The Political Chaos and Unexpected Activism of the Post-Civil War Era

Charles Postel on the Temperance Crusade That Galvanized the American Women's Movement

In the early winter of 1875, the US Congress grappled with the vexing question of what should be done about the racial mayhem in Louisiana. In the lead-up to statewide elections, the White League and other Democratic paramilitary groups had unleashed a torrent of violence against black voters and Republican leaders. When federal troops intervened in the ensuing political crisis, Democrats in Congress cried foul. The Democrats had just regained a congressional majority, and in this instance their protests were joined by a growing number of Republicans. In January, Carl Schurz, a Republican senator from Missouri, submitted a resolution condemning the use of federal soldiers in New Orleans as “repugnant to the principles of constitutional government.”

The Senate resumed debate about Schurz’s resolution on Monday morning, the first day of February. Thomas Norwood, a Democrat from Georgia, read a protest from the Georgia state legislature against the federal action in New Orleans for subjecting the “oppressed people of Louisiana” to a “galling military despotism” and violating the equal rights of the states. The former Confederate states, the Georgians argued, were entitled to self-government and “perfect equality,” because “each State is the equal of, and is entitled to all the rights and powers to, each and every other State.”

The Louisiana Republican senator Joseph Rodman West responded to such claims with an exposition of the political “violence, murder, and killing [that] prevailed throughout the State.” West recounted the history of the Colfax massacre, where, two years before, “one hundred men were slaughtered, and slaughtered simply because they were maintaining their right to their own political opinions”;  the Coushatta massacre of August 1874, in which the White League “hacked to pieces” six Republican officeholders; and the attacks of the following September, “where some fifty or sixty lives were sacrificed” to intimidate African American voters. Senator West promised the Democrats of his state “fair and equal justice” if only they would accept the laws of the land rather than being “a party of murderers.”

While the senators debated the deadly business in Louisiana, their eyes turned to a Senate page as he dragged onto the floor of the chamber a large roll of papers tied with blue ribbons. The papers were thousands of petitions collected by the newly formed Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) asking Congress to outlaw alcoholic beverages in Washington, DC, and the US territories.

Annie Wittenmyer, the president of the WCTU, had collected the petitions to bring the women’s campaign against alcohol into the halls of the national legislature. Senator Oliver Morton of Indiana agreed to give her a hand, and during a break in the action he presented the petitions signed by Wittenmyer and her co-worker Frances E. Willard, along with what Morton claimed were “100,000 other persons.”

In truth, about half that number of people had signed Wittenmyer’s petitions. And hers was not the only temperance memorial presented to the Senate that day. Wittenmyer’s petitions, nonetheless, had their significance. Women had inserted this memorial into the men-only world of congressional politicking, and the massive roll of petitions attested to its backing by a broad social mobilization.

Activists gathered at Chautauqua in upstate New York in August 1874 to lay plans for channeling the energy of the Woman’s Crusade into a national organization.

This was a sign of things to come. Less than three months earlier, the WCTU had held its founding convention in Cleveland, Ohio. But it would soon emerge as the most extensive and powerful women’s organization in US history. It would couple the political demand for prohibition of alcohol with the demand for women’s right to vote. It would not stop there but press an array of issues pertaining to sexual equality within the family, community, workplace, and broader society.

It also took up questions of national power and equal rights among regions and states. Unlike the Grange, the WCTU organized among racial minorities, had African American members, and actively engaged the problems of racial equality. But it did so within a white nationalist framework of sectional reconciliation that, like the Grange, recognized “no North, no South, no East, and no West.”

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The WCTU emerged out of the Woman’s Crusade against the evils of the liquor trade. In December 1873, Dr. Diocletian Lewis, a Harvard-educated homeopathic doctor, gave a lecture in the western New York town of Fredonia calling on women to take action to protect themselves and their children from the dangers posed by alcohol. Dr. Lewis had given much the same lecture hundreds of times during the previous 20 years with minimal results. But in Fredonia, it provoked action, with 200 women descending on the local saloons.

Through song and prayer, they hoped to convince drinkers and saloon keepers of the sinful nature of their ways. The women of Fredonia then proceeded to organize the first Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Dr. Lewis then traveled to Hillsboro, Ohio, where he gave the same lecture, and the women of Hillsboro responded with an even more determined effort to close down the local liquor dealers. In the next weeks and months, the Woman’s Crusade spread across Ohio and beyond.

