A history of temperance and prohibition in Rhode Island, 1820--1916

Paul T Carcieri, Providence College


The subject dissertation examines the history of private and governmental efforts to limit, temper, hence the term "temperance," and prohibit the use and sale of alcoholic beverages in the State of Rhode Island during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.^ The first stirrings of the temperance movement in Rhode Island came from within its Protestant community during the 1820s and 1830s. During this period some Protestants became alarmed over the growing incidence of public drunkenness in the state, especially on holidays like the Fourth of July, and much resented the cost to government of policing and jailing those who over-indulged. Another root of the temperance cause was the Protestant apprehension over the increasing number of Catholic Irish arriving in Rhode Island during the 1830s. What alarmed the Protestant community most about these newcomers, apart from the fact that they were of a different creed, was that as a group they saw little wrong in the moderate enjoyment of alcoholic beverages, even on Sundays. This cultural idea clashed with the notion of "Sabbatarianism," the fundamental Protestant belief that Sundays were special days, to be set aside exclusively for the Lord, and allowed for no revelry or entertainment, including drink. Not that the Irish did not esteem and hold dear the Sabbath, but for them it allowed a certain amount of social intercourse and modest celebration. ^ Pietistic and humanitarian considerations were other stimulants of the Protestant temperance movement in Rhode Island. During the 1830s some Protestants came to believe earnestly that the use of alcohol led to a host of human ills, physical and mental, and therefore liquor ought to be banned from society by law. A working force behind this belief was the widespread dissemination earlier in the nineteenth century of a considerable anti-liquor literature penned by men like Dr. Benjamin Rush. Rush was a Philadelphia physician attached to the Continental army during the American Revolution. His duties led him to observe, firsthand, the effects of alcoholism on soldiers and their families. The publication, in 1784, of his physiologically graphic treatise "An Inquiry into the Effects of Spiritous Liquors on the Human Mind and Body," acted as an inspiration to some Americans, especially the Protestant clergy who took it upon themselves to preach Rush's message before their congregations. Protestant concerns over alcohol were also fueled by the Second Great Awakening. This Protestant fundamentalist movement gained devotees throughout America during the early 1800s. It stressed, among other tenets, the need for personal reform by believers including the elimination of all vice and temptation from the human heart. During the 1830s and 1840s several temperance societies, Protestant and Catholic, organized in Rhode Island. These included groups like the Providence Temperance Union, the Providence Association for the Promotion of Temperance, the State Temperance Society, the Catholic Temperance Society, the Catholic Temperance Fraternity, and the Sons of Temperance in North America. The labors of these temperance activists and the pressure some of them brought to bear on public opinion and politicians resulted in the Rhode Island legislature's passage of the state's first prohibitory law in 1852. Rhode Island's "Maine Law" made illegal the sale or consumption of liquor and remained in force for eleven years. ^ During the forty years after the Civil War new and larger temperance organizations grew up in Rhode Island. These included the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Independent Order of Good Templars, the Rhode Island Temperance Union, the Rhode Island Prohibition Party and the Rhode Island Anti-Saloon League. The organizational growth of these associations was at times phenomenal and displayed an uncanny ability to capture public attention and that of the print media. Some, like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the National Prohibition Party still exist today. As did their predecessors earlier in the nineteenth century, these societies devoted themselves to persuading people to limit their use of alcohol, or abstain from it entirely. Some of the tools that they employed in this effort have been left behind for the modern researcher and constitute a trove of primary sources---annual reports, meeting minutes, anthems, addresses, handbills, poems, plays, prayers, etc. When the opportunity presented itself some of these groups also lobbied the Rhode Island General Assembly to bring back prohibition. Their hopes were realized. In 1874 and in 1886 liquor was again banned from Rhode Island. When prohibition ended in 1889, liquor control in Rhode Island came under an intricate License Law which empowered individual cities and towns to determine by popular election whether they would be "wet" or "dry." (Abstract shortened by UMI.) ^

Subject Area

History, United States|Sociology, Public and Social Welfare

Recommended Citation

Carcieri, Paul T, "A history of temperance and prohibition in Rhode Island, 1820--1916" (2007). ETD Collection for Providence College. AAI3262589.