Awareness vs. Action: Two Modes of Protest in American History

A “Family Temperance Pledge” from 1887. Group pledges such as these were central to the success of the temperance movement.

Source: Library of Congress. “An American Time Capsule: Three Centuries of Broadsides and Other Printed Ephemera.” 2004.

In the comment thread of the post “Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: Three Centuries of American Political Culture” a reader writing under the tag “Bormington” questions whether or not the changes in culture I described in that post really happened. He (or she?) comments:

Interesting post, but have social movements really changed? Haven’t many movements in the past aimed to “raise awareness” of their cause in order to strengthen their petition to the authorities? Wilberforce was an MP, and had a vote in Parliament, but the success of the anti-slavery movement in which he was a part relied on building awareness of slavery and increasing opposition to it. For example, the “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” logo was part of such campaigning.

Likewise, the temperance movement didn’t just encourage its members to refrain from alcohol. It also petitioned the authorities to prevent other people from drinking alcohol. [1]

Of Wilberforce and his campaign to end slavery I must profess ignorance. I know only the basic outlines of social movements in 19th century Britain and cannot pretend to speak with any authority on the topic. I am far more familiar with 19th century America. Thus I admit that I am a little mystified to see the Temperance movement used against me. Usually it is the first case study I turn to when I want to distinguish between the awareness-based activism of today and the action-based activism of older eras. It is the quintessential example of a social movement of the old sort, and a striking example of how powerful such a movement can be.

Daniel Walker Howe devotes several pages to the origins of the movement in his excellent book  What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1814-1848. It is worth quoting from them at length:

Americans in the early nineteenth century quaffed alcohol in prodigious quantities. In 1825, the average American over fifteen years of age consumed seven gallons of alcohol a year, mostly in the form of whiskey and hard cider. (The corresponding figure at the start of the twenty-first century was less than two gallons, most of it from beer and wine.) Workers typically took a midmorning break and a mid-afternoon break, both accompanied by alcohol, as well as liquor with every meal. To entertain guests meant to ply them with several kinds of alcohol until some fell down. All social classes drank heavily; college students, journeyman printers, agricultural laborers, and canal-diggers were especially notorious. Schoolchildren might face an inebriated teacher in the classroom. Although socially tolerated, drunkenness frequently generated violence, especially domestic violence, and other illegal behavior. In such a society, intemperance represented a serious issue of public health, comparable to the problems of drug abuse experienced in later generations.

Making temperance a Christian cause constituted an innovation, for traditional Christianity had not discouraged drinking. Indeed, Beecher recalled, ministerial conferences during his youth had been occasions for heavy convivial drinking. Unlike a later generation of crusaders, Beecher never thought the legal prohibition of alcohol a practical solution; he relied purely on changing public attitudes. This was no mean feat. To take stand against the strong social pressures to drink took real courage, especially for young men. To help them, temperance workers paid reformed alcoholics to go on speaking tours, published temperance tracts, put on temperance plays, and drove the “water wagon” through towns encouraging converts to jump on. Publicists and organizers like Beecher struck a nerve with the public. The temperance cause resonated among people in all walks of life, rural and urban, white and black. Although it began in the Northeast, temperance reached the South and West and exerted powerful and lasting influence there.” At first the temperance advocates restricted themselves to encouraging moderation (hence the name “temperance”); in this phase they condemned only distilled liquors, not beer and wine. At the grassroots level, however, it became apparent that total abstinence made a more effective appeal. Beecher endorsed this shift in Six Sermons on Intemperance (1825). Those who signed a temperance pledge were encouraged to put a T after their names if willing to take the extra step of pledging total abstinence; from this derives our word “teetotaler.”

The campaign to alter age old habits and attitudes proved amazingly successful: consumption of alcohol, especially of hard liquor, declined steadily and dramatically after 1830, falling to 1.8 gallons per person over fifteen by the late 1840s. [2]

A few things to note about this account: temperance societies were organized and worked at the level of towns, congregations, families, and individuals, not entire states or nations. The information they passed along was not intended to make people aware of the danger of drinking, but to inspire or scare them into acting on this knowledge. They created communities who could help individuals who were struggling to do this. They were most successful when they secured individual commitments to action.