The crusade protested hotels, saloons, restaurants, drugstores, and other businesses involved in selling alcohol. The immediate goal was to compel proprietors to sign a pledge to forswear the sale of alcoholic beverages. The crusaders organized elaborate street theater of marches and prayer vigils, often gathering on the curbside in front of the offending business to sing psalms and recite Bible verse. In Hillsboro and a number of other small and medium-sized towns, they scored well-publicized victories and claimed that 281 saloon keepers had agreed to sign their pledge.

The crusaders also set up vigilance committees to make sure the pledges were kept. In one case, women took axes to the barrels of an Ohio liquor dealer, filling the gutter with whiskey and gin. But it should be noted that—unlike Carry Nation, who some 30 years later wreaked havoc on saloon property with her famous hatchet—the crusaders wielded their axes with the owner’s blessing. As news of the crusade spread, women took to the streets in more than 900 communities in over 30 states and territories.

The Woman’s Crusade drew wide popular support. The Ohio Farmer, the Cleveland newspaper of the Ohio Grange, reported that “the war against whisky is extending all over the land,” with “thousands of homes” already “made brighter by the great warfare” against the liquor trade. Although the initial burst of activism eventually ran its course, the crusade had demonstrated women’s potential power in the nation’s political life.

Frances Willard, who at the time served as the dean of women at Northwestern University, had never before cared about temperance, noting that it was “a question with which I had nothing to do.” But the Woman’s Crusade convinced her that the struggle against the liquor trade was the vital challenge that the women of the country faced. “There is a war [over the saloon] in America, a war of mothers and daughters, sisters and wives,” Willard observed. She predicted “an irrepressible conflict” over the liquor trade that would be waged across the nation’s political battlefields. Prayers and emotional appeals might play their part, but the conflict would be decided in the trenches of election campaigns and legislative action, “a war,” as Willard put it, “to the knight and the knife to the hilt.”

Activists gathered at Chautauqua in upstate New York in August 1874 to lay plans for channeling the energy of the Woman’s Crusade into a national organization. The following November, several hundred delegates and observers from 16 states gathered in Cleveland for the first national convention of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. The convention endorsed the methods of the crusade: employing prayer and emotional suasion to win both drinkers and providers of drink away from their ways.

But from the outset, it was clear that the WCTU would be going into politics. Its founders drew up its organizational scheme on the basis of congressional districts in the hope of optimizing its political impact, reflecting the expectation that the war on the liquor trade would ultimately focus on the national legislature. The convention’s political demands included a congressional investigation of the liquor trade, bans on intoxicating beverages at governmental functions, and temperance education in the schools. Soon thereafter, the WCTU collected the great roll of petitions demanding prohibition in the nation’s capital and the territories that would be delivered to the floor of the US Senate.

In the ensuing years, the WCTU’s legislative agenda would cover a wide field of reforms, from women’s suffrage to the eight-hour workday. But prohibition—governmental action to suppress the manufacture, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages—always remained its “ultimate goal.” The women of the WCTU did not come up with this idea, but they built on a history of temperance politics that stretched back into the early years of the Republic.

Not all temperance organizations endorsed prohibition. In the 1830s, thousands of local temperance societies committed members to signing a personal pledge to abstain from drink. In the 1840s, hundreds of thousands of artisans and laborers, men and women, joined the Washingtonian organizations, most of which were similarly dedicated to individual abstinence. Prohibition, nonetheless, was always an undercurrent of the temperance movement.

Maine adopted the first statewide prohibition in 1851, and over the next four years twelve other states across the Northeast and the Midwest followed suit. The porous enforcement of these so-called Maine Laws meant that they failed to put the liquor trade out of business. The poor results led many voters and state legislators to reconsider prohibition laws.

But with the close of the Civil War, the temperance movement gave prohibition a new life. In 1869, the Independent Order of Good Templars (IOGT), whose ranks had boomed to several hundred thousand members, provided the base for the founding of the Prohibition Party dedicated to government action against the liquor trade. During the late 1870s, the IOGT and the WCTU would forge a functioning alliance behind prohibition. But by this time, the IOGT had lost much of its momentum as the WCTU arose as the country’s most powerful temperance organization.

The WCTU, however, was unlike any previous temperance organization because it was also the nation’s largest organization of women. The Washingtonians had their female Martha Washingtonian auxiliaries. The IOGT accepted women on at least a nominally equal footing, permitting women to speak in meetings and hold office, although one IOGT member would recall that women’s role was “to be seen, not heard.” In the WCTU, by contrast, women were the only voting members and officeholders.

