Culture  /  Vignette

What if the Fourth of July Were Dry?

In 1855, prohibitionists set their sights on the wettest day of the year.
Library of Congress/Wikimedia

In 1855, the good citizens of the state of New York faced this very prospect. Since the birth of the republic, alcohol and Independence Day have gone hand in hand, and in the early nineteenth century alcohol went hand in hand with every day. Americans living then downed an average seven gallons of alcohol per year, more than twice what Americans drink now. In homes and workshops, churches and taverns; at barn-raisings, funerals, the ballot box; and even while giving birth — they lubricated their lives with ardent spirits morning, noon, and night. If there was an annual apex in this prolonged cultural bender, it was the Fourth of July, when many commemorated the glories of independence with drunken revelry.

Beginning in the 1820s, things began to change. A rising lot of middle-class evangelical Protestants hoped to banish the bottle not only from the nation’s birthday but from the nation itself. With the evidence of alcohol’s immense personal and social costs before them, millions of men and women joined the temperance crusade and made it one of America’s first grass-roots social movements. Reformers demonized booze and made “teetotalism” (what we call abstinence) a marker of moral respectability. As consumption levels began to fall by mid-century, activists sought to seal their reformation with powerful state laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol. They insisted — in true democratic fashion — that an overwhelming majority of citizens were ready for a dry America.

State legislators played along, initiating America’s first experiment with prohibition not in the well-remembered 1920s but rather in the 1850s. It was a time when another moral question — slavery — divided the nation, but it was also a time when hard-drinking Irish and German immigrants — millions of them Catholics — threatened to overwhelm Protestant America. With nativism in the air, 13 states enacted prohibition laws. Predicting the death of alcohol and the salvation of the nation, temperance reformers set out to see these laws enforced.

New York’s moment came in 1855. The state legislature passed a prohibition statute in the spring and chose the Fourth of July for the measure to take effect.