When Congress started to get serious about temperance

John Kelly
Columnist September 11, 2012

With what, I wonder, did they toast the creation of the Congressional Temperance Society?

Certainly not with Champagne, beer or any other “ardent” spirit, since the whole point of the society — founded in 1833 — was to eliminate such pernicious intoxicants from the halls of Congress at a minimum and ideally from the nation.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Alcohol, the society’s founders thought, “tends to produce pauperism, crime and wretchedness, and to hinder the efficacy of all means for the intellectual and moral benefit of Society, and also to endanger the purity and permanence of our free Institutions.”

I read these words this week at National City Christian Church. They were in a neat, leather-bound book that Lynne Morgan stumbled across not long ago in a filing cabinet in the church’s basement. Lynne is working on the archives of the church, which occupies a handsome John Russell Pope-designed building on Thomas Circle. Her husband, Peter, is the church historian. Together they marveled at an odd bit of history that somehow ended up at their church: the official minutes of the Congressional Temperance Society.

The book has marbled endpapers. Its unlined pages are covered with neat handwriting that inscribes the minutes of the society’s annual meetings, held each February.

Ninety-five men were charter members. They signed the society’s constitution, which noted: “The object of this Society shall be by example and by kind moral influence, to discountenance the use of ardent spirit and the traffic in it, throughout the community.” Signatures in the book include those of Franklin Pierce, then a representative from New Hampshire, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In 1842, eight years before being elected president, Millard Fillmore signed the book. The society was open to past and present members of Congress and other federal officials. Its first president was Lewis Cass, secretary of war under Andrew Jackson (whose name, no surprise, appears nowhere in the membership rolls).

Peter said he suspected that some may have joined the society out of political opportunism and that they continued to “have a nip now and then.”

Depending on the source, the Congressional Temperance Society was either the first or second temperance group founded in the United States. The movement would gain momentum as the 19th century went on. The old book is an interesting window into the idealism of the day.

Drunken sailors were of particular concern. The minutes from 1838 include this passage:

“Resolved: That seamen, whether in the merchant service, fisheries, or Navy, from their exposed situation, as well as from the responsibility of their trust, require the peculiar sympathy of their fellow men, to preserve them from the evil of intemperance.”

That same year the society moved to prohibit alcohol from the restaurants of the Capitol “and from the public grounds thereof.”

The irony is that during Prohibition the Capitol was one of the best places in town to score booze, thanks to bootleggers such as the famed “Man in the Green Hat.”

What connection did the Congressional Temperance Society have with National City Christian Church? Not a lot. Although it’s true that saloon-smashing prohibitionist Carrie Nation — she of the hatchet — was a member of the Disciples of Christ, the church’s denomination, the book most likely ended up with the church about 1876, when pastor Frederick Power started serving as the society’s secretary. “Who knows what else is here,” Lynne said.

That’s something that can be said of every church in town. More history passes through the hands of church archivists than just about anyone else. (This book is likely to find a permanent home in the manuscript division of the Library of Congress.)

I don’t know when exactly the Congressional Temperance Society disbanded. Our senators and representatives still throw their weight behind diverse causes, even if the thought of them leading “by example and by kind moral influence” strikes us as laughable today.

Contemporary equivalents of the society are the various Congressional Membership Organizations, of which there are dozens. A few would sound familiar to Millard Fillmore and his friends: the Congressional Stop DUI Caucus, the Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine, the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse. . . .

But there also happens to be a Congressional Wine Caucus, a Congressional Bourbon Caucus and a House Small Brewers Caucus. It’s enough to drive you to drink.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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