If a family or a nation is sober, nature in its normal course will cause them to rise to a higher civilization. If a family or a nation, on the other hand, is debauched by liquor, it must decline and ultimately perish.
—Richmond P. Hobson, in the U.S. House
of Representatives, December 22, 1914
AMERICA HAD BEEN AWASH in drink almost from the start—wading hip-deep in it, swimming in it, at various times in its history nearly drowning in it. In 1839 an English traveler marveled at the role liquor played in American life: “I am sure the Americans can fix nothing without a drink,” wrote Frederick Marryat in A Diary in America. “If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink. They drink because it is hot; they drink because it is cold. If successful in elections, they drink and rejoice; if not, they drink and swear; they begin to drink early in the morning, they leave off late at night; they commence it early in life, and they continue it, until they soon drop into the grave.”
To Americans reading Captain Marryat’s book, this would not have been news. The national taste for alcohol (or—a safer bet—for the effects of alcohol) dated back to the Puritans, whose various modes of purity did not include abstinence. The ship that brought John Winthrop to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 had more than ten thousand gallons of wine in its hold and carried three times as much beer as water. When the sixteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin first compiled a list of terms for “drunk,” in 1722, he came up with 19 examples; fifteen years later, in the Pennsylvania Gazette, he could cite 228 (including “juicy,” “thawed,” and “had a thump over the head with Sampson’s jawbone”). By 1763 rum was pouring out of 159 commercial distilleries in New England alone, and by the 1820s liquor was so plentiful and so freely available, it was less expensive than tea.
In the early days of the Republic drinking was as intimately woven into the social fabric as family or church. In the apt phrase of historian W. J. Rorabaugh, “Americans drank from the crack of dawn to the crack of dawn.” Out in the countryside most farmers kept a barrel of hard cider by the door for family and anyone who might drop by. In rural Ohio and Indiana the seed scattered by John Chapman—“Johnny Appleseed”—produced apples that were inedible but, when fermented, very drinkable. “Virtually every homestead in America had an orchard from which literally thousands of gallons of cider were made every year,” wrote food historian Michael Pollan. In the cities it was widely understood that common workers would fail to come to work on Mondays, staying home to wrestle with the echoes and aftershocks of a weekend binge. By 1830 the tolling of a town bell at 11 a.m. and again at 4 p.m. marked “grog-time.” Soldiers in the U.S. Army had been receiving four ounces of whiskey as part of their daily ration since 1782; George Washington himself said “the benefits arising from moderate use of strong Liquor have been experienced in all Armies, and are not to be disputed.”
Drink seeped through the lives of the propertied classes as well. George Clinton, governor of New York from 1777 to 1795, once honored the French ambassador with a dinner for 120 guests who together drank “135 bottles of Madeira, 36 bottles of port, 60 bottles of English beer, and 30 large cups of rum punch.” Washington kept a still on his farm, John Adams began each day with a tankard of hard cider, and Thomas Jefferson’s fondness for drink extended beyond his renowned collection of wines to encompass rye whiskey made from his own crops. James Madison consumed a pint of whiskey daily.
By 1810 the number of distilleries in the young nation had increased fivefold, to more than fourteen thousand, in less than two decades. By 1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year. “Staggering” is the appropriate word for the consequences of this sort of drinking. In modern terms those seven gallons are the equivalent of 1.7 bottles of a standard 80-proof liquor* per person, per week—nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation, even with abstainers (and there were millions of them) factored in. Once again figuring per capita, multiply the amount Americans drink today by three and you’ll have an idea of what much of the nineteenth century was like.
Another way: listen to thirty-three-year-old Abraham Lincoln summarizing domestic life in Sangamon County, Illinois. “We found intoxicating liquor used by everybody, repudiated by nobody,” he told a temperance meeting in 1842. “It commonly entered into the first draught of an infant, and the last thought of the dying man.” It was, he said, “the devastator.”
“TEMPERANCE”: WHEN LINCOLN SPOKE, the word’s meaning was very different from what it would soon become. For decades it had meant moderation, both in quantity and in variety. The first prominent American temperance advocate, the Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, encouraged the whiskey-riddled to consider a transitional beverage: wine mixed with opium or laudanum. This was the same Rush—respected scientist, signer of the Declaration of Independence, friend to Jefferson and Adams—who insisted he knew of a drunk who had made the mistake of belching near an open flame and was “suddenly destroyed.”
