In the early twentieth century, temperance was the key issue in Tennessee politics. The roots of the temperance movement date to Jacksonian America, when temperance reform appeared in conjunction with capitalistic economic efforts. For the next eight decades temperance leaders directed their efforts toward the weaning of agricultural and industrial laborers from consumption of alcohol in order to improve their working habits. The upper class was encouraged to exhibit restraint in alcohol consumption in order to set an example for the working class. Before and after the Civil War and into the twentieth century, southern leaders wanted to deny liquor to blacks and poor whites out of fear that alcohol would inflame passions and increase crime. The Knoxville Sentinel admitted on February 6, 1907: “If the southern states adopt prohibition it will be largely because of the necessity of keeping whiskey from the colored man.”

Throughout the era Protestant churches enthusiastically embraced prohibition, as did the holiness movements that emerged from the early nineteenth-century revivals. The revivals preached an asceticism that induced converts to abstain from the evils and pleasures of this world in order to achieve holiness and prepare themselves for the eternal world. In the context of Protestant revivalism, alcohol was both an unnecessary pleasure and one of the world’s evils.

In 1826 Marcus Morton founded the American Temperance Society in Massachusetts to advocate total abstinence from the use of distilled spirits. Three years later, the first Tennessee temperance societies met in Kingsport and Nashville. The Nashville and Davidson County Temperance Society, auxiliary to the American Temperance Society (ATS), enrolled prominent citizens and held quarterly meetings. As with the ATS, the Nashville group agreed to abstain from the use of distilled spirits. Both societies discouraged the use of alcohol by their employees, and the Kingsport group pledged themselves not to vote for candidates who used liquor in their campaigns.

Support for temperance increased throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Two newspapers, the Nashville Western Philanthropist and the Maryville Temperance Banner, were devoted to highlighting the evils of alcohol in the 1830s. In 1848 the general assembly chartered the Sons and Sisters of Temperance, and these groups received strong statewide support. One town in DeKalb County, Temperance Hall, was named for the building in which the men of the organization met in 1849.

In 1853 Nashville hosted a temperance convention, which urged Tennessee to follow Maine’s example of statewide prohibition. In 1854 the state Senate passed a bill to put the question of prohibition to the voters, but the measure was defeated in the House. The next year, the liquor question became part of the gubernatorial campaign, foreshadowing its major importance in politics at the turn of the century. Democratic nominee Andrew Johnson rejected restrictions on alcohol as a threat to individual liberty, while his opponent Meredith P. Gentry favored local option. Prohibitionists rejected both positions as too liberal.

Early statutory efforts focused on the regulation of a legitimate trade without attempting to prevent the making or consumption of alcohol. In 1831 the Tennessee General Assembly began to exert some regulation of the liquor trade by authorizing licenses for operating saloons. Under the requirements of the law, applicants gave bond to the county court clerk and secured a license for a fifteen-dollar tax. The number of saloons increased fivefold under the law. In 1838, under pressure from constituents, including a petition signed by 374 Nashville women, the general assembly repealed the earlier measure and passed a “Quart Law,” which restricted the sale of alcohol to containers of one quart or more. This law applied only to liquor; wine, beer, and cider could be sold without restriction, as had been the case under the old law. Eight years later in 1846, this poorly enforced law was replaced by another, which again licensed saloons to sell liquor by the drink. Saloon keepers could not sell to minors, if their parents forbade it in writing, or to slaves without permission from their owners.

During Reconstruction, Radical Republican Governor William G. Brownlow, a vituperative Methodist minister, editor, and longtime supporter of temperance, predicted that alcohol would “bring down upon us, as a State, Sodom’s guilt and Sodom’s doom.” (1) Attempts to include local option measures in the constitution of 1870 failed twice. In 1873 a local option bill passed both houses of the general assembly, only to be vetoed by Governor John Brown.

Anti-liquor groups in Tennessee had more success forbidding the sale of liquor near the premises of schools, hospitals, and churches. The first such law, passed in 1824, restricted liquor sales near churches. In 1877 the legislature enacted a law forbidding the sale of alcohol within four miles of chartered rural schools. In 1887, while attention was focused on a prohibition amendment to the state constitution, the legislature amended the Four-Mile Law to prohibit the sale of intoxicating liquors within four miles of any country school, virtually banning the liquor business in rural Tennessee.

