A Score of Years Ago
I would gladly have been excused from a participation in the proceedings of this meeting, but the invitation was so pressing I could not well refuse without seeming indifference, or opposition, to the great question we have met to consider. With several gentlemen engaged to speak good words on this occasion, it seemed to me that anything I could say would be superfluous, but the committee thought differently, and as I have never yet shrunk from declaring myself on the side of temperance, so now when called upon I could not well refuse my word of approval and endorsement of the effort being made in our city, to stay the work of the great destroyer of the bodies and souls of men.
Almost from my earliest recollection I have felt a warm interest in the question of temperance, and to its advocacy, with tongue and pen, I have given many of the best years of my life. Having been thus identified with this reform almost from its beginning, when abstinence from strong drink alone was required, and not a teetotal abstinence from all that can intoxicate, as now, I have followed it through all its various phases from that time to this.
In my childhood it was common for everyone to use alcoholic drinks, and the decanters and glasses on the sideboard were deemed as necessary, almost, as any other articles of furniture. The guest, or hired man, who had not some stimulating drink served to him, would not have considered himself respectfully entertained, or provided for. And he who failed to serve a hot sling before breakfast to a minister who lodged with him would have been thought very inhospitable.
I well remember the excitement caused by the first temperance wave that swept through the land, when ministers were asked to abstain from their potations and become ensamples [sic] of good to their flocks, and when farmers were urged not to furnish the usual allowance of whisky to their work men and harvest hands. How the question was discussed as to whether it would be possible to harvest the grain without a free allowance of whisky; some willing to try the experiment, and others openly refusing, and declaring it impossible for a man to do a day’s work without frequent draughts of the intoxicating poison.
Some good was done by this first feeble effort to stay the evil, by calling attention to it and weakening the hitherto strong hold which the custom had upon the people.
Then followed the great Washington Movement, whose pledge was total abstinence from all that could intoxicate. This reform which spread like wild-fire over the country, originated with a few degraded drunkards in the city of Baltimore in 1841. While together in a saloon it was proposed by one of them that they should henceforth abstain from their cups and become sober men. The others agreed to this, and forthwith a pledge was drawn up, and there, in the presence of the rumseller, who had made them the drunken, wretched beings they were, they all signed the pledge; and then, emptying their filled but untouched glasses upon the floor, they left the familiar haunt and sought their homes, to unfold to sorrowing wives their resolutions and their hopes. Then, as if led by an Almighty hand to take this step, and as though inspired for the work, these men set about the reformation of their fellows, who were treading the same dark road they had now abandoned. They traveled up and down the country, visiting every city and town, holding meetings, calling drunkards and all others who would come, together, and then telling their own experience, picturing their unhappiness, and poverty, and wretchedness — the destitution and misery of their families — contrasting their youth and earlier years with what they had now become, showing how all their earnings had gone to enrich the rumseller who had worked their ruin, while their own wives and children had suffered from cold and hunger.
All this went home to the hearts of their hearers, and their appeals and pleadings were not in vain. The pledge was presented at all these meetings, and scores and hundreds, not of the drunken alone, but also of those who saw that they were standing on dangerous ground, and that their steps were tending towards the same dark abyss whence these men had been almost miraculously rescued, went boldly forward and affixed their names to that paper which, while it bound them, also made them free men.
And so the work went on. Pollard, and Wright, and Hawkins, the reformed drunkards of Baltimore, were known throughout the land. John B. Gough, Jewett Bungay and many others who were reformed by this influence also became preachers of this new temperance gospel and won many souls to salvation. Temperance became popular in those days, and while there were many to sneer and scoff and hold themselves aloof from this good work, preferring to continue in their dark ways of sin, yet many drunkards were reclaimed who relapsed not again into their former habits, and thousands of young men and moderate drunkards were saved to themselves, their families, and the world by that blessed total abstinence pledge.
There were no secret temperance societies in those days, but open temperance meetings were held every week and were largely attended — and men with warm hearts and earnest purpose were ever ready to speak good words for the cause, and to encourage the weak and wavering to persevere in the right course.
A few years later the Order of the Sons of Temperance was instituted. This was a secret society and admitted only men to membership. It was believed by its founders that it would accomplish great good by arresting the interest and sustaining the efforts of young men in this new temperance career, and by furnishing an asylum and safeguard for the intemperate. Of course this new movement met with some opposition because of its secrecy, and because it was feared that the open societies would lose interest and be weakened thereby. And this proved true, to some extent at least. But the Order flourished, and gathered tens of thousands into its fold in those days. Of late years, like all other temperance effort, it has had a hard struggle for life, yet the good it has accomplished has been great — the full extent of which can never be known in this life.