By 1830 those seven gallons of pure alcohol per capita had confirmed the earlier fears of Harvard literature professor George Ticknor, who in 1821 had told Thomas Jefferson that if the consumption of liquor continued at its current rate, “we should be hardly better than a nation of sots.” Moderation itself was called into question. Just before he took up the cause of abolitionism, William Lloyd Garrison—whose alcoholic father had abandoned his family when William was thirteen—published a journal that bore the slogan “Moderate Drinking Is the Downhill Road to Intemperance and Drunkenness.” General Lewis Cass, appointed secretary of war by Andrew Jackson, eliminated the soldiers’ entire whiskey ration and forbade the consumption of alcoholic beverages at all army forts and bases. Cass was able to do this only because of the improvement in water quality, for among the reasons the whiskey ration had persisted was the foul water supply at many military installations.
At roughly the same time, the nation’s first large-scale expression of antialcohol sentiment had begun to take shape. The Washingtonian Movement, as it became known, arose out of a Baltimore barroom in 1840, when six habitual drinkers pledged their commitment to total abstinence. In some ways they couldn’t have been more dissimilar from the prohibitionists who would follow them. They advocated no changes in the law; they refused to pin blame for their circumstances on tavern operators or distillers; they asked habitual drinkers only to sign a pledge of abstinence. In the same speech in which he condemned the ubiquity of alcoholic beverages, Abraham Lincoln (who thought mandatory prohibition a very bad idea) praised the Washingtonian reliance on “persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion. . . . Those whom they desire to convince and persuade are their old friends and companions. They know they are not demons.”
The movement’s tactics may not have included any elements of compulsion, but the Washingtonian methodology was not entirely as unassuming as Lincoln might have believed. In the grand American tradition, Washingtonian evangelists poured out a lot of sulfurous rhetoric to lure something between three hundred thousand and six hundred thousand men out of the dungeon of inebriety. “Snap your burning chains, ye denizens of the pit,” John Bartholomew Gough urged his listeners, “and come up sheeted in the fire, dripping with the flames of hell, and with your trumpet tongues testify against the damnation of drink!” Certainly the most successful of Washingtonian platform speakers, Gough was a reformed drinker (and, conveniently, a reformed stage actor as well) who in 1843 alone addressed 383 different audiences and the next year achieved national prominence when he drew twenty thousand potential converts to a single event on Boston Common to bear witness to his zeal.
The year after that, Gough took part in another grand American tradition when he backslid so spectacularly it became a minor national scandal. He was found in a brothel near Broadway and Canal streets in lower Manhattan, in relative repose following a six-day bender. Gough later claimed he had been drugged, that the drugging had led him to a round of drinking, and that at one point “I saw a woman dressed in black [and] I either accosted her, or she accosted me.” By all accounts he remained totally abstinent thereafter, and by the time he stopped lecturing thirty-four years later Gough had delivered more than ten thousand speeches to audiences estimated at more than nine million people. Among his listeners was a San Francisco surveyor who named one of the city’s main thoroughfares in his honor—out of either a sense of gratitude or, possibly, irony.
RECALLING THE NASCENT temperance movement in the 1840s, one of its most devoted adherents would salute the work of the Washingtonians. They had changed many lives, he said, through “their mission of peace and love.” But, he added, “we also saw that large numbers who were saved by these means, fell back again to a lower position than ever, because the tempter was permitted to live and throw out his seductive toils. Our watchword now was, Prohibition!”
The exclamation point was entirely characteristic of Phineas Taylor Barnum; the taut, one-word epithet that preceded it, bearing its declaratory capital P, represented something new. Prohibition—the legislated imposition of teetotalism on the unwilling—was an idea that had been lurking beneath the earnest pieties of the temperance movement and was transformed in the late 1840s into a rallying cry. Barnum may have been the nation’s best-known convert to the cause, a relentless proselytizer who used his protean promotional skills to persuade men to take the same pledge he had. At his American Museum in New York City, Barnum drew in crowds eager to gawk at his collection of “gipsies, albinoes, fat boys, giants, dwarfs [and] caricatures of phrenology,” but that was only the beginning of the show: he also did all he could to direct them to the museum’s theater, for presentations of “moral plays in a moral manner.” One of these, The Drunkard; or, The Fallen Saved, was an overripe melodrama that drew as many as three thousand people to a single performance.* The lead character’s extravagant case of the DTs in the fourth act was an especially popular scene.
