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  • History Of Prohibition


    By the mid-1890s, the extensive exaggerations, distortions, and gross inaccuracies in textbooks endorsed by the WCTU were increasingly criticized by leading scientists and educators. The latter included the presidents of Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and Vassar (Mezvinsky, 1961, p. 52). Such criticisms became increasingly strong after a report issued by the prestigious Committee of Fifty, a group of leading citizens formed in 1893 by eminent sociologists to study the "liquor problem" (Fumas, 1965, p. 330). It sought to determine facts rather than promote any theory or point of view (Billings, 1905, p. 4). A subcommittee, headed by faculty from Harvard and Clark University, found the WCTU's program of temperance instruction seriously defective. The committee contended that children should not be taught and forced to memorize "facts" that they would later find to be incorrect. This instructional approach was seen as inappropriate and doomed to backfire.

    By making such unqualified assertions as "Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison," the WCTU-approved textbooks clearly conveyed the false impression that alcohol is poison in any amount and is always harmful (Timberlake, 1963, p. 49). By constant repetition of the word poison and by making numerous exaggerations and false statements, the approved texts attempted to mislead and frighten young people into abstinence. 11

    The committee believed that instruction should be based on facts so that students could form their own educated opinions. They "should not be taught that the drinking of a glass or two of wine by a grown-up person is very dangerous" (Billings, 1905, pp. 35-36). This was diametrically opposed to the view expressed by a prominent WCTU leader that "To teach the danger of forming the awful, insidious, inexorable appetite [for alcohol], is the especial province of the teacher" (Bader, 1986, p. 100) and of Mrs. Hunt, who referred to the enormous "harvest of death that might result from the universal teaching that the drinking of one or two glasses of wine is not 'very dangerous'" and asserted that "such teaching would be nothing less than crime" (Hunt, 1904, pp. 17-18).

    The committee contrasted contemporary knowledge on alcohol with that taught in WCTU-approved textbooks by placing side by side passages from standard authoritative textbooks with those from "Indorsed and Approved" textbooks (Billings, 1903, pp. 11-13, ellipses in original):

    Standard Textbooks "Indorsed and Approved" Textbooks
    "It may perhaps, be said with safety that in small quantities it (alcohol) is beneficial, or at least not injurious, barring the danger of acquiring an alcohol habit, while in large quantities it is directly injurious to various tissues."

    "In practice we find that in many persons a small quantity of alcohol improves digestion; and that a meal by its means can be digested which would be wasted."

    "The question of the propriety of the daily use of alcohol by healthy men is at present a very serious one, involving so many moral and politico-moral issues that is cannot be fully discussed here. Suffice it to state as obvious inferences from our present knowledge of the physiological action of alcohol, that the habitual use of moderate amounts of alcohol does not directly and of necessity do harm; that to a certain extent it is capable of replacing ordinary food, so that if it be scanty, or even if it be coarse and not easily digested, alcohol, in some form or other, is of great advantage; that in all cases it should be taken well diluted, so as not to irritate the stomach; and that wine or malt liquors are certainly preferable to spirits..."

    "As Lieben also found that this substance (alcohol) exists in the urine of dogs, horses, and lions, and as A. Rajcwski obtained it from healthy rabbits, it must be acknowledged that our present knowledge strongly indicates that alcohol is formed and exists in the normal organism."

    "Alcohol is universally ranked among poisons by physiologists, chemists, physicians, toxicologists, and all who have experimented, studied and written upon the subject, and who therefore, best understand it."

    "Alcohol is not a food or drink. Medical writers, without exception, class alcohol as a poison.

    "This alcohol is a liquid poison, a little of it will harm any one who drinks it, and much of it would kill the drinker."

    "It must be remembered that in whatever quantity, or wherever alcohol is found, its nature is the same. It is not only a poison, but a narcotic poison."

    "...alcohol is often fatal to life. Deaths of men, women, and children from poisonous doses of this drug are common."

    "...when used as a beverage, it injures the health in proportion to the amount taken."

    "This alcohol is poisonous. It is its nature, even in small quantities, to harm any one who drinks it. It is capable of ruining the character-as well as the health; and if one takes enough it will kill him."