This seemingly more important undertaking was a public referendum on a constitutional amendment to ban the manufacture and sale of intoxicants within the state of Tennessee. First introduced in the 1885 General Assembly, the resolution passed two different legislatures, as required by law. In February 1887 the Tennessee Temperance Alliance held a convention in Nashville to organize county committees statewide to generate public support for the amendment when presented to the voters for the final referendum. Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches participated in the campaign. In Morgan County, for example, Reverend A. B. Wright, a circuit rider in the Upper Cumberland region, served as chairman. For two weeks, he made speeches in favor of the prohibition amendment to groups assembled in schoolhouses and churches. When he arrived at an engagement scheduled at the Baptist Church in Sunbright, he discovered the preacher and his father had “locked us out,” and he was forced to speak at a nearby building. Throughout his crusade, Wright found that most voters favored liquor, a perception that was confirmed by the September vote. David Lipscomb, leader of the Christian Church and editor of the Gospel Advocate, urged his members to boycott the polls because he did not believe Christians should become involved in politics. When the vote was counted, 145,000 voted against the prohibition amendment, and 118,000 voted for it. “A dark day for Tennessee,” lamented Wright. (2)

In addition to state efforts to obtain prohibition, efforts continued with the formation of a National Prohibition Party. In 1872 James Black headed the Prohibition Party ticket, but drew only 5,000 votes nationally. The party organized in Nashville in 1883 but never offered a serious threat to the campaigns of the established parties. In 1888 General Clinton B. Fisk, the Prohibition presidential candidate, received fewer than 6,000 votes in Tennessee, while J. C. Johnson, the gubernatorial candidate, polled approximately 7,000 votes. The election of 1890 brought the Prohibition Party its greatest success. Gubernatorial candidate D. C. Kelley, a Methodist minister in Gallatin and a former Democrat, received 11,000 votes. The party newspaper, the Nashville Issue, was encouraged by this showing and in its issue of November 6, 1890, called “for another tilt with the enemy of God and man.” Both Democratic and Republican Parties ignored the alcohol issue in this election and the next, however; between 1892 and 1896 the Prohibition Party disintegrated.

One unusual aspect of the temperance movement in Tennessee involved the founding of Harriman in 1890, the only city founded on the principles of industry and prohibition. Frederick Gates of New York, a wealthy real estate developer, wanted to create an industrial city where alcohol was forbidden in order to prove the advantages of such an arrangement. He moved his family to Chattanooga in 1885 and created the East Tennessee Land Company in 1889. General Clinton B. Fisk was named president of the land company. The company purchased several thousand acres of land in Roane County, considered an ideal site for an industrial city, with both river and railroad transportation readily available. In February 1890, after an extensive advertising campaign, the great sale of town lots took place. In three days, three hundred lots were sold to a crowd of approximately 3,000 people from eighteen states. The deeds stipulated that the use of the site to manufacture, store, or sell liquor would render the deed null and void, and the property would revert to the land company.

Harriman never achieved the economic success envisioned by its founders. Shortly after its auspicious beginning, Harriman and the land company suffered financial losses in the panic of 1893. A tornado in 1896 caused considerable damage. The coal reserves were not extensive, and the flood of 1929 destroyed much of the town. However, no deed ever reverted to the land company because of the use of liquor. In 1893 American Temperance University opened in Harriman; 1907-8 was the last year the school operated under this name. By its second year of operation, 345 students from twenty states had enrolled, and 200 to 300 students studied at the temperance school each year.

Rugby, a utopian community founded in Morgan County in 1880 by English novelist Thomas Hughes, also included restrictions against alcohol in its bylaws. Wine was the only alcoholic beverage allowed in the colony, and the Rugby Total Abstinence Society was created to enforce the rule.

By the latter part of the nineteenth century, the Protestant churches of Tennessee had become leaders in the temperance movement, using spurious arguments from the Bible to support the charge of alcohol as a moral evil. The 1892 Tennessee Baptist Convention voiced the sentiments of several Protestant denominations: “The saloon is the enemy of all good, the friend of all evil.” (3) In 1896 Nashville religious groups, including the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, called a conference to plan a renewed fight against alcohol. They organized the Local Option League as the best practical means of eliminating liquor. However, they soon encountered stiff opposition. Both political parties declined to endorse the local option position, and the general assembly refused to enact a local option law. Some urban newspapers, including the Chattanooga Times, the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, and the Nashville American, opposed prohibition.

