temperance movement in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Temperance Movement in Wisconsin

temperance movement in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


Temperance was the first social reform movement to grip Wisconsin. Sentiment was divided among those who advocated temperance or moderation in alcohol consumption, those who desired to legislate an absolute prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcohol, and those who wanted to see strict licensing control. A coordinated movement embracing all three viewpoints did not emerge until after the Civil War, and even then, it was often joined with other issues such as woman suffrage, urban reform, economic reform, and even vegetarianism.

The first Wisconsin temperance society was formed in Green Bay in 1832. By the 1840s, they had become more prevalent, particularly in the lead mining region and in settlements comprised largely of New England Yankees, such as Milwaukee, Kenosha, Racine, Waukesha, and Rock counties. In 1839, Samuel and Jeremiah Phoenix even persuaded the territorial legislature to create a new dry county named Walworth after a prominent eastern temperance leader. As the population became more heterogenous in the 1850s, however, conformity became impossible to enforce and the experiment in Walworth County was abandoned.

The most important organization in the early temperance movement in Wisconsin was the Sons of Temperance, established in 1845. The Sons promoted the regulation of the liquor traffic and provided some of the initiative behind the first attempts at prohibition in Wisconsin. Supplemented by another group, the Good Templars, in the 1850s, the two organizations were strongest in the southern portion of the state which became the regional center of temperance activity before the Civil War.

The Sons succeeded in politicizing the liquor issue, and in so doing, engendered the ethnic and cultural conflict that defined the temperance crusade for the next 60 years. The push for restrictive legislation brought temperance advocates in direct conflict with the state's largest ethnic group, the Germans, who formed the backbone of the anti-prohibition movement. At times, the temperance movement took a nativist tinge, directing its activities against the foreign imbibers, esp. the German and Irish, rather than the native born. Scandinavian groups, particularly Norwegians, were also temperance stalwarts.

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