By 1890, with some 150,000 dues-paying members, the WCTU had more than ten times the membership of the largest women’s suffrage organization of the day, the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and more than seven times the membership of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.

The WCTU was by far the biggest and most influential women’s organization of the post–Civil War decades. Here it needs to be noted that the Protestant churches had more women members, and their female foreign mission societies might have been larger than the WCTU. But the WCTU was an autonomous, ecumenical, and political association in a way that the Methodist Home Missionary Society, for example, was not. At the same time, the WCTU took on a missionary role and had ties with the churches. Most members of the WCTU also belonged to one or another of the Protestant denominations, and they used their church connections and networks to build their organization.

Yet the autonomy of the WCTU was one of its most significant features: it guarded its independence from the churches and brought women together across denominational boundaries. With an eye to ecumenical equality, every WCTU organization from the top down had vice presidents from each of the denominations of their members. A small union in Londonderry, Pennsylvania, for example, appointed a Presbyterian, a Quaker, and a Methodist as vice presidents. Among their responsibilities, the vice presidents cultivated ties with their churches, which was not always a simple proposition given that some church leaders disagreed with prohibition and still others disapproved of an organization of women taking part in politics.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union steadily moved toward the position that Christian work meant treating alcoholism as a social problem and a medical disease.

Evangelical work to save souls for Christ was one mission of the complex and multidimensional undertakings of the WCTU—wielding scripture in “a direct attack against the sin ” of intemperance. They called this “Gospel Temperance” because drinking could only be cured with “the same basis of treatment as any other sin.” But it turned out that was just one of many cures. Much of the work of the WCTU focused on public health and was done in the name of “hygiene,” “scientific temperance instruction,” and a variety of other scientific, medical, and educational rubrics.

These ideas about sin and health often fit comfortably together within the temperance movement. Dr. Lewis, in the speeches that had launched the Woman’s Crusade, combined Gospel teachings and medical expertise. The WCTU did the same. Moreover, the WCTU steadily moved toward the position that Christian work meant treating alcoholism as a social problem and a medical disease. True, “intemperance, or the predisposition to intemperance, may be a disease, very likely it is,” the WCTU would argue, but it was also “a malady of the mind,” which only Christ could cure.

This public health orientation placed the WCTU within the broad currents of late 19th-century reform. In historical memory, especially in light of the disastrous results of national prohibition during the 1920s and early 1930s, temperance and prohibition are linked with nativist bigots, religious cranks, and oppressive law enforcement. In 1956, Upton Sinclair, the author who half a century before had brought to national attention the poisons in the nation’s meat, wrote The Cup of Fury, exposing the alcoholic poisoning of the American mind.

Sinclair’s fiery temperance tract seemed out of place by the mid-20th century, when the ties between prohibition and most other social reform movements had been strained or severed. But in the heyday of the WCTU, the idea of unleashing the power of government to combat the liquor trade was widely understood as being of a piece with other reforms to make society better. Indeed, the WCTU would take up causes such as banning child labor, enacting an eight-hour workday, removing toxic chemicals from medicines, abolishing convict labor, and funding public education—all for the public good.

Members of the WCTU had other motives, too. Many of them were the wives of ministers, lawyers, doctors, and managers, and as part of the professional and business classes they looked to prohibition to control and supervise employees, servants, and other members of the lower classes. Moreover, the WCTU was composed of churchgoing Protestant women, and its struggle against beer and whiskey often fused with anti-Catholic and nativist agendas. And by its very nature, the campaign for prohibition fed the spirit and methods of vigilantism and police repression. This was apparent even with the Woman’s Crusade, which employed vigilante committees and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to enforce anti-liquor agreements.

And it was not just alcohol and narcotics. The WCTU’s Department for the Suppression of Impure Literature, for example, served as a citizens’ auxiliary to local, state, and federal censors. In a number of ways, the WCTU was, from the outset, class-bound, sectarian, and repressive, but that was not the sum total, because it was also expansive, open-minded, and even emancipatory. Such was the conflicted nature of post–Civil War social reform.

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Excerpted from Equality: An American Dilemma, 1866-1896 by Charles Postel. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on August 20, 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Charles Postel. All rights reserved.

Charles Postel
Charles Postel
Charles Postel is the author of The Populist Vision, which received the 2008 Bancroft Prize and the 2008 Frederick Jackson Turner Award from the Organization of American Historians. He is a professor of history at San Francisco State University and was elected to the Society of American Historians in 2018.





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