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[Detail] Let me kiss him for his mother

Temperance

Temperance was an important social reform movement in nineteenth-century America. Laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol were established throughout New England and the Midwest in the 1850s. Courts repealed or struck down many of these laws but they marked a step toward the national prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century.

Searches on the terms temperance and drunkard produce songs such as "The Drunkard's Lone Child," which describes the hazards of drinking through the eyes of a starving child.

We were so happy--till father drank rum:
Then all our sorrows and troubles begun;
Mother grew paler, and wept every day;
Baby and I were too hungry to play--
Slowly they faded, and one summer's night
Found their sweet faces all silent and white--
And, with big tears slowly dropping, I said:
Father's a drunkard, and Mother is dead!

Some songs were more lighthearted in addressing the evils of alcohol. For example, "A Parody on 'Uncle Sam's Farm'" declares,

"The drunkard is so foolish that he will money waste, / On liquor, when there's water more pleasant to the taste; / The water is much cheaper, and much more healthy too, / And never makes a man a fool--which liquors often do."

Other pieces satirized the temperance movement as being hypocritical or irrelevant. "Pop Goes De Weasel" explains,

"De Temperance folks from Souf to Maine, / Against all liquor spout and strain, / But when dey feels an ugly pain" while "Go It While You're Young" celebrates the pleasures of alcohol: "The Temperance cause is up, liquor's bottle up and down, / For if you take too much, it flies right up into your crown; / Good liquor's a good thing, and plenty can be bought, / Drink when you feel dry, for certainly you ought to."

  • How does the tone of the song differ with its perspective on the issue of temperance?
  • How do these songs try to convince people to stop drinking?
  • Which arguments do you think are most persuasive? Why?
  • Why do you think that the story of a child might be effective in convincing someone not to drink?
  • Who might be the audience of such a song?
  • How do these pieces compare to contemporary social efforts to alter behaviors such as drinking, smoking, or using illegal drugs?
  • How do songs that are critical of temperance describe the movement, alcohol, and moderation?

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