I have written a lot about Schaghticoke in the first half of the 19th century: about its industry, agriculture, religion, schooling, government, but not much about its society, about cultural trends. One of the major movements of the 1800’s was temperance, meaning either moderation in or abstinence from alcoholic drinks. So far I have found little research and writing about the movement, which is surprising given its importance in the history of our country. In the Troy “Budget” newspaper from 1834-1854 there are almost 3000 mentions of temperance- proof of its prevalence at even such an early date. I must emphasize that drinking alcohol was clearly a part of 19th century society. To begin with, water often wasn’t pure, so everyone, man, woman, and child, drank an alcoholic alternative. I’m sure you’ve heard that men on sailing ships received a daily ration of grog, as did soldiers in the American Revolution. Even in the records of construction of a new cotton mill on the Hoosic River in 1825, rum and whisky were part of the expenses, a regular part of the daily wages of the workers. There were several taverns in the tiny village of Schaghticoke in the early 1800’s, and a number of “houses” throughout the town where alcohol was served. Town meetings and elections were held in different “houses” over the years, which were literally houses with a bar room.
There were several waves of temperance during the 1800’s through the adoption of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919, which prohibited the manufacture or importation of “intoxicating beverages”. This was repealed by the 21st amendment in 1933, which brought to an end the era known as “Prohibition.” But to go back to the start, one source I read stated that the Temperance Movement began as early as 1794 in New England, with the first supporters advocating moderation in drink. People could see that excessive drinking led men to lose their jobs, abuse their families, and destroy their health. The early movement got lost in side issues, like advocating for better observance of the Sabbath.
But Connecticut minister Lyman Beecher restarted the temperance movement in 1825 with a number of sermons warning of the dangers of drunkenness to our country. The Presbyterian Church was in general the backbone of the movement. In 1826 the American Temperance Society was founded in Boston. It sent people out through the whole country to preach about the dangers of drink, and the movement caught fire. By 1831 there were over 2000 temperance societies in the country, with over 170,000 members enrolled. Now abstinence was urged rather than moderation.
At first the American Temperance Society preached to moderate drinkers, encouraging them to give up alcohol, making it up to the individual to have self -control. As time went on, people were encouraged to sign “the teetotal pledge,” to give up alcohol entirely, and members began to lobby the government to adopt legislation to limit the traffic in liquor.
In the 1840’s new organizations, the Washingtonians and the Sons of Temperance, preached to heavy users of alcohol, really in an evangelical way, urging listeners to give up “demon rum.” These were more like clubs, supporting each other in abstinence. Speakers traveled the country, encouraging the formation of new organizations, preaching against drink. Some aimed specifically at the new Irish immigrants. The organizations put out publications as well, ranging from newspapers to songs, poems, essays, and novels showing the evils of drink. Women were members of all of the organizations.
I have found some evidence of the Temperance movement in Schaghticoke. Apparently New York State had begun its society, the NY Society for the Promotion of Temperance, by 1829, as the group published its 3rd Annual Report in 1832. In this report, I found that Wyatt Swift, President of the Schaghticoke Powder Mill, was President of the local group, which had an amazing 392 members, an increase of 211 over the preceding year. Wyatt wrote, “We have much to encourage us to persevere in the cause of temperance; we have had three public meetings at which addresses were made on the subject.” The group had also passed out literature. Can you imagine any group in town now with 400 members? By 1833 there were 530 members, and there were three temperance stores and taverns. This would imply that neither the stores nor taverns would sell intoxicating beverages. I can see that a store could make its money otherwise, but I can’t imagine a successful tavern without alcohol- would it then be a tea or coffee house? The very numbers of those joining the movement seems to indicate that many people must have either been drinking too much alcohol or have been affected by relatives who drank too much.
Temperance reform continued in the village of Schaghticoke. An article in the Troy “Budget” in 1842 reported that “William VanWagner, a blacksmith from West Troy, has addressed the people on the subject,” with sixty people signing the pledge to give up alcohol after the talk. VanWagner spoke nine times in school houses all around the town, with more and more people signing. “The great mass of temperate drinkers have felt willing to forego the pleasure of occasionally sipping wine, beer, and cider, and take the pledge for total abstinence.” Seven hundred people in the village had signed the pledge- it probably had about 1000 residents at that time, so this was an amazing number.
Catholics had a society of their own, with 137 members in the valley, this only a year after the Catholic Church opened. The Lutheran congregation in the Melrose area had 100 members of its society. And Ephraim Congdon, who ran the large hotel in the village, site of many town and other meetings, had changed his tavern to a “temperance house. All intoxicating drinks have been banished,” replaced by hot coffee. Congdon was a very active member of the Presbyterian Church in the village.
Clearly, Schaghticoke mirrored the national trends, with outside speakers coming in to exhort people to give up drink right on the spot. Organizations formed around the churches. The Presbyterian Church had clearly taken the lead. One of its local governing bodies, the Session, acted as a moral court, interviewing and admonishing, then helping members who erred. Its surviving minutes date from a later date, beginning in about 1860, but show that the temperance movement continued. In 1870 the session recommended the formation of a Sabbath School Temperance Society, inviting all area churches to join the meeting. Charles Pickett, who was President of the village of Schaghticoke at the time, was cited for public intoxication and swearing. He did come before the board and promise to reform, but was expelled from the church in the end, not for his drinking, but for not appearing to be judged by the Session.
In the end, the Session went too far. In 1878, one of the members, John Ackart, proposed that “a pledge of abstinence is to be required of all applicants as a condition of membership in this church.” The Presbytery, the body governing local churches, found that this was “unconstitutional.” Instead the session drafted a statement to be read from the pulpit, urging members to abstain from all amusements, as dancing, card playing, attendance at theatrical performances, etc., including alcohol, and urging them instead to attend church more and read the Bible daily. Clearly not all citizens followed the Presbyterian’s strictest rules. In 1870 there were at least seven taverns of one sort or another in town, and at least one grocery store that also sold liquor.
(“Temperance Movement.” Dictionary of American History. 2003. Encyclopedia.com. 4 Jan. 2016<http://www.encyclopedia.com>.