Barnum was among hundreds of thousands of Americans who turned toward prohibitionism because, he wrote, “Neal Dow (may God bless him!) had opened our eyes.” A prosperous businessman from Portland, Maine, Dow had first made his mark on the public life of his hometown in 1827 when, at the age of twenty-four, he somehow persuaded the volunteer fire department to ban alcohol at its musters. Perhaps the firemen had become chagrined at their “most disgraceful exhibitions of drunkenness” at these “burlesque occasions” (even as they enjoyed them enormously). Just as likely, they were moved (or intimidated, or flabbergasted) by the cauterizing fire of Neal Dow’s passion.
Dow came by his reformist ardor naturally and lived by it wholly. His father was a prominent abolitionist; his great-grandfather on his mother’s side was a man “of great physical and mental vigor” memorably (and prophetically) named Hate-Evil Hall. In his thirties, by now head of his family’s successful tannery, Dow led a group of Portland employers who chose to deny their workers their daily “eleveners”—grog time. Elected mayor in 1851, he immediately persuaded the Maine legislature to enact the nation’s first statewide prohibitory law, mandating fines for those convicted of selling liquor and imprisonment for those engaged in its manufacture.
The Maine Law, as it came to be known, enabled the antiliquor forces who had been stirred by the Washingtonians to use this template to pass similar laws in a dozen other states. Just as his cause became a national movement, so Dow became a national celebrity, admired not just by Barnum but by many other prominent men. Some embraced him with almost unseemly fervor. The education reformer Horace Mann called Dow “the moral Columbus” and apparently did not blush when he equated the significance of the Maine Law with “the invention of printing.” This was no longer a movement; it had become a fever.
Which meant, of course, that it could not last. Republican politicians, fearing that prohibitionism was divisive and might weaken the unity that had formed in the young party around the slavery issue, began to tiptoe around it. In Portland, unrest broke out in 1855 among Irish immigrants who despised Dow and his law; after an angry crowd of three thousand had gathered on the night of June 2, one man was killed and seven wounded by militiamen who had been ordered to quell the riot. By the end of the decade states that had enacted versions of the Maine Law had repealed them—Maine included.
THE OPPOSITION OF Portland’s Irish community could have been seen as an augury. For the next three-quarters of a century, immigrant hostility to the temperance movement and prohibitory laws was unabating and unbounded by nationality. The patterns of European immigration were represented in the ranks of those most vehemently opposed to legal strictures on alcohol: first the Irish, then the Germans, and, closer to the end of the century, the Italians, the Greeks, the southern European Slavs, and the eastern European Jews. But the word “ranks” suggests a level of organization that did not exist among the immigrant populations in whose lives wine or beer were so thoroughly embedded. Only the German-American brewers showed an interest in concentrated action, when they united in response to the imposition of a beer tax during the Civil War.
But even a group as powerful, wealthy, and self-interested as the United States Brewers’ Association met its match in the foe who would engage it for nearly half a century: women. Specifically, women of Protestant, Anglo-Saxon stock, most of them living in the small cities and towns of the Northeast and Midwest. They were led into battle by a middle-aged housewife whose first assault took place in her hometown of Hillsboro, Ohio, in 1873, inspired by a man famous for his advocacy of abstinence, chastity, gymnastics, health food, loose clothing, and the rights of women.
When Dr. Dioclesian Lewis showed up in town, he could usually count on drawing an audience. Dio, as he was called (except when he was called “beautiful bran-eating Dio”), was no doctor—his MD was an honorary one granted by a college of homeopathy—but he was many other things: educator, physical culturist, health food advocate, bestselling author, and one of the more compelling platform speakers of the day, a large, robust man “profoundly confident in the omnipotence of his own ideas and the uselessness of all others.” He was also the inventor of the beanbag.
On December 22, 1873, Lewis’s lecture caravan stopped in Hillsboro, a town of five thousand about fifty miles east of Cincinnati. That evening he spoke about “Our Girls” (the title of one of his recent books); the next, he gave a free lecture on the subject of alcohol. In it he urged the women of Hillsboro to use the power of prayer to rid the town of its saloons—not by calling down the wrath of God, but by praying for the liquor sellers, and if possible praying with them.
The next morning seventy-five Hillsboro women emerged in an orderly two-by-two column from a meeting at the Presbyterian church, taller ones in the rear, shorter in front, and at their head Eliza Jane Trimble Thompson. She was the daughter of an Ohio governor, the wife of a well-known judge, a mother of eight. She had never spoken in public before, much less led a demonstration of any kind. Inside the church, chosen by the others as their leader, she had been so strangled by nerves that she had been unable to speak until the men, temperance advocates though they were, had left the room. She was fifty-seven, a devout Methodist. As she left the sanctuary of the church and emerged into the bitter, windy cold, she led the women in singing the sixteenth-century German hymn “Give to the Wind Thy Fears,” translated by John Wesley himself.
