The Devil in the Bottle
TEMPERANCE organizations gradually emerged as a significant political force in nineteenth-century America. Early groups like the American Temperance Society, founded in 1825, tolerated moderate use of alcohol; other, more radical groups like the Total Abstinence Society, founded in 1815, aimed at comprehensive prohibitions on the making, sale, and use of any and all alcohol. The various temperance organizations arose in response to a perceived, if not real, increase in public drunkenness and domestic violence as well as the “immoral” sale of strong spirits on the Sabbath—all of which were attributed to the popularity of cheap and plentiful whiskey in the decades following the American Revolution.
THE Civil War put a halt to the nascent temperance movement, but a new wave of anti-alcohol organizations gathered force from the 1870s and into the early 20th century. These included the Prohibition Party, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), surely the largest and most effective temperance group in the period. Led by Francis Willard from 1879 until her death in 1898, the WCTU sought an absolute ban on the production and consumption of drink. It established its own publishing house, putting forward temperance song books, handbooks on organizing chapters, polemical works against alcohol use, biographies of Willard and other women temperance leaders, the annual WCTU reports, and campaign literature supporting the state-by-state ratification of the 18th Amendment.
THE WCTU’s agenda extended beyond banning alcohol. It took progressive positions on labor reform, public health, education, and women’s suffrage. In fact, Francis Willard is probably better known as a suffragist than a prohibitionist. She was the first woman to be honored by a statue in National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol.