Early Efforts

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Broadside advertising a temperance celebration in Charleston, South Carolina, 1848. Courtesy of the South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina.

Following the Revolutionary War, alcohol consumption grew to the point where drunkenness was met with increasing disapproval and abuse of alcohol was seen as a cause of poverty, crime, disease, spousal abuse and family neglect. The widespread availability and low cost of rum and whiskey contributed to the epidemic of alcoholism during this period; by 1830 the per capita consumption of American adults was estimated to be seven gallons of pure alcohol annually.

The first prominent temperance advocate was Dr. Benjamin Rush, whose 1784 pamphlet, “An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits Upon the Human Minde and Body,” strongly influenced public opinion. Temperance associations were formed in several states before 1820, and the movement flourished with the formation of the American Temperance Society in 1826, which counted over 1.5 million members within 12 years. The Protestant revival movement adopted temperance and clergy warned congregations against the evils of distilled spirits. By 1849, consumption of pure alcohol by American adults had dropped 75% per capita. The early temperance movements declined by the Civil War as the country focused on the issue of slavery and the threat of dissolution of the nation.