On that Christmas Eve and for ten days after, Thompson led her band to Hillsboro’s saloons, its hotels, and its drugstores (many of which sold liquor by the glass). At each one they would fall to their knees and pray for the soul of the owner. The women worked in six-hour shifts, running relays from their homes to the next establishment on the list, praying, singing, reading from the Bible, and generally creating the largest stir in the town, said a Cincinnati newspaper, since news of the attack on Fort Sumter twelve years before. If they were allowed inside, they would kneel on a sawdust floor that had been befouled by years of spilled drinks and the expectorations of men who had missed, or never tried for, the spittoon; if not, they would remain outside, hunched for hours against the winter cold. At William Smith’s drugstore, the proprietor joined them in prayer and vowed never to sell liquor again. Outside another saloon, they knelt in reproachful humility while the customers leaned against the building, hands in their pockets, unmoved by the devout spectacle before them.
The events in Hillsboro launched the Crusade, a squall that would sweep across the Midwest, into New York State, and on to New England with the force of a tropical storm. In eleven days Thompson and her sisters persuaded the proprietors of nine of the town’s thirteen drinking places to close their doors. Down the road in Washington Court House, the gutters ran with liquor decanted by repentant saloonkeepers. As the Crusade spread from Ohio into Indiana in January and February 1874, federal liquor tax collections were off by more than $300,000 in just two revenue districts. In more than 110 cities and towns, every establishment selling liquor yielded to the hurricane set loose by Eliza Thompson.
But hurricanes don’t last, and within a few months this one was spent. Some saloons remained closed; many did not. This is not to say that the sacred ardor of the women had been spent in vain. If nothing else, in many towns the saloon operator was ever after marked as an outcast, a pariah. Andrew Sinclair, in Era of Excess, cites the playwright Sherwood Anderson recalling how the saloonkeeper in the northern Ohio town where Anderson was raised “walked silently with bent head. His wife and children were seldom seen. They lived an isolated life.”
ELIZA THOMPSON WAS blessed with devoted successors who, flushed with reverence, would always refer to her as Mother Thompson. But she herself had been fortunate in her predecessors—a group of women in upstate New York who had begun to agitate against alcohol at about the time of the Washingtonians and would provide a direct link to the women who eventually carried Thompson’s crusade forward. One of these women was a schoolteacher named Susan B. Anthony. Another, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was a journalist’s wife. Within a very few years they were joined by Lucy Stone and Amelia Bloomer, two more women whose names, like Anthony’s and Stanton’s, still resonate today for reasons seemingly far removed from the purported evils of booze.
In fact the rise of the suffrage movement was a direct consequence of the widespread Prohibition sentiment. Before she began to campaign for women’s rights, Amelia Bloomer found her voice as an agitator in a temperance publication called The Water Bucket. Lucy Stone began publishing The Lily, which would become an early and important outlet for suffragists, because, she wrote, “Intemperance is the great foe to [woman’s] peace and happiness. . . . Surely she has a right to wield the pen for its suppression.” And Susan B. Anthony, who as a teenager feared for the future of the Republic because its leader, Martin Van Buren, had a taste for “all-debasing wine,” was virtually shoved into the suffrage movement by men who believed the temperance battle was theirs to lead.
Anthony had given her first public speech in 1849, to a group called the Daughters of Temperance. The Sons were less accommodating. In 1852 she was not allowed to address an Albany meeting of the Sons of Temperance specifically because she was a woman. “The sisters,” said the group’s chairman, were there not to speak but “to listen and learn.” The same year, at a New York State Temperance Society meeting in Syracuse, the same result. In 1853 it happened again, at a World Temperance Society convention in New York City (where Amelia Bloomer was given the boot as well). Finally Anthony cast her lot with Stanton (who had declared alcohol “The Unclean Thing”) and proceeded to give half a century’s labors to the cause of suffrage.
One could make the argument that without the “liquor evil,” as it was commonly known to those who most despised it, the suffrage movement would not have drawn the talents and energies of these gifted women. “Had there been a Prohibition amendment in America in 1800,” wrote the critic Gilbert Seldes in 1928, when the actual Prohibition amendment was very much on the national mind, “the suffragists might have remained for another century a scattered group of intellectual cranks.” Seldes arrived at this provocative conclusion because he believed that the most urgent reasons for women to want to vote in the mid-1800s were alcohol related: They wanted the saloons closed down, or at least regulated. They wanted the right to own property, and to shield their families’ financial security from the profligacy of drunken husbands. They wanted the right to divorce those men, and to have them arrested for wife beating, and to protect their children from being terrorized by them. To do all these things they needed to change the laws that consigned married women to the status of chattel. And to change the laws, they needed the vote.