Women, for some reason, were excluded from the lodge rooms. I suppose because at that day it had never occurred to men that women had rights and interests in common with themselves, and women had never asserted their rights or claimed their recognition. Woman’s voice at that time had never been heard in public on any subject, outside a Quaker meeting house, and for her to speak or vote would have been considered an abomination.
But this exclusion necessitated the organization of a like secret society on the part of woman. She was too much interested in the temperance revival to remain quiet and inactive — and so an order called the Daughters of Temperance was organized with their unions in almost every town and city of the country; and the sexes who should have worked together in a common cause were divided and working separately, but to the same end. No one who favored secret societies at all, objected to the Daughters organization. No objection was raised to women talking as loud and as long as they pleased to a congregation of women, but had a man been present it would have been scandalous. A wonderful change has taken place in this respect! For this freedom from the fear of men we may thank the woman’s rights movement.
An order called the Cadets of Temperance was also instituted about that time, which was composed of boys too young to join the Sons. For want of older heads among them this order did not long exist, though it added many to the cold water army.
All these organizations flourished for several years and did a good work, leading the masses to see the evils of intemperance and to adopt and practice the principles of total abstinence from all intoxicating beverages. This feeling was carried so far with some as to lead them to refuse the wine furnished at the Communion table, lest it might be a violation of their pledge, or lest the taste of the poison should renew the appetite and lead them again into sin.
But ere long, some men of progressive minds saw that it was not good for man to be alone — that it was not well to divide the interest and the effort — and then in 1852 originated the Good Templars, to which women were admitted to membership. This order was the first to recognize woman’s rights — a question which had then been agitated some three or four years — the first to place her on an equal footing with man so far as speaking, voting and office holding were concerned. This order soon became popular. With its advent the Daughters went out, as no longer necessary, and the success of the Sons began to wane. Soon the Sons felt compelled to take up the question of admitting women to their divisions. At first the proposition was opposed and voted down, but it came up again and again at each successive meeting of the Grand Division, and finally carried so far as to admit them as visiting members, but not to full membership and a participation in the proceedings. Few women availed themselves of this reluctant halfway courtesy, and the Good Templars, with its broader, juster platform, remained the favorite organization. I am told that the Sons have since gone a step farther and now admit women to full membership, but I have no means of investigating this proceeding. If true it is well, and a step in the right direction, as is every step that brings the sexes to act together in matters where their interests are one.
Besides these secret societies I have mentioned, there existed at the same time state and county organizations about which there was no secrecy, and which held mass conventions, employed lecturers, and distributed a vast amount of temperance reading matter in the form of tracts and papers. These all created a public sentiment which has grown and strengthened, until a large majority in every community are enrolled under the banner of total abstinence.
Your speaker has been a member, and an active worker, in all these organizations except the Cadets. She has travelled thousands of miles, given scores of lectures, and written words without number in behalf of this great and good cause. A score of years ago I fondly believed that long ere this the work would be accomplished, and intemperance hardly be known except as a wicked thing of the past. I believed that good prohibitory laws, aided by the efforts of all the hosts of temperance men and women would accomplish this. Vain hope! The monster evil has proved itself stronger than the faith and will of temperance men — of Christian men. Selfish interests, political interests, have made men fear to act, however they may feel, and the cause has languished fearfully during late years. Many souls have gone down to death in consequence, and the rumpower has triumphed where it might have been crushed, but for the apathy and indifference of temperance men.
Ministers of the gospel, who are placed as watchmen on the walls of Zion, have slept at their posts, while the text, “No drunkard shall enter the kingdom of heaven” [I Corinthians 6:9-10], stares at them from the sacred page.
Occasionally there is something like a revival, a sort of spasmodic effort, and just now there seems to be an awakening interest on this subject all over the country. Would that it might speed forward, until another Washingtonian reformation should sweep the land like a whirlwind and rescue the poor victims of intemperance from the clutches of the destroyer! There is a vast amount of work to be done, but if there is hope of saving even one soul from the drunkard’s life, the drunkard’s death and the drunkard’s hereafter, it is an object worth striving for.
How this work shall be prosecuted — how its ends are to be attained, I must leave to wiser heads than mine. Men must determine it; women are powerless. In other days women have come to me and told me tales that chilled the blood with horror, and nerved me to do my utmost in their behalf. It was through knowledge of the wrongs inflicted upon the drunkard’s wife that I became a woman suffragist. I saw that she had no rights that her drunken husband was bound to respect. Her person, her property, her earnings, her children were all his, and she could do nothing but submit to his blows and curses, and drag on her wretched life to the grave. I saw that of all the tens of thousands of licenses given for carrying on the inhuman, death-dealing traffic in intoxicating poison, no woman’s sanction was ever given to any — no consent asked of her for prosecuting a business so destructive of all that was nearest and dearest to her on earth. I saw that her petitions and remonstrances were alike unheeded, and her prayers for relief and protection treated with insult.