From the earliest days of the temperance movement, the saloon had been the symbol of the evil of liquor and the watering hole of the working class. Thus, in the eyes of upper class reformers, the saloon was the den of iniquity that fostered and promoted drinking among the lowly. If the saloon could be eliminated, then the drinking habit of the laboring class might dry up. Acting on this idea, reformers created the Anti-Saloon League in 1895. Seeking the cooperation of Protestant churches and industrial leaders, the league eventually adopted the idea of a constitutional amendment to establish prohibition.

Tennessee prohibition leaders quickly embraced the Anti-Saloon League. Tennessee Methodists attended the 1896 convention of the League. In 1899 the Tennessee Local Option League adopted the name of the Anti-Saloon League. E. E. Folk, editor of the Baptist and Reflector, was its first president. By 1901 approximately sixty league chapters with 5,000 members were in Tennessee; in 1902 the Anti-Saloon Journal was published. That same year the Knoxville Journal and Tribune declared that the Anti-Saloon League had become a power in Tennessee politics.

The Tennessee League chose the Four-Mile Law as its vehicle to bring about prohibition. The Peeler Act of 1899 extended the Four-Mile Law to towns “hereinafter incorporated” with populations less than 2,000. The Adams Bill of 1903 extended the restrictions of four miles to all towns of 5,000 population or less, which incorporated or reincorporated after passage of the bill. Many towns immediately moved to recharter in order to eliminate liquor, and in most towns where the issue was put to a vote, the results created prohibition. Sparta, in White County, voted dry, but tiny Walling voted to remain wet, 16-1. Lynchburg also voted wet, thanks to the influence of distiller Jack Daniel. By the middle of 1903, all towns of less than 5,000 population except six had voted dry. The nine larger cities remained wet, for a total of fifteen wet municipalities in eleven counties.

The Pendleton Act of 1907 extended the Four-Mile Law to the larger cities, and by the end of the year only Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, and LaFollette were wet. When Knoxville decided the question, a carnival atmosphere pervaded. Church bells rang each hour of the day, a parade was staged in the morning, and University of Tennessee students appeared riding a water wagon in support of prohibition. In LaFollette, citizens voted to abolish the city charter to gain prohibition, and the general assembly passed a bill to that effect. However, LaFollette representative W. H. Potter opposed prohibition, and the governor vetoed the bill.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) formed its first Tennessee branch in Memphis in 1876. In 1882 the statewide organization was created with 39 “unions” and 511 members. In 1887 the national convention met in Nashville; the group was welcomed by Governor Robert L. Taylor. By 1908 there were 183 unions and 4,037 members in Tennessee. Open Door, the monthly publication of the state WCTU, had been published in Knoxville since 1899. This group always favored statewide prohibition, and, with this goal in sight in 1907, the WCTU state convention urged passage of the measure. Meeting in Nashville after the conclusion of the state convention, the national WCTU called for national prohibition. In 1908 prohibition was the major topic of the gubernatorial campaign. Both parties were split by the issue. Malcolm Patterson and Edward Carmack contended for the Democratic nomination. Patterson had the support of party leaders and of the liquor interests. Carmack, who had never been a prohibitionist, and who as editor of the Nashville Democrat and the American criticized the Prohibition Party, was looking for an issue to oppose Patterson. With a campaign that favored statewide prohibition, Carmack became the candidate of the Anti-Saloon League and the WTCU. Patterson defeated Carmack in the Democratic primary with 52 percent of the vote, although Carmack thought that the election was dishonest.

The Republicans divided between Newell Sanders, a Chattanooga businessman and chairman of the state Republican Committee, and John C. Houk, former Second District congressman. The Republican convention in Nashville was so contentious that fistfights broke out and property was destroyed. Weeks later, the Sanders group nominated George N. Tillman for governor. He lost to Patterson by 20,000 votes, but the election gave the prohibitionists a majority in the state legislature.