But the changed laws, and the universal vote, were decades away. Not even the efforts of the women who banded together in the 1840s to threaten sexual abstinence if their husbands could not achieve alcohol abstinence could keep liquor from continuing to permeate the national fabric. More and more, roadside taverns that had provided the traveler with dining table and bedroom as well as the companionship (and the cruelty) of the bottle found their clientele in nearby towns and farms. These were men seeking release from the drudgery of their lives, but in too many instances they found as well a means of escape, even if temporary, from the responsibilities of home and family. The quantity of liquor served in these places was as great as the quality was not, unless the quality you sought was the one that put you on the shortest route to oblivion.
A drunken husband and father was sufficient cause for pain, but many rural and small-town women also had to endure the associated ravages born of the early saloon: the wallet emptied into a bottle; the job lost or the farmwork left undone; and, most pitilessly, a scourge that would later in the century be identified by physicians as “syphilis of the innocent”—venereal disease contracted by the wives of drink-sodden husbands who had found something more than liquor lurking in saloons. Saloons were dark and nasty places, and to the wives of the men inside, they were satanic.
TWENTY YEARS AFTER Mother Thompson’s Crusade had subsided, her most important follower was generous with credit. Thompson, said Frances Willard, “caught the universal ear and set the key of that mighty orchestra, organized with so much toil and hardship, in which the tender and exalted strain of the Crusade violin still soared aloft, but upborne now by the clanging cornets of science, the deep trombones of legislation, and the thunderous drums of politics and parties.”
That was one way of putting it. Another would have been “Mother Thompson’s Crusade launched the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.” But Frances Willard was no more likely to utter so declarative a sentence than she was to walk into a saloon and chug a double rye. At thirty-five Willard was among the small group of women who in 1874 founded the WCTU; at forty she took control of the organization, and for the rest of her eventful life she was field general, propagandist, chief theoretician, and nearly a deity to a 250,000-member army—undoubtedly, the nation’s most effective political action group in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Willard’s rhapsodic prose style apparently inspired others as well. To one of her most ardent admirers, Hannah Whitall Smith, Willard (who was always known to her family and friends as “Frank”) was “the embodiment of all that is lovely, and good, and womanly, and strong, and noble, and tender in human nature.” To another, the historian and U.S. senator Albert J. Beveridge, Willard managed to be both “the Bismarck of the forces of righteousness in modern society” and “the greatest organizer of sweetness and light that ever blessed mankind.”
The woman who educed such adoration was raised on a farm in Janesville, Wisconsin. At sixteen, she asked her parents to sign a pledge she had pasted in the family Bible. Fashioned as a series of rhyming couplets, the oath began, “A pledge we make, no wine to take / Nor brandy red that turns the head.” Several couplets later it concluded with “So here we pledge perpetual hate / To all that can intoxicate.” When Willard moved to Evanston, Illinois, with her parents a few years later, she found herself in what she would call a “Methodist heaven.” The new college that dominated the town (the predecessor of Northwestern University) had been established, its founders said, in “the interests of sanctified learning.” This mission was abetted by a legal proscription against the sale of alcoholic beverages within four miles of its campus and buttressed by the creation of a similarly liquor-loathing women’s school that soon opened nearby. Willard graduated from North Western Female College as valedictorian, became president a decade later, and assumed the position of dean of women at the university when the two schools merged in 1873.
But 1874 was the year of the Crusade, and on a trip east Willard found herself on her knees in Sheffner’s Saloon, on Market Street in Pittsburgh, singing “Rock of Ages.” Taking measure of the “crowd of unwashed, unkempt, hard-looking drinking men” arrayed behind her, “filling every corner and extending out into the street,” Willard wrote, “I was conscious that perhaps never in my life, save beside my sister Mary’s dying bed, had I prayed as truly as I did then.” A week later she was back in Chicago, about to walk away from her academic career so she could give her life to the temperance cause.
