More temperance. This section follows after this one…
Jill Lepore sums up the conventional understanding of why American drinking collapsed beginning in the 1830s in a 2007 New Yorker article. “If you were to look at a map, and chart these changes, you’d see that they follow the course of the nation’s growing network of canals and railroads. The canal or railroad arrives, and the people join churches; the people join churches, and they drink less. How do historians account for these correlations? The answer, at first, seems obvious: preachers spread the Gospel; the same boats and trains that carried cash crops from farms to towns brought revivalist ministers from towns to farms,” she writes, before asking, “But, once they got there, why did anyone listen to them?”
The most widely accepted answer to that question was proposed by Charles Sellers, author of The Market Revolution: Jacksonian America, 1815–1846, which argues that capitalism drove people from the taverns because the industrializing marketplace needed sober workers. It’s one thing for a field hand to be wasted, the thinking goes. It’s another for a brakeman to be hammered.
An insurgent historical camp, led by Daniel Walker Howe, insists that there was no market revolution in the 1830s. The nation’s development, he holds, began earlier and gradually expanded—much more an evolution than a revolution. It certainly didn’t take place within a decade. Howe suggests that people listened to the preachers simply because they were authority figures who represented an even greater authority figure, God. A problem with using his theory to explain the decline of boozing is that drinking didn’t plummet in the early 1700s, during the First Great Awakening.
Clearly, there was more to the downturn than just the Almighty or the almighty dollar. Human behavior is very difficult to change. So if Americans all of a sudden stopped getting drunk, what did they do instead? They tended to their families. They prayed. And yes, they labored.
But they also got high.
Although whiskey has long been used to self-medicate depression, nothing takes the edge off quite like a good narcotic. And in the 1830s, then the temperance movement began its first great push, which helped reduce per-capita U.S. alcohol consumption from four gallons per year to just 1 gallon in the span of a decade, Americans had quite the edge on. The Panic of 1837 was set off when banks in New York City essentially shut down. Across the country, paper notes became worthless. For five years, the United States was ravaged by its most severe economic downturn to date. Economist Milton Friedman called it “the only depression on record comparable in severity and scope to the Great Depression of the 1930’s.” America had hit bottom. The religious revival was one response—the Second Great Awakening culminated in the 1830s—but Americans also turned to opium to ease the pain.
By the 1870s, when the temperance movement began another great push, the one that eventually led to Prohibition, America’s long-standing affection for opium products such as laudanum combined with other cultural forces such as war, economic development, and immigration patterns to move opium from the medicine cabinet to those infamous urban dens. And surveys from the time show that the drug was even more popular in rural areas.
Twenty-four year old Warren Delano made his first overseas journey in pursuit of opium in 1823 on behalf of Boston-based importer Russell & Co. Within seven years, he was a senior partner in the company and heavily involved in the lucrative opium trade. His grandson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, would later sign a constitutional amendment undoing Prohibition. In the intervening century, America went through a relationship with drugs that makes our current one appear almost functional.
In 1827, the first year the federal government began tabulating opium imports, almost none was brought into the United States. Five years later, the number has climbed to around 50,000 pounds. In several years during the 1830s and early 1840s, importation peaked at more than 70,000 pounds. If a dose is less than half a gram—and it can often be much less—then 70,000 pounds would be enough for more than 30 million opium highs in a nation with an 1840 population of roughly 17 million. Importation statistics suggest that use continued to rise throughout the 1840s and ’50s.
Opiate use rose just as drinking declined, increasing in the very midst of the temperance surge. As America’s first real introduction to a drug other than alcohol, the opium boom enjoyed a long honeymoon. For decades, the benefits of the drug were cherished as its downsides remained unknown or ignored. Although Chinese immigrants, who came to work on the rapidly expanding railroad network, are often credited for bringing opium and addiction to it with them to the United States, immigration statistics suggest that the American taste for opiates might be in-born. By 1880, there were more than 100,000 Asian-born immigrants living in the United States, and their entry into American culture certainly aided the growth of the opium trade. But the U.S. Census Bureau says that there were just over 1,000 people born in Asia living in the United States in 1850, by which time the rise of opium was already well underway.
It has long been assumed that Civil War doctors gave out morphine injections to wounded troops like candy, and that the men then brought their opiate addictions home after hostilities ceased. But the government’s own Medical and Surgical History of the Civil War, published just after the conflict, debunks that theory,: “The hypodermic syringe had not yet found its way into the hands of our officers,” it states.
The report’s conclusion jibes with the history of medical technology. It was in the 1850s that the first syringe injected morphine into a patient, in Britain, and the practice didn’t spread to Civil War battlefields until late in the war. Morphine was more commonly dusted into wounds, and as in civilian life, opiates were also administered as tinctures, pills, or salts. Historians have long debated how many addicts that might have produced, but there’s strong evidence that so-called Soldier’s Disease is to some extent an invention or supposition.
That doesn’t settle the question, of course, of what role the war played in the spread of drug use that came after it. No doubt the many horrors that troops witnessed were