Selected Criticism

Temperance Movement
Hynes, Jennifer A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's journalism and early fiction exhibit his changing stand on this social-reform movement, which rivaled the abolition of slavery in its intensity and political force in antebellum America.

Temperance reform responded to a history of heavy alcohol consumption in America beginning in colonial times. As late as the 1820s alcohol was served at nearly all social functions and drunkenness was common in all classes. In 1830 per capita consumption of absolute alcohol in the United States was 3.9 gallons; by 1845, at the height of the temperance crusade, this figure had dropped to one gallon. The temperance movement apparently was successful. By mid-century, drinking had ceased to be respectable and alcohol was outlawed in many states.

The first phase of temperance reform, beginning in about 1825, relied on moral suasion and spread with the rise of the Whig party. Evangelical preachers like Lyman Beecher warned against the evils of drink and urged signing a pledge of partial abstinence (swearing off hard liquor only). Temperance reformers urged their cause both as a religious imperative and as a way of combatting social problems arising in a rapidly industrializing society: crime, immorality, poverty, and insanity. And during this early period the backers of temperance included many of those who would gain from a sober, industrious work force: the owners of industry. By 1830 temperance crusaders claimed that about ten percent of the population abstained from alcohol; this figure was higher in the Northeastern states and much lower in the South.

By the 1830s the standard pledge of partial abstinence, which allowed signers to partake of moderate amounts of beer and wine, was largely replaced by a pledge of total abstinence. With the rise of the Washingtonians, a group with working-class origins, which began in April of 1840 in Baltimore and which focused on reforming drunkards, temperance became a way of life. Washingtonian societies, named for the nation's first president, saw their membership grow to about a hundred thousand by 1841 and nearly a half million by 1843. Temperance saloons, hotels, theaters, festivals, steamboats, and boarding houses offered an alternative lifestyle that would provide support to the reformed. Junior temperance groups were organized for children, warning them to "beware of the first glass." Another group, the Sons of Temperance, urged respectable dress, language, and behavior as the means to avoid backsliding.

Whitman's attitude toward alcohol and temperance apparently relaxed over time. Gay Wilson Allen claims that Whitman took a pledge of total abstinence while an apprentice in Brooklyn in the 1820s and that he was a prohibitionist while a schoolmaster on Long Island. Whitman had seen the evils of alcohol; his father, brother-in-law Ansel Van Nostrand, and brother Andrew suffered bouts with drink. But Whitman was a moderate drinker. He took part in both the libations and the conversation when he joined his friends of the Bohemian crowd at Pfaff's Broadway restaurant before the Civil War. In Whitman's old age, Thomas Harned frequently sent the poet a bottle of champagne, although he recalled that the bottle would last a long while. Indeed, Whitman was apt to condemn extremism of any kind—whether overindulgence or puritanism.

But Allen argues that Whitman most likely was "an ardent prohibitionist" (58) when he wrote the temperance novel Franklin Evans; or, the Inebriate (1842), although later in life he was embarrassed by the book. In Whitman's various accounts of its writing he claims that he did so only for money, and wrote under the influence of alcohol (variously reported as port, gin, or whiskey). But Whitman appears sincere in the novel's introduction, in which he warns readers of the dangers of overindulgence in drink and praises sober, virtuous habits.

Whitman's journalism shows a distinct leaning toward the Washingtonian brand of temperance. This style of reform, which targeted the working class and appealed to the masses by acting out the miseries of drunkenness as warnings, appealed to Whitman's democratic sensibilities. (Indeed, Franklin Evans relies on drama and moralistic sensationalism to make its appeal.) David Reynolds argues that Whitman enjoyed the dramatic speeches of the day's greatest temperance orator, John Bartholomew Gough. After this former actor and reformed drunk was found in an alcohol-induced stupor in a whorehouse, Whitman defended the temperance cause—apart from its fallen leader—in a series of articles for the Brooklyn Star. In an article that appeared in the New York Aurora in 1842, "Temperance Among the Firemen!," Whitman describes a day of temperance rallies, processions, and orations. Although the article focuses in part on the physical and moral attributes of the young men who take part in the procession, he also praises this kind of popular activity as an effective weapon against "the enemy."

In the 1840s and 1850s the temperance fight had evolved into a political battle for prohibition. By 1855 Maine Laws (so named because the first prohibition law was passed in that state) were enacted in thirteen states and territories. Reynolds argues that Whitman was opposed to prohibition, and insisted that reform could only be achieved by persuasion and appeals to common sense, not by legal action. Indeed, in articles published for the Brooklyn Daily Times during the late 1850s Whitman seems to counsel individual restraint rather than any kind of group effort at reform. In his article "Liquor Legislation," he admonishes the "impracticable . . . ultraists" who push for Maine Laws, urging instead a kind of community action to punish those who sell liquor to known problem drinkers (48). And in his article "The Temperance Movement" Whitman sharply criticizes the impracticality of "over-zealous" reformers who disdain "half-way measures" and have thus actually brought on a rise in alcohol consumption (49). As was characteristic of Whitman's opinion on many subjects, he called for moderation both in liquor consumption and in reform.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Blocker, Jack S., Jr., ed. Alcohol, Reform and Society: The Liquor Issue in Social Context. Contributions in American History 83. Wesport, Conn: Greenwood, 1979.

Holloway, Emory. "Editor's Introduction." Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. By Walt Whitman. New York: Random House, 1929. v–xxiv.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Rorabaugh, W.J. The Alcoholic Republic: An American Tradition. New York: Oxford UP; 1979.

Tyrrell, Ian R. Sobering Up: From Temperance to Prohibition in Antebellum America, 1800–1860. Contributions in American History 82. Wesport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1979.

Whitman, Walt. "Liquor Legislation." Brookyln Daily Times 23 Jan. 1858. Rpt. in I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. 1932. Ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz. New York: AMS, 1966. 47–49.

—. "Temperance Among the Firemen!" New York Aurora 30 Mar. 1842. Rpt. in Walt Whitman of the New York Aurora. State College, Pa.: Bald Eagle, 1950. 35–36.

—. "The Temperance Movement." Brookyln Daily Times 10 March 1858. Rpt. in I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. 1932. Ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz. New York: AMS, 1966. 49.


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