Forging a new alloy out of the moral commitment of Eliza Thompson and the feminist fire of Susan B. Anthony, Willard very explicitly made temperance a woman’s issue—and women’s issues, she argued, could not be resolved if authority was left solely in the hands of men. She had further come to believe that encouraging temperance was no longer enough. Only some form of legal prohibition could crush the liquor demon, and no such prohibition would ever be enacted without the votes of women. In 1876 she stunned a WCTU audience into silence when she made the case that women should have the right to vote on matters relating to liquor. Only three years later, her commitment to suffrage enabled her to unseat the WCTU’s founding president, the antisuffragist Annie Wittenmyer. Susan B. Anthony would soon begin to appear at WCTU conventions, and Willard installed Lucy Anthony, Susan’s niece, as head of the WCTU lecture bureau. The merging of Anthony’s campaign and Willard’s brought a critical realignment among the era’s feminist activists: the WCTU had acquired a very specific goal, and the suffrage movement had acquired an army.
“I have cared very little about food, indeed, very little about anything,” Willard once said, “except the matter in hand.” This dedication to her cause was magnified by her astonishing productivity. She began each day with a devotional reading, and then immediately after breakfast, whether at home in Evanston or on one of her cross-country speaking tours, she would charge into eight hours of dictation to her stenographer. She traveled constantly, in one year addressing audiences in every state and territorial capital except Boise and Phoenix. In 1881, accompanied by her secretary and lifelong companion, Anna Gordon, she went south to organize WCTU chapters in states where women’s political activity was even less welcome than it was in much of the north. She also traveled abroad (having founded the World WCTU in 1883), particularly to England, and numbered among her friends and supporters such fellow enemies of alcohol as Leo Tolstoy and the British philanthropist Lady Henry Somerset. Books poured out of her: polemics, memoirs, political manuals. She did step away from the temperance campaign long enough to publish A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle (“As nearly as I can make out, reducing the problem to actual figures, it took me about three months, with an average of fifteen minutes’ practice daily, to learn, first, to pedal; second, to turn; third, to dismount; and fourth, to mount independently this most mysterious animal”). But even in her homeliest concerns, Willard rarely wandered far from the cause. She called her pet dog Hibbie, a diminutive for the name she had originally bestowed on him: Prohibition.
Willard’s army marched behind two concepts. The first, “Home Protection,” seemed perfectly anodyne. But beneath its surface blandness lay a subtle variation on the themes of the Crusade, repackaged for a more urgent purpose: by insisting that the elimination of alcoholic beverages was necessary for the health, welfare, and safety of the American family, the women of the WCTU were now praying not for the sinner, but for those sinned against. The images Home Protection evoked (and that its propagandists used shamelessly) were the weeping mother, the children in threadbare clothes, the banker at the door with repossession papers. The moral crusade was now a practical one as well.
Willard’s second principle, which blossomed as her fame and influence grew, was “Do Everything.” Perceiving that the energies of the WCTU could be harnessed for broader purposes, Willard urged her followers to agitate for a set of goals that stretched far beyond the liquor issue but harmonized with the effort to improve the lives of others. Her “Protestant nuns” (as Willard sometimes called her followers) campaigned for suffrage, of course, but also for prison reform, free kindergartens, and vocational schools. After reading Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward in 1889, Willard declared herself a “Christian socialist” and broadened the WCTU’s agenda once again, agitating for the eight-hour day, workers’ rights, and government ownership of utilities, railroads, factories, and (she was nothing if not eclectic) theaters. Along the way she also took up the causes of vegetarianism, cremation, less restrictive women’s clothing, and something she called “the White Life for Two”—a program “cloaked in euphemism,” wrote Catherine Gilbert Murdock in Domesticating Drink, that “endorsed alcohol-free, tobacco-free, lust-free marriages.”
As exceptional as Willard was, her determination to connect Prohibition to other reforms was neither original with her nor uncommon. In its first national campaign, in 1872, the Prohibition Party endorsed universal suffrage, public education, and the elimination of the electoral college, and would soon take up a range of issues reaching from federal control of interstate commerce to forest conservation. Dio Lewis was a harvesting machine of causes and campaigns. At the moment he took the abstinence pledge in 1845, Frederick Douglass had said, “if we could but make the world sober, we would have no slavery,” partly because “all great reforms go together.” The great abolitionist Wendell Phillips—who said he was also “a temperance man of nearly 40 years’ standing”—may have been speaking for Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Neal Dow, and all the others who had labored for both temperance and abolition when he argued that the defeat of slavery proved that government action was an appropriate weapon in the battle against moral wrongs.
In fact, Phillips may have been speaking for anyone who had managed to cross the gulf between persuasion and compulsion, between the traditional meaning of temperance and the new meaning of prohibition. Or, decked out in its permanent capital P, Prohibition—not just a word but a declaration, an apotheosis.
