's refusal to allow members of the working class the right to vote. As a result, the temperance movement adopted a rather strong opposition to alcohol consumption, known as teetotalism. From their perspective, the temperance movement believed that if the working class could demonstrate an ability to behave responsibly and avoid drinking alcohol, they would be given the right to vote.

In the United States, members of the temperance movement spent the later part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century speaking out against alcohol consumption from a strong Christian perspective. For example, members of the Women's Christian Temperance Union believed that the consumption of alcohol led men to become violent and destructive members of society.

Leaders of the Temperance Movement

The temperance movement was motivated by very strong beliefs that were often intolerant of oppositional or other points of view. Given that, it will probably come as no surprise that leaders of the movement had extreme perspectives on other areas of public life.

William Anderson, for example, was an important lobbyist from the Anti-Saloon League, who often resorted to starting rumors and forging documents in order to gain support for the cause of prohibition. Additionally, it was not uncommon for Anderson to resort to racist propaganda that associated the use of alcohol with 'the unwashed and wild-eyed foreigners who have no comprehension of the spirit of America.'

Though William Anderson relied on several underhanded or reprehensible tactics, he was nothing compared to another temperance leader by the name of Carrie Nation. As a profoundly conservative Christian and unyielding advocate of prohibition, Carrie Nation spent much of her time harassing bar owners or patrons for 'destroying' men's souls. In early 1900, Nation, believing she had been chosen by God to spread a message of temperance, began carrying an axe, which she would use to threaten those who opposed her.

Carrie Nation wielded an axe to threaten opposition to her cause
Carrie Nation

Carrie Nation's methods and perspectives are extreme by any standards, but their origins might make her somewhat easier to understand. Following her work as nurse during the Civil War, she fell in love with and married a Union army doctor named Charles Gloyd. However, their short-lived marriage ended in divorce two years later, due to Gloyd's alcoholism. As a result of this disappointment, Carrie Nation developed a passionate dislike for alcoholism, which was motivated by her own experience.

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