Then I claimed the ballot for her, that she too might have a voice in law making and law enforcing — that she might have a vote for her own protection — that she might be regarded as a God-created, human being that she might have power to command the respect of men. And for years, in view of the apathy existing among men on this subject of temperance, on this business of drunkard-making, my only hope has been in woman, and for woman, through the exercise of her right of suffrage. And to me it has seemed strange indeed that all women do not see what their influence and power might be in this direction, and more urgently press their claims for the right to say whether or not the laws and customs shall continue to bring down disgrace and poverty and wretchedness upon their own sex, as well as upon the men of their households. To me it is passing strange that Christian women will fold their hands in indifference when such a struggle for the rights of wronged and degraded womanhood is going on. . .
Again I was chairman of a committee sent to Albany to present some thirty thousand women’s petitions to the legislature for a prohibitory liquor law. The house suspended its rules, admitted us to the floor and to the speaker’s desk, where we made our speech in behalf of the women of the great State of New York, presented our huge rolls of petitions, and retired. We were respectfully received, respectfully treated— but that was all. They were only the petitions of women, and what were thirty thousand women without votes, compared to the votes of the liquor interest? Our prayer for protection was unheeded.
Again and again women numbering from hundreds to many thousands petitioned excise boards not to grant licenses for the sale of that which destroyed their husbands and sons, beggared their families, and brought them only cold and hunger and nakedness—abuse, wretchedness and despair. But of what avail was it all? Women had no power — no votes — and what did excise boards care for their pleadings, when men who had votes wanted the privilege of carrying on the pauper-making, death-dealing work? Never in one instance were the prayers of women to men answered, and yet these men claim to be woman’s protectors and representatives. Had we possessed a vote, think you our prayers would have been so slighted?
And so you see how through this temperance work I was led step by step to see that nothing short of the ballot in woman’s hand would give her power for her own protection. To see that all the prating of men about woman’s influence, and woman’s duty, was mere twaddle, so long as she was nothing but a disfranchised subject. You see how I have learned to distrust men, and how all my hopes for woman—how all my hopes for men — have centred upon the one idea of elevating the condition of woman, by conferring upon her all the rights of citizenship and the power belonging thereto. How so long as she is a sufferer by the liquor traffic, I cannot talk on this question without speaking of her wrongs and her rights connected therewith.
It is true that by agitation and demand we have gained much by way of courtesy. When I was invited out of a woman’s rights convention in the City of Cleveland, to address a mass temperance convention of men then being held in that city, it was a grateful triumph over the old fogyism of the World’s Convention, held but a short time before, and regarded as a rebuke to the action of that meeting. And so woman’s cause has continued to grow and triumph, until now men are not only willing to listen, but they will also sue for the privilege of hearing a woman talk. Wonderful change! But we cannot rest satisfied with this. Temperance men must not stop with hearing us talk, but they must help us to the ballot, that we may speak effectually on this great question.
I am glad to see the present revival in the temperance work, and I hope it may lead to grand results — to the enacting of laws which shall hold him who deals out alcoholic poison as a beverage responsible in heavy sums for the damage done thereby to the victim and his family; which shall hold him who abets, or in any way participates in such business, equally responsible with the seller; which shall regard and treat him who steals another’s brains and bread, as it does him who steals a horse or a purse.
I am opposed to license laws, and a return to them will be a return to the dark ages. If the traffic in intoxicating drinks is right and good, then it is right and good for all, and all have an equal right to engage in it. But if it is, as we know it to be, an evil and a wrong, then no license can make it right, and no one has a right to engage in it.
I regard the sale of strong drinks as a crime of the worst character, as productive of greater evils than any other on the criminal calendar. If it be right to license such a crime, then it is right to license all crime and iniquity. I would forbid the sale entirely under heavy penalties just as I would forbid other wrong doing, and then they who disregarded the law should suffer the penalty.
But I know it is useless for me, or for any woman, to say what should be done. We have no votes and what can a disfranchised, subject class do against the rum power? It laughs at our puny efforts.
I have thus hastily, and to please the committee who invited me, thrown together a few thoughts. At another time I may have more to say on the subject, but will not now detain you longer.
Copyright 2019. Seneca Falls Historical Society, Seneca Falls, NY. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Source: Hear Me Patiently: The Reform Speeches of Amelia Jenks Bloomer, ed. Anne C. Coon, (Westport: Greenwood Press), 1994.