COMMEMORATING THE CENTENNIAL of American independence in 1876, the Manhattan lithography shop of Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives reissued a popular item Currier had first published in 1848, Washington’s Farewell to the Officers of His Army. The great general stands in the exact center of the print, his associates arrayed around him, his tricorne hat on a stout table by his side. Washington is in full dress uniform; his right hand, fingers curled into a fist, rests on his breastbone. He looks to be making an emphatic gesture, but the officers in the picture seem lost in thought. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.
It did, however, when Currier first published a version of the image twenty-eight years earlier. In that version there’s no hat on the table; a decanter and some wineglasses occupy that spot. Nor is Washington making that peculiar fist. His fingers are extended, the better to grip the glass of wine he’s holding. He’s apparently delivering a heartfelt toast to the officers, whose considered expressions convey both their sadness and their humility.
The original image makes historical sense. Washington’s fondness for Madeira found expression in the postprandial bottle (and accompanying bowl of hickory nuts) he shared with his guests almost nightly. At the event depicted—his valedictory at Fraunces’ Tavern, in 1783—he had opened the emotional proceedings by pouring himself a glass of wine and inviting his officers to join him. Currier and Ives were businessmen, however, and business required them to oblige the temperance agitators who objected so vociferously to the original image. It was easy enough to obliterate the decanter and glasses by drawing in the hat; chopping off Washington’s own goblet, as well as the top two joints of his fingers, may have required a little more skill, but presumably it was worth the effort. That this self-censorship occurred as early as 1876, when the WCTU and its allies were only beginning to develop their strength and their strategy, suggests the degree to which aggressive actions would soon replace the prayerful entreaties of Mother Thompson—not least because they worked.
This became clear in the dazzling career of a former chemistry teacher from Massachusetts named Mary Hanchett Hunt, who became one of the most influential women in the country through her religiously inspired temperance work, even if her tactics proved to be not so holy. In her late forties, stirred by what she described as “a great hunger to do more for the Master,” she left behind her position as the leader of the Hyde Park Ladies Sewing Society to become as influential an agitator as the Prohibition movement would ever know. According to William Jennings Bryan, the campaign she led “did more than any other one thing” to bring the Eighteenth Amendment into being. In Hunt, the coercion Wendell Phillips had celebrated found its agent.
Hunt believed it her mission to reach the nation’s children, to saturate them in facts—as she perceived them—that would make young people despise alcohol as much as she did. Invited by Frances Willard to speak at the WCTU convention in 1879, she enlisted the union’s battalions in an assault on the nation’s school boards, which she intended to put in a “state of siege.” Through them, she said, a program of “Scientific Temperance Instruction” could be introduced into every American classroom. But Hunt was not prepared to entrust school boards alone with this grave responsibility. “It is our duty not to take the word of some school official,” she declared, “but to visit the school and carefully and wisely ascertain for ourselves if the study is faithfully pursued by all pupils.” With Willard’s support, at least in the early stages, Hunt sought to have two or more monitors from every single WCTU chapter lay siege to their own local boards. Lest anyone underestimate the audacity of what she was trying to accomplish, she borrowed from the educational taxonomy and called these local enforcers “superintendents.”
In 1881 she began to aim higher. Having persuaded the WCTU to commit itself to legally mandated temperance instruction, Hunt targeted the state legislatures. She took control of as many of these campaigns as possible, in some instances moving to the capital of a particular state to direct petition drives and demonstrations, while simultaneously handling legislators with such skill—and such effect—that she acquired the epithet “Queen of the Lobby.” Vermont, in 1882, was the first state to pass a compulsory temperance education law; the crucial New York legislature capitulated in 1884; the next year Pennsylvania went a step further, tying state funding to local compliance with the statute’s provisions, among them mandatory temperance examinations for all new teachers. Hunt had a falling-out with Willard around this time, but her juggernaut no longer required Willard’s personal sanction. In 1886 Hunt took her caravan to Congress, which promptly passed a law requiring Scientific Temperance Instruction in the public schools of all federal territories and in the military academies as well. By 1901, when the population of the entire nation was still less than eighty million, compulsory temperance education was on the books of every state in the nation, and thereby in the thrice-weekly lessons of twenty-two million American children and teenagers.
What many of these millions received in the name of “Scientific Temperance Instruction” was somewhat different from what the three words implied. The second one was arguably accurate, but what Hunt called “scientific” was purely propaganda, and what she considered “instruction” was in fact intimidation. Students were force-fed a stew of mythology (“the majority of beer drinkers die of dropsy”), remonstration (“persons should not take a stimulant before bathing”), and terror (“when alcohol passes down the throat it burns off the skin, leaving it bare and burning”). These specific “insights,” as embarrassing as they were even to the WCTU leadership, were not spontaneously generated; they entered the curricula of an estimated 50 percent of all American public schools in textbooks bearing the one imprimatur most valuable to any publisher: the approval of Mary Hunt.
