Events

Sunday, July 11, 2010

8 July 1856: Rampaging Women Destroy Liquor Stocks in Massachusetts

A dark anniversary: killjoy fanaticism and superstition rear their ugly head in Massachusetts.

Mass Moments tells us:
On This Day...
...in 1856, 200 women, some of them wielding hatchets and ranging in age from 37 to 75, rampaged through the town of Rockport destroying every container of alcohol they could find. One eyewitness recorded in his journal: "There has been exciting times a-going on here today." Weeks of planning preceded the five-hour raid. When it was over, the women had spilled hundreds of gallons of liquor. Over the next decade, alcohol sales in the town steadily declined. Rockport became one of several dozen Massachusetts towns where one could not buy liquor. Not until April 2005 would residents vote to permit inns, hotels, and restaurants to serve alcohol with meals. Twelve towns in the Commonwealth are still dry today, down from 17 in 2004.

Background

Since early colonial days, alcohol — often hard cider — was Americans' drink of choice with a meal. People steered clear of water, which they rightly believed might be contaminated. Liquor was considered virtually essential at all occasions, whether it was the ordination of a minister or a pauper's funeral (both of which would have been paid for from the town treasury). Inevitably, though, excessive alcohol consumption began to threaten social stability. (read the rest)
The article goes on to state that Dr. Benjamin Rush (famous Philadelphia scientist and signer of the Declaration of Independence) argued, "A people corrupted with strong drink cannot long be a free people." By this, it should be explained, though, Rush did not mean total abstinence, but instead, moderation consumption of alcohol including cider, strong beer, wine, and weak punch. The warning involved the dangers of distilled spirits.  His oft-reprinted "Moral and Physical Thermometer" described the effects of the former as including "Health, Wealth, Serenity of mind, Reputation, long life, and Happiness." The latter beverages led to a host of "vices," "diseases," and "punishments," including "Idleness," "Peevishness," "Hatred of just gov't.," "Murder," "Debt, "Puking," "Red nose," "Melancholy," "Ideotism," "Black eyes," "Hunger," the "Alms house," "Jail," "Suicide," "Death, and the "Gallows."

The article notes in passing:
Women made up the majority of the members of this and other temperance societies. It At a time when married women had no property rights — not even the right to their own wages — women were at great risk if the "dark beverage of hell" took hold of their menfolk.
Obviously, the MassMoments pieces are short, but it's a topic worth highlighting.
Whereas scholars once dismissed temeperance as prudish pseudo-reform, they have in recent decades become more aware of and interested in its relation to feminism, an issue that remains debated.

As we have learned in other situations, the represssion of "vice," no less than its toleration, sometimes has deleterious consequences. Those of us who teach see and hear about it regularly on our college campuses.

The strange fearful and repressive attitude lingers today in the form of the bizarre 21-year-old drinking age. It seems strange, to say the least, that, at the age of 18, an American is considered a legal adult, able to get married (in our Commonwealth, even to a person of the same sex), sign contracts, buy a house, join the military and kill people—but not enjoy a beer. Indeed, we allow young people to operate a motor vehicle (a potentially lethal weapon) at the age of 16, a right that European nations have generally reserved for people of a higher age.

Binge drinking and alcohol abuse have long been one of the staples and banes of academic life (as any good medievalist can tell you).  Two years ago this month, a coalition of college administrators launched the "Amethyst Initiative," dedicated to rethinking the 21-year drinking age.  (The charming name alludes to the Classical Greek belief that the gemstone was "an antidote to the negative effects of intoxication" [interesting that they specify "negative" effects, thus implying that there are positive ones]). Noting that "the problem of irresponsible drinking by young people continues despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21, and there is a culture of dangerous binge drinking on many campuses," they pledged their commitment to "informed and unimpeded debate on the 21 year-old drinking age" and called upon educators and politicians to "to weigh all the consequences of current alcohol policies and to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use." Leaders of four of the five institutions in our consortium—Hampshire, Mount Holoke, Smith Colleges and the University of Massachusetts—have signed on. Amherst College, as so often, remains the outlier.

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