Philip Schaff: Drying Out the Alcoholic Republic

Not open for further replies.


Puritan Board Senior
The interconnectedness of voluntary associations and their memberships is revealed in Schaff's involvement with the closely related Sabbath observance and temperance movements. "The American Sabbath," he lamented, "is in danger of being crucified between two thieves, --Irish Whiskey and German beer." Part of the problem, then, was ethnic; Schaff's German countrymen and the Irish who flooded into America during the latter half of the nineteenth century threatened to upset the "Puritan" custom of Sabbath observance through their riotous behavior, which was fueled by alcohol.

Originally, the American attitude toward liquor was something of a curiosity to Schaff. A letter of 1847 that described aspects of the American character to a friend in Switzerland graphically illustrated the American appetite. "The Americans," Schaff observed, "have a most extraordinary stomach for the digestion of sermons, and indulge in that sort of diet almost to excess." On the other hand, "in the matter of wine and spirituous drinks they are conscientiously abstinent." At that point, however, Schaff failed to see that in the decades prior to his coming to America, alcohol abuse had been a serious social problem. Indeed, many believed it to be a problem worse even that chattel slavery. An historian of the early-national period in the United States was so impressed by the level of alcoholic consumption that he labeled the nation "the Alcoholic Republic." By the 1840s, however, the temperance movement had become extremely popular and that decade had the lowest per capita consumption of alcohol of any decade in American history, with the possible exception of the prohibitionist 1920s. Nonetheless, because of a combination of many factors ( for example, American traditions of drinking, excess production of grain, influx of immigrants accustomed to hard liquor, and lack of suitable alternatives to easily produced and cheap whiskey), the dangers of alcohol abuse still threatened Christian America, and Schaff lauded the continuing work of temperance societies.

By the time of the first return trip to Europe in 1854, Schaff had become a firm believer in the temperance cause. While he could praise the "piety and virtue" of the Scottish people, for example, as being superior to most of the world, he thought that they could yet learn much from the American in the area of temperance. Schaff had come to believe that "intemperance is one of the greatest evils in America, and the most fruitful source of crime, pauperism, and taxation [!]." Particularly afflicted were the "lower classes, both native and foreign." Especially susceptible to the influence of liquor were immigrant Irish and German who worked in the most dangerous, physically demanding, and insecure jobs. For such workers, often young single males, taverns served as centers for social life and ethnic identity, as well as places to meet prospective employers.

The nature of the American situation contributed to both the extremity of the evil to the provision of a cure, according to Schaff. Because of the extraordinary liberty that existed in America, citizens abused liquor with an excess seldom seen elsewhere. In addition, those who profited from liquor trade had created through their greed "a fearful monster" which was able to avoid restrictive legislation through "bribery and corruption," and prey upon the weaknesses of those who had not been prepared for self-control. This "monster," Schaff complained, "devours the hard earnings of the poor, it brings, it brings misery and ruin on families, and sends thousands of drunkards reeling with a rotten body and cheerless soul to a hopeless grave."

The same situation of freedom that allowed the evil to progress, however, also provided the opportunity for a remedy. As a "characteristic proof" of his assertion that American liberty was based on self-control and self-restraint, as opposed to "radicalism and licentiousness," Schaff cited the "really sublime temperance movement," and in particular the "Main liquor law." This law, passed in 1851, safeguarded personal liberty, he contended, since it did not prohibit consumption of liquor, but served the temperance cause by forbidding "the manufacture and sale of all intoxicating drinks, including even wine and beer, except for medicinal, mechanical, and sacramental purposes." The law originated in the "predominantly Puritanical" state of Maine under the direction of Neal Dow, the "Napoleon of Temperance," but similar legislation was to go into effect in New York, Pennsylvania, and ten other states in 1855. Schaff called the law, which resulted from decades of efforts by temperance crusaders, "one of the greatest marvels of self-restraining popular legislation," although he had to admit that it was "a dead letter in large cities," due to corrupt city officials whose election depended on the support of law-breakers. The law would deserve even more acclaim had it not become "mixed up with politics, which in its present state seems to spoil whatever it touches, whether men or things."

After 1860, the number of states with intact "Maine Laws" declined rapidly, and by the late 1870s, only Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire remained dry. Nonetheless, in 1879 Schaff insisted that, despite the failure of past prohibitionist legislation, the American temperance movement was "among the strongest evidences of the earnest, aggressive, reforming character of American Christianity." The temperance movement will not stop, he prophesied, "until the sale of distilled liquors, such as rum, brandy, gin, and whiskey, as a beverage, is prohibited, and banished from the land." In fact, what Schaff attributed to reforming Christianity was also influenced strongly by economic and social factors. American drinking patterns changed markedly between 1830 and the turn of the century. Although the total per capita amount of alcohol consumed by Americans had risen slightly after the 1840s, the amount of spirits consumed in 1900 was less than one-forth the amount of 1830. In contrast, consumption of beer had increased more than twelvefold during that same period. There was still much work for temperance advocates, however, especially since many of them were also concerned with Sabbath neglect, a by-product of the drinking habits of many Americans.

Taken from: Cosmos in the Chaos by Stephen R. Graham
Philip Schaff's Interpretation of Nineteenth Century American Religion
p. 155-159

I found this interesting because I did not know there were other temperance movements and periods in our history. There truly is "nothing new under the sun." What goes around, comes around :think:
Not open for further replies.