The textbook endorsement program was an arm of the prodigious operation Hunt had assembled in her home on Trull Street in Boston. In one room Hunt created the Scientific Temperance Museum (among its prized artifacts: pens governors had used to sign temperance education bills into law). In the Correspondence Room as many as five secretaries handled her mail and managed her punishing schedule. But only Hunt could attach her signed endorsement to a textbook’s copyright page, and publishers and authors who sought it had to survive her grueling interrogations. Professor Charles H. Stowell of the University of Michigan Medical School, the author of a series of health and anatomy books, spent more than a year negotiating word-by-word changes with Hunt before she agreed to sign off on A Healthy Body, a volume Stowell and his publisher, Silver, burdett & Company, intended for students in the intermediate grades. Unlike those authors of “unscientific and unpedagogical” books who did not seek her seal of approval, Stowell generally had no issue with Hunt’s authority; he was a stalwart antiliquor man himself, and in his textbook for high school students he described alcohol as “a narcotic poison [with] the power to deaden or paralyze the brain.” He drew the line only when Hunt insisted on inserting in one of his books the claim that a single drink of liquor seriously affected one’s vision.
Stowell thereby showed more steel than the scholar who told a committee investigating Hunt’s work that “I have studied physiology and I do not wish you to suppose that I have fallen so low as to believe all those things I have put into those books.” But it was Hunt’s way of doing business, not her editorial standards, that led Stowell’s publishers to fall out with her. In 1891 she informed the firm, which was ready to publish one of Stowell’s books, of the “utter impossibility” of meeting their schedule. She couldn’t possibly provide an endorsement for at least six weeks, she said—unless, that is, the publisher picked up the tab for Emma L. Benedict, “my Literary Assistant,” whom Hunt was taking to Atlantic City “for a couple of days rest between engagements.”
The record doesn’t reveal the reaction inside the offices of Silver, Burdett to this mild ransom demand. But a few days by the seaside weren’t so costly, and soon the firm ponied up the money. The company’s compliant posture stiffened, though, when Hunt presented its officers with what could only be called a shakedown. When Stowell’s next volume was completed late that same year, Hunt once again stalled, and this time she wasn’t coy about her intentions: she wanted to be paid for her endorsement. “Did you think I was doing this work for nothing?” she asked. O. S. Cook, Stowell’s editor, told Hunt that his firm had come to “plainly understand that you demand a definite arrangement as to compensation, before you will indorse the books.” When she requested a meeting to discuss the matter, the firm made its final response: “Our position is clearly known to you. Any further discussion would undoubtedly prove fruitless.”
It was true that Hunt never accepted a salary from the WCTU in the twenty-seven years that she patrolled America’s classrooms, and it was also true that she and her supporters repeatedly denied that she received or expected payment from publishers. The chairman of her advisory board, the Reverend A. H. Plumb, condemned these “unjust charges” before a New York state senate committee in 1895 and two years later insisted that the rumor that Hunt demanded a 3 percent royalty on textbooks she endorsed was a calumny spread by Silver, Burdett.
But in 1906, a few months after her death—around the same time the WCTU, with genuine relief, converted the remnants of her operation into a rather benign “clearinghouse for alcohol information”—associates learned something distressing about Mary Hunt. For years she had maintained a bank account in the name of something she called the Scientific Temperance Association (her WCTU work had been conducted through her Department of Scientific Instruction). Into this account she had deposited royalties on endorsed books published by A. S. Barnes & Company and Ginn & Company—money intended “in whole or in part for the maintenance of the work at 23 Trull St.”
But those words shouldn’t serve as an epitaph for Mary Hunt. Something she had said in a congressional hearing back in 1886, before twenty-two million schoolchildren in a given year were administered their three-times-a-week serving of temperance education, is more appropriate: “The day is surely coming,” she had told the congressmen, “when from the schoolhouses all over the land will come trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon.” And would they ever.
* Historians, demographers, and economists derive liquor consumption statistics from various data, including manufacturing records, tax receipts, and, provocatively, deaths by cirrhosis.
* Some sources assert that The Drunkard was the most commercially successful American play until Uncle Tom’s Cabin surpassed it a few years later. It remained a staple of the temperance movement through much of the nineteenth century, eventually disappearing from view until 1964, when it was transformed into an unlikely (and short-lived) musical by the twenty-one-year-old Barry Manilow.