It was also incredibly successful. 

This became the standard template for American civic associations until the late 19th century:

As important as this success. however, was the example the reformers set of organizing voluntary societies to influence public opinion. Beecher conceived the societies as forming “a disciplined moral militia.” The American Temperance Society, founded in 1826, served as a model for other movements. Through such issue-oriented organizations, reformers transcended geographical and denominational limitations to wage nationwide campaigns. The voluntary associations became a conspicuous feature of American society from that time forward. They distributed Bibles and tracts, supported missions foreign and domestic, and addressed such varied social problems as poverty, prostitution, and the abuse of women, children, animals, convicts, and the insane. Most momentous of all their activities would be their crusade against slavery. [3]

Things changed a bit during the 1880s. This was an age of consolidation. Businesses were transformed from small firms to national conglomerates, and new progressive ideology was calling for similar changes in government. Civic associations followed the general trend, becoming gigantic, country-spanning behemoths. But the scope for individual initiative and local decision making remained large. Theda Skocpol explains:

To understand the changes wrought by this sweeping civic reorganization, it is useful to consider the significant role these membership groups played in American life dating back at least a century. From the 1800s through the mid-1900s, countless churches and voluntary groups of all sizes needed volunteer leaders. Indeed, the country’s largest nation-spanning voluntary federations could have as many as 15,000 to 17,000 local chapters, each of which might need at least a dozen officers and committee leaders each year. Looking at the nation’s 20 largest voluntary federations alone in 1955, my colleagues and I estimate that some 3 percent to 5 percent of the adult population was serving in leadership roles — and that additional recruits would be needed each year. 

Voluntary federations taught people how to run meetings, handle money, keep records, and participate in group discussions. Often, they exposed members to the inner workings of representative democracy — from parliamentary procedures and elections to legislative, judicial, and executive functions. And, importantly, these traditional voluntary associations reinforced ideals of good citizenship. They stressed that members in good standing should understand and obey laws, volunteer for military service, engage in public discussions — and, above all, vote. Political scientists Alan Gerber and Don Green show that people are more likely to turn out to vote in response to face-to-face appeals, and America’s traditional popular associations routinely provided such appeals. 

This exposure to democracy in action wasn’t reserved for the elite alone. Many such organizations mixed social classes. There were plenty of opportunities for men and women from blue-collar and lower-level white-collar occupations to participate. And within the world of volunteerism, upward mobility was possible, as local activists got on leadership ladders toward responsibilities at district, state, and national levels. 

Like citizens of other advanced-industrial democracies, Americans joined occupationally based groups. But they were more likely to belong to what I call fellowship associations — with members from various occupations who saw themselves as joined together in shared moral undertakings. Rooted in dense networks of state and local chapters that gave them a presence in communities across the nation, major fraternal groups, religious groups, civic associations, and organizations of military veterans predominated. 

All sorts of large membership associations were involved in public affairs. This is obvious for what’s now the AFL-CIO and the American Farm Bureau Federation. Beyond these, to give just a few examples, the PTA and the General Federation of Women’s Clubs were active in a variety of legislative campaigns having to do with educational and family issues. The American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars sought benefits for veterans and their families. And the Fraternal Order of Eagles championed Social Security and other federal social programs. [4]

Almost all the groups mentioned were created between 1870 and 1910. Even though these were national organizations, much of their work was done by local chapters at a local level. This partly reflected the limits of communications technology during the late 19th and early 20th century. It also reflected the broader distribution of political power in American society. More Americans lived in towns and farm communities in those days; school boards, city councils, and township assemblies were also more numerous than they are today, despite the smaller population of that era. City and county governments were responsible for many things now handled by the state and federal governments.  So civic organizations would agitate to transform their own communities before trying to enact national reforms. This was the pattern that Prohibition followed. By the time the 21st Amendment was passed, dozens of states and hundreds of smaller political units had already gone dry. It is doubtful that Prohibition would have been possible without the thousand small victories won by local chapters Women’s Christian Temperance Movement before hand. In this environment the most important task of a civic group’s national leaders was to make sure that all of its locations of operation had functioning chapters. Visiting these far flung locations and ensuring that the leaders of each chapter had been properly trained absorbed most of the leadership’s time and attention.