    One author of an approved series of textbooks remarked to the committee that "I have studied physiology and I do not wish you to suppose that I have fallen so low as to believe all those things I have put into those books" (Billings, 1903, p. 34, emphasis in original). While the author may not have fallen so low as to believe what he wrote, he did fall low enough to put it into textbooks for impressionable young students. However, it appears that relatively few authors were willing to compromise themselves by writing or revising books to conform to Mrs. Hunts strict ideological guidelines, because one-third of the approved textbooks were written anonymously (Billings, 1903, p. 26). Mrs. Hunt had to pay one author $6,000 to write two books, an amount of money that could have built or purchased a very large and commodious house at that time. Furthermore, at least one of the texts "authored" by another writer has been attributed to Mrs. Hunt (American Library Association, 1973, v. 261,p. 17), By her own admission (Hunt, 1897, p.49), the publisher of nearly all of the early written texts that were ultimately approved had asked her either to revise them herself or to supervise the revisions to bring them into conformity with WCTU guidelines. 12

    The investigating committee conducted a survey of all members of the American Physiological Society as well as of 45 physiologists, hygienists, and specialists in allied sciences holding prominent positions abroad. The goal was to "obtain valuable expert opinions from practically the entire scientific world" regarding Scientific Temperance Instruction (Billings, 1903, p. 14). Although a number of the scholars opposed the consumption of alcohol, every respondent from the American Physiological Society except one "oppose[d] the so-called 'scientific temperance instruction' as it is now being promoted in the schools, the strong conviction of a number being that it is resulting in more evil than good" (Billings, 1903, p. 15). Of the foreign scientists, only one reported being in support of the approved textbooks. "Even [August] Forel, perhaps the most energetic and brilliant advocate of total abstinence in Europe, who goes so far as to maintain that alcohol in all doses is a poison, remarks, in speaking of educational methods: I think that in America somewhat unwise methods have been adopted'" (Billings, 1903, p. 17, emphasis in original).

    The committee expressed concern over the ideological and propagandistic nature of WCTU-approved textbooks and of the "Scientific Temperance Instruction" movement:

    As is generally the case when feeling and prejudice run high, the temptation has been irresistible to either manufacture evidence or stretch it over points that it does not cover; to call "scientific" everything that happens to agree with [its] particular prejudices, and to relegate to the limbo of human error all the evidence that appears for the other side. Another characteristic feature of this movement has been the flattery of authors who favor the views to be inculcated with such appellations as "greatest living authority," "foremost scientist," "the wise physician of today, who is abreast of the modem investigations concerning the drug," "author of great prominence," "most skilled in his profession," "eminent scholar," etc. (Billings, 1903, p. 23)

    While the WCTU and other temperance writers tended to exaggerate the stature of those who agreed with them, they "frequently . .. abused anyone who disagreed with them; indeed, derogatory and vituperative language became a trademark of the temperance crusade" (Isaac, 1965, p. 226). Frequently, they went beyond mere words. The Committee of Fifty noted "the efforts of the 'scientific temperance' people to secure the dismissal of state employees suspected of not being sufficiently in sympathy with their own extreme views" (Billings, 1903, p. 25), and Mrs. Hunt "pushed the editor of a temperance newspaper to investigate those opposed to temperance physiology instruction" (Pauly, 1990, p. 387).

    After extensively documenting " 'scientific temperance' propaganda" (Billings, 1903, p. 25), the committee noted that "It is little wonder that educators and teachers oppose 'scientific' temperance" (p. 31) because "the text-books are written with a deliberate purpose to frighten the children, the younger the better, so thoroughly that they will avoid all contact with alcohol" (p. 32). Indeed, a "study of what children actually remembered from their [Scientific Temperance Instruction] physiology classes reported one pupil's response: Alcohol 'will gradually eat away the flesh. If anyone drinks it, it will pickle the inside of the body'" (Tyack and James, 1985, pp. 518-519).

    The committee attempted to use contemporary social scientific methods to study alcohol and to avoid the moralism of the prohibitionists. It concluded that occasional and regular moderate drinking did not cause health problems, that drinking did not inevitably lead to drunkenness, and that alcohol education should be based on a recognition that "Intoxication is not the wine's fault, but the man's" (Billings, 1905, pp. 30, 35,41).

    The committee was clearly displeased about "the manner in which scientific authorities are misquoted in order to appear to furnish support to 'scientific temperance instruction'" (Billings, 1903, p. 35). Then, after reviewing the results of three studies of Scientific Temperance Instruction practice and outcomes, the committee concluded that "under the name of' Scientific Temperance Instruction' there has been grafted upon the public school system of nearly all our States an educational scheme relating to alcohol which is neither scientific, nor temperate, nor instructive" (Billings, 1903, p. 44).

    Mrs. Hunt prepared a Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty in which she charged the authors of the report with being prejudiced against abstinence instruction, blasted them for gross misrepresentation of facts, argued that alcohol is a drug, and insisted that the WCTU-endorsed textbooks were completely accurate. She then had the Reply entered into the Congressional Record (Hunt, 1904) and distributed more than 100,000 copies (Mezvinsky, 1959,p. 184).

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