Throughout Old and New Testament times, most Jews and Gentiles consumed distilled liquor and believed it a healthy part of their daily diet. These beliefs and practices continued from the times of Christ through the settlement of America and the establishment of the United States.
Soldiers in the American Revolution received a daily ration of rum. George Washington operated a profitable whiskey distillery at Mount Vernon and John Adam’s daily breakfast included a tankard of hard cider. Evangelical ministers served liquor at their meetings and consumed moderate amounts on a regular basis.
Although drinking liquor was ingrained in American culture, most people and religious groups did not condone drinking to the point of drunkenness. Those who drank excessively often were removed from the membership of evangelical churches. They taught moderation at that time.
Early in the 19th century, evangelicals and others became concerned about the excessive drinking and drunkenness prevailing then and the corrosive effect it had on families and society as a whole. Growing out of this concern, temperance societies developed and the temperance movement was born.
At its birth, the movement “preached” moderation in eating but in the case of drinking, some of the temperance societies required members to sign a pledge to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages. This often was called the “cold water pledge.” Before very long, most required this pledge. These “so called” temperance societies had become abstinence societies in the case of drinking. Their members now served in the “cold water army.”
In the 1840s, The Flat Rock and Beaver Creek Temperance Society was organized in Kershaw District and the Washington Temperance Society was organized in Camden. This Washington society proposed a novel action for the times, the inclusion of females as members. The Temperance House (hotel) in Camden eliminated the serving of alcohol at their tables.
Before 1860, nine temperance groups in South Carolina had received charters from the state. Many more groups, including the ones in Kershaw District, operated without a state charter.
In Charleston, in 1852, the movement entered into the publication of a newspaper to further their cause, <italic> The South Carolina Temperance Advocate. </italic> The next year, this newspaper moved to Camden and was published here for a time. The practice of abstinence regularly was proclaimed from the evangelical pulpits of Kershaw District and in most of South Carolina. Temperance causes became a part of the Second Great Awakening religious movement of the 19th century.
When the Civil War began in 1861, temperance concerns moved to the “back burner” as the war consumed the time, attention and resources of the population. These same conditions prevailed throughout the trying times of Reconstruction. The energy of South Carolina was spent on returning state government from federal control back to state control. This change of control occurred in 1877 when Wade Hampton became governor of South Carolina and Reconstruction ended.
Very soon thereafter, temperance issues moved to the forefront and yearly gained strength and momentum. In a referendum in 1892, the prohibition of the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in South Carolina was placed on the ballot and it passed. All that remained for the state to go dry was for the General Assembly to pass the enabling law.
Governor Benjamin Tillman now entered the picture. He did not drink very much, but thought if one wanted to take a drink, he should be able to do so. In the closing days of the General Assembly session in 1892, Tillman and a few friends came up with The South Carolina Dispensary bill and it became the law on Christmas day.
Under this new law, the state of South Carolina became the wholesaler and the retailer of the sale and distribution of all alcoholic beverages within its borders and all individuals in that business were put out of business. This public monopoly system was instituted instead of statewide prohibition and was offered as the best way to control drinking in the state. Besides, the profits could be used for education.
The South Carolina Dispensary was controversial and was fought in the courts but it prevailed. Since graft was involved in its operation, support or opposition of it was a political issue until the opposition forces succeeded in getting it abolished in 1907. It left an artifact behind that is prized by collectors today, beautiful bottles in many colors with palmetto trees embossed on them.
In 1907, the state allowed counties to choose to set up a county dispensary or to go dry. The county dispensary system was a miniature state dispensary in terms of how it operated. From 1907 to the abolition of the county dispensary system in 1915, anywhere from six to 15 counties operated a county dispensary. Kershaw County operated one from 1907 to 1909.
In 1915, the state voted to go dry but did allow the importation of a gallon-a-month of alcohol. When your gallon was picked up at the railroad depot, you had to sign an oath swearing that you would use the alcohol only for religious or medicinal purposes.
This system prevailed until the nation voted for the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution to prohibit drinking throughout the land. This law took effect at the beginning of 1920. The temperance movement dating back to the early 1800s had succeeded beyond the imagination of most involved. They had achieved “national abstinence” by law.
By 1933, the nation reversed course and repealed prohibition. Only a few individuals foresaw the criminal involvement by mobsters and gangsters in rum running, bootlegging, the operation of speakeasies and the problems the enforcement of prohibition placed on law enforcement agencies.
Since 1933, the state has passed a number of laws regulating the consumption of alcohol. Just recently a law concerning serving liquor in bars and restaurants on Sunday was passed.
This review of about 200 years of attempts to control drinking included an experimental agency which proved ineffective, the South Carolina Dispensary, and a reversal of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. This review also indicates we have not solved the drinking problem by law. The solution likely cannot ever be just a legal one. If the home, school, church and government are committed to developing programs that help individuals make better choices about drinking alcohol, then the drinking problem will be much closer to a solution.
After reading this column, if anyone sees the need to make better choices about alcoholic consumption, please do so.