During the 1960s things began to change. We return to Skopcol:

At the same time, new technologies and resources allowed the association-builders to operate from centralized offices in Washington and New York. Back in the 19th century, when Frances Willard was working to build the nationally influential Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, she traveled across the country recruiting organizers to found and sustain a nationwide network of local chapters. By contrast, when Marian Wright Edelman was inspired to launch the Children’s Defense Fund, she turned to private foundations for grants and then recruited an expert staff of researchers and lobbyists. And the founder of Common Cause, John Gardner, used a few big donations to set up a mailing-list operation…. in an associational universe dominated by business organizations and professionally managed groups, the mass participatory and educational functions of classic civic America are not reproduced. Because patron grants and computerized mass mailings generate money more readily than modest dues repeatedly collected from millions of members, and because paid experts are more highly valued than volunteer leaders for the public functions of today’s public-interest groups, the leaders of these groups have little incentive to engage in mass mobilization and no need to share leadership and organizational control with state and local chapters.[5]

Skopcol wrote this before the rise of social media and hashtag activism, but the pattern is not too different from what she describes here. Professionally staffed, mail-list style activism seeks money so that it can more effectively lobby those at the top of American politics. Hashtag style activism seeks controversy, so that it can effectively gain the attention of those at the top of American politics.  To use the language of the last post: both “assume that meaningful change can only occur if the powers that be allow it.” 21st century lobbying and 2st century protest alike “are best understood as petitions to the powers that be. [6]

Other posts from the Scholar’s Stage comparing America’s 19th democracy and civic society to the present:

 “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream”
 T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 1 July 2014.

“Despots Near and Despots Far”
 T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 16 February 2014.

“The Rule of Law and the Ruling Class in American History”
 T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 14 March 2013.

“Shakespeare in American Politics”
 T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 30 September 2015

“Ominous Parallels: What the Antebellum Can Teach Us About Our Modern Political Regime”
T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 26 February 2013.


[1] “Bormington,” comment #5 (18 September 2015), on T. Greer, “Honor, Dignity, and Victhimhood: A Tour Through Three Centuries of American CultureThe Scholar’s Stage (16 September 2015)

[2] Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 167-168).

[3] Ibid, 168.

[4] Theda Skocpol, “The Narrowing of Civic Life,American Prospect (17 May 2004).

[5] ibid.

[6]  T. Greer, “Honor, Dignity, Victimhood.”

Leave a Comment


Thank you for posting such an informative reply to my post.

The temperance movement involved two different sides. One side of the movement aimed to convince people not to drink, or at least to drink lighter beverages. It involved the pledges and grassroots movements you described.

The other side of the temperance movement aimed to prevent people from drinking whether or not they actually wished to be refrained. It consisted of high politics at the national level. It involved a struggle between pro- and anti-prohibition sides, with each side trying to enlist the support of other groups (mainly churches). Pressure groups like the Anti-Saloon League pioneered many of the modern techniques of advocating government action on a single issue.

The Anti-Saloon League provides a good example of top-down management. While it relied on grassroots support, it was run as a bureaucracy. Its top leaders were "selected, not elected".[1] It managed local chapters by means of "salaried co-ordinators in Washington".[2] Furthermore, it contained specialized departments for raising funds and for lobbying state and local politicians.[3]

One method used to get prohibition passed by Congress was a mass-telegraphing campaign by the Anti-Saloon league at just the right time (a campaign that involved a practice similar to what we would not call astroturfing).[4] Clearly, the movement involved petitioning the authorities.

[1] James Ciment, ed. Encyclopedia of the Jazz Age: From the End of World War I to the Great Crash, Vols 1-2 (New York: Routledge: 2015) at 66 (available online:,+not+elected%22+%22anti-saloon+league%22&source=bl&ots=hCs1WMGm5C&sig=dL2hklp3S6gY-qixlW_EceNkiTM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0CCEQ6AEwAWoVChMI8Lam8IK0yAIVw20UCh3pCATL#v=onepage&q=%22selected%2C%20not%20elected%22%20%22anti-saloon%20league%22&f=false).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Pressure Politics, Wikipedia (