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  • History Of Prohibition


    Calls for alcohol education in the United States were heard as early as 1869, when a temperance writer, Julia Coleman, addressed the Fulton County (NY) Teachers' Institute on the subject (Mezvinsky, 1961, p. 48). Similar appeals were made by others over the next few years. In 1873 the National Temperance Society called for instruction in both public and private schools on the effects of alcohol on the human system (Mezvinsky, 1961, p. 48).

    At about the same time, Mary Hunt, a former school teacher visited her local school board in Massachusetts and persuaded that body to establish temperance instruction in the schools. Then, together with Julia Coleman, Mrs. Hunt extended the campaign to other school districts in the state. They promoted a series of graded lessons on hygiene and physiology prepared by the former teacher (Ohies, 1978, p. 477) and a new textbook, Alcohol and Hygiene, authored by Ms. Coleman (Bordin, 1981, p. 135).

    In 1879 Mrs. Hunt accepted an invitation from Frances Willard to speak to the WCTU's national convention on "Scientific Temperance Instruction." There she presented her vision of "thorough text-book study of Scientific Temperance in public schools as a preventive against intemperance" (Billings, 1903, p. 21). A standing committee was appointed with Mrs. Hunt as chair. The following year (1880) a Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges, with Mrs. Hunt as National Superintendent, replaced the committee (Billings, 1903, p. 22).

    In her new position, Mrs. Hunt called on each WCTU local to visit its school board to demand that temperance textbooks be incorporated into the regular course of study. Around the country, locals held mass meetings and petition drives converged on school boards to press their case. This led Mrs. Hunt to observe that "It is not too much to say that the school boards of the country ... are in a state of siege" at the hands of WCTU members (Zimmerman, 1992, p. 2). She, herself, spoke to 182 meetings in 1880 (Ohies, 1978, p. 477).

    But the results were disappointing to the WCTU. School boards were not as pliant as expected and it was much more difficult to remove recalcitrant board members. While Mrs. Hunt was having difficulty promoting her temperance instruction, the prohibition movement was experiencing serious difficulties as well. During the decade, 12 of 20 prohibition referenda were defeated and states were often failing to enforce those bills that did manage to pass. This led Mrs. Hunt to conclude that voters "must first be convinced that alcohol and kindred narcotics are by nature outlaws, before they will outlaw them" (Zimmerman, 1992, pp. 5-6). She decided to use legislation to coerce the moral suasion of students, who would be the next generation of voters. This gave birth to the idea of the compulsory Scientific Temperance Instruction Movement (Zimmerman, 1992, p. 6).

    Mrs. Hunt's strategy was for WCTU members to pressure state legislators and promote the nomination and candidacy of pro-temperance candidates in election years. The strategy was first used in Vermont where highly organized members campaigned for temperance candidates, developed letter writing campaigns, obtained temperance endorsements from leading citizens, presented legislators with a deluge of petitions, and packed open hearings on a proposed bill. The strategy worked. The bill was passed by a large majority and became law in 1882 (Mezvinsky, 1961, p. 49). Mrs. Hunt developed and pioneered the use of tactics used ever since by lobbyists and pressure groups.

    But Mrs. Hunt was not entirely pleased with her first effort; the Vermont law was general and vague. She feared that a few lessons presented to a few students could be interpreted as compliance with the law. Therefore, in the next state campaign, Mrs. Hunt worked to ensure that the proposed bill would require that temperance instruction be given to all students in all schools in Michigan (Mezvinsky, 1961, p. 49). One provision required schools to teach the harmful physical effects of alcohol, narcotics, and stimulants, while another required teachers to pass an examination on the effects of alcohol and narcotics. The Michigan law, passed in 1883, became a model for subsequent legislation in other states (Bordin, 1981, pp. 135-136).

    Mrs. Hunt proved to be a brilliant strategist and leader. State prohibition laws had not been faring well and temperance could be a political minefield capable of destroying all but the most astute political operative: Prohibition of alcohol was an issue that shook state politics in the nineteenth century. Even politicians in favor of temperance were not sure that they wanted to alienate voters by proscribing drink. Children, however, were another matter; they did not vote, and they might safely be taught to shun what their parents cared little to abandon. By the turn of the century every state and territory had laws mandating the teaching of the evils of alcohol.6 Many of these laws were more specific and binding than legislation on any other branch of the curriculum. (Tyack and James, 1985, pp. 515-516)

    However, many of the compulsory laws were still not strong enough to suit Mrs. Hunt. Even while some states were being pressured to enact legislation, she was waging campaigns to strengthen many of the existing laws. For example, due to Mrs. Hunt's continued efforts, Vermont's easily evaded 1882 legislation was amended in 1886. Even the model Michigan act was amended to include the same provisions as the revised Vermont law (Mezvinsky, 1961, p. 51). From there, Mrs. Hunt carried the amendment fight on to other states.

    Not surprisingly, many school officials were unsympathetic or resistant to mandatory temperance education. An Ohio temperance worker complained that "school examiners, school boards and school superintendents are, many of them, indifferent to the law-ignore it-and are not dismissed" and observed that "no law will enforce itself (Zimmerman, 1992, p. 8). 7 Accordingly, Mrs. Hunt asserted that "It is our duty not to take the word of some school official, but to visit the school and carefully and wisely ascertain for ourselves if the study is faithfully pursued by all pupils" (Zimmerman, 1992, p. 9). To this end, she asserted that local WCTU superintendents or other members must visit their local schools to observe the temperance lessons, examinations, recitations, and textbooks (Hunt, 1892, pp. 53, 58). 8 With about 150,000 members scattered in communities across the nation in 1892, the WCTU was in an excellent position to monitor compliance to the temperance legislation. "When, in an unusual gesture of defiance, teachers in New York State protested a highly prescriptive temperance law, the WCTU mobilized influential local members to make sure that teachers were obeying the statute" (Tyack and James, 1985, p. 517). Not surprisingly, both supporters and opponents used military metaphors to describe Hunt's organization and methods.

    By the turn of the century, the Scientific Temperance Instruction movement directed by Mrs. Hunt had proved to be highly successful. Virtually every state, the District of Columbia, and all United States possessions had strong legislation mandating that all students receive anti-alcohol education. Some textbook authors even prepared different editions of their books to meet the differing legal requirements of various states (Nietz, 1961, p. 294). Furthermore, the implementation of this legislation was closely monitored down to the classroom level by legions of determined and vigilant WCTU members throughout the nation.

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