In 1908 Carmack became editor of the Nashville Tennessean, a newspaper started in 1907 by Luke Lea as a prohibitionist journal. Carmack used his new position and his newspaper as a platform to express his bitterness about the election. He attacked Patterson and Duncan Cooper, Patterson’s advisor. Cooper and Carmack had been on opposite sides in several political races. In 1908 the two, along with Cooper’s son, Robin, met armed on a Nashville street. Robin Cooper and Carmack fired shots; Carmack was fatally wounded. The Coopers were convicted of murder, but Governor Patterson issued a pardon.

The murder of Carmack created a martyr for the prohibitionist crusade, although the rivalry between Carmack and Cooper had had little to do with liquor. Silena M. Holman, president of Tennessee’s WCTU, proclaimed that “the bullet that ended Carmack’s life will write prohibition on the statute books of Tennessee.” (4) Church leaders and prohibition crusaders used the emotion stirred by Carmack’s murder and the governor’s pardon of the Coopers to pressure the general assembly for statewide prohibition. In January 1909 Senator O. K. Holladay of Putnam County offered a bill to forbid the sale of liquor within four miles of any school in the state; an identical bill was introduced in the House. Governor Patterson denounced the measure: “For a State . . . to attempt to control what the people shall eat and drink and wear . . . is tyranny, and not liberty.” (5) The bill passed over Governor Patterson’s veto and went into effect in 1909. A second law prohibited the manufacture of intoxicating beverages.

“Tennessee had been redeemed,” wrote Luke Lea’s Nashville Tennessean on January 13, 1909, but it was soon obvious that this was not the case. Officials in the four largest cities made little effort to stop the liquor trade. Memphis bars operated openly; Nashville bars closed only on Sunday. In 1912 both cities again licensed liquor dealers. One alcohol trade newspaper claimed that more liquor was being sold in Tennessee than before prohibition.

The Democratic Party was a victim of the prohibition crusade. Split between the Independents who favored prohibition and the Regulars who opposed it, the party became so weak that Republican Ben W. Hooper was elected governor for two consecutive terms, 1911-15, becoming the first Republican governor since Alvin Hawkins in 1881. Hooper wanted to administer the prohibition laws, but the governor actually did not have the means to enforce them. He called two special sessions of the legislature to enact laws to implement prohibition, and the second session passed statutes which would close some saloons and prevent transportation of liquor between counties. The Tennessee Supreme Court invalidated the second law, and the law aimed at the closing of saloons did not eliminate the sale of liquor. Slack enforcement of the laws, bootleg dealers, and locker clubs kept the state wet. In 1915 the state Senate impeached the Shelby County attorney general and a Shelby County judge for malfeasance. The following year, the courts removed Mayor Edward H. Crump from office for his refusal to enforce prohibition in Memphis; Nashville Mayor Hilary E. Howse was removed for the same reason.

In 1917 the “bone-dry bill” of Governor Thomas C. Rye completed the prohibitionist campaign in Tennessee. This legislation made illegal the receipt or possession of liquor and prohibited the transportation of liquor into or out of the state.

Ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by Tennessee was a perfunctory matter in 1919. Tennessee’s senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress had supported the prohibition amendment, and by an overwhelming vote–there were only four negative votes in both houses–the Tennessee General Assembly approved national prohibition. Only the Chattanooga Times spoke against the Eighteenth Amendment. Commenting on the destruction of American freedom, the newspaper sarcastically wondered in its issue of January 16, 1920, if the nation might next pass a law “prohibiting nature from allowing fruit juices and ciders to ferment while in storage.”

National prohibition did not work in Tennessee in the 1920s any better than state prohibition had since 1909. By the time of repeal in 1933, Tennessee was discouraged with prohibition. In 1939 the state enacted local option, allowing counties and cities to permit package sales of wine and liquor by referendum.

Suggested Reading

Eric R. Lacy, “Tennessee Teetotalism: Social Forces and the Politics of Progressivism,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 24 (1965): 219-41; Grace Leab, “Tennessee Temperance Activities, 1870-1899,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 21 (1949): 52-68; Leslie F. Roblyer, “The Fight for Local Prohibition in Knoxville, Tennessee, 1907,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 26 (1954): 27-37; Thomas H. Winn, “Liquor, Race, and Politics: Clarksville During the Progressive Period,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 49 (1990): 207-17; Margaret Ripley Wolfe, “Bootleggers, Drummers, and National Defense: Sideshow to Reform in Tennessee, 1915-1920,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 49 (1977): 77-92

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Temperance
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018