From the colonial period to the present day, the early 19th century stands out as the hardest drinking era in American history. By the 1830s, the per capita consumption of distilled spirits (mainly rum and whiskey) was far higher than the previous century and a startling three times that of modern Americans.
Historians have offered a number of explanations for the rise in drinking between 1790 and 1840, including greater ease in transporting grain in the form of alcohol from the back country to the marketplace, the economic and social upheavals of the American Revolution and its aftermath, and the effects of the industrial revolution. Whatever the cause, Americans at the time noted with alarm the increase in excessive drinking and its tragic consequences—domestic abuse, unemployment, crime, ill health and for many, premature death. As early as 1784, the influential physician and reformer Dr. Benjamin Rush sounded the alarm in his essay, “An Inquiry Into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Body and Mind.” Clergymen joined the fray as growing concern over the social ills of excessive drinking kept pace with ever more public and private inebriation.
While observers acknowledged that women as well as men could fall prey to drunkenness, most of the attention focused on men because excessive consumption of alcohol imperiled their ability to maintain their traditional role as head and economic support of the 19th-century family. Of particular concern to many was the abuse by men of distilled liquors, or “ardent spirits” such as rum and whiskey. At this time milk was drunk only by very small children and water-borne diseases made many reluctant to drink plain water. Most who condemned rum and whiskey continued to believe that wine was acceptable and that fermented beverages like home-brewed beer and hard cider were healthful drinks for young and old alike. The temperance societies that sprang up throughout the country in the 1820s accordingly focused on limiting rather than eliminating alcohol consumption entirely.
In 1826, John Warner Barber of Connecticut, published “The Drunkard’s Progress, Or the Direct Road to Poverty, Wretchedness and Ruin.” This popular broadside graphically illustrated in four lurid panels the creation of a drunkard, beginning with a man’s need to begin every day with “The Morning Dram [of rum].” The next frame showed him forsaking employment to spend hours at “The Grog Shop.” The third stage was that of “The Confirmed Drunkard” abusing his miserable wife and children in their disheveled home. In the final, “Concluding Scene” the unhappy family had been evicted and could look only to a future of “Poverty, Wretchedness, a Curse and Burden Upon Society. Want, Beggary, Pauperism, Death.” In the same year Warner's print appeared, the American Temperance Society (ATS) was founded in Boston. Only four years later, over 170,000 ATS members in auxiliary associations across the country had promised to abstain from drinking distilled beverages. Members of the Deerfield, Massachusetts, temperance society pledged in 1834, that they would "not use distilled spirit as drink, nor provide it for others, and that they will discourage the use of it in the community."
Already framed as a moral issue, the temperance movement united with the evangelical religious revivals sweeping the country. By the 1830s, appeals for moderation had evolved into calls for total abstinence. “Cold Water Army” advocates pledged to refrain from consuming not only “ardent spirits,” but also hard cider, beer, wine and even stimulants like coffee and tea. Whether to offer wine at communion became a heated question in many Protestant congregations. Criticism of those who continued to imbibe combined with anti-Catholic sentiment when Irish immigrants demonstrated little interest in heeding Protestant calls to stop drinking. Germans and other European arrivals came in for similar criticism when they continued to follow traditional foodways, including the consumption of alcohol in homes, taverns and bars. In 1835, the Catholic Sentinel condemned the “beastly vice of drunkenness” but also vowed to resist by force if necessary “any fanatic fellow of the banditti who should have the daring insolence to tell us, that we committed a moral crime, by slaking our thirst with a moderate draught of ale or brandy.”
The focus on what was coming to be seen as the inherent evil of all alcoholic beverages intensified. Temperance champions no longer targeted excess; they now declared that any drinking, however limited, could lead to moral and physical disaster. Nathaniel Currier’s popular new version of The Drunkard’s Progress illustrated “From the first glass to the grave” the grim life of those who did not abstain from alcohol. “A glass with a Friend” led to “A glass too much” and “Drunk and riotous.” From there, it was a quick descent to a life of “Poverty and Disease, Forsaken by Friends” leading to “Desperation and crime.” The final act in the sordid drama was “Death by suicide.” Like Barber’s earlier print, Currier made sure to depict the drunkard’s destitute widow and child, reminding the viewer that intemperance was a vice that destroyed not only the drunkard but his hapless family, threatening in the process the underpinnings of society. In 1854, the Adelphi Society of Deerfield held an “animated” debate and discussion: “Resolved that intemperance is a greater evil than Slavery.” (The members decided slavery was the greater evil.)
Edward Hitchcock was typical of temperance advocates of the later 1830s and ‘40s in urging students and colleagues to abstain entirely from all alcoholic beverages. He and his wife, Orra, made a point of serving only water when they entertained. Hitchcock argued his position from a scientific as well as a theological stance, revealing his background as both a scientist and a Protestant minister. In his “Notes on Temperance and Science,” Hitchcock insisted that “an accurate knowledge of the principles of physical science has an important bearing upon the right decision of any moral question.”
The Temperance Movement experienced success as Americans began drinking less. Consumption rebounded during the Civil War and the decades that followed, however, prompting a new wave of temperance activism led by groups like the the Women’s Temperance Union (1874) and the Cold Water Brigade (1884). Concerns about excessive drinking persisted, although the word drunkard would be superseded by the word alcoholic. From the Volstead Act and Prohibition laws of the 1920s to modern-day anti-drinking campaigns, Americans continue to debate and struggle with the presence and effects of alcohol on society. At no time has their consumption of distilled liquors ever risen again to the levels of the 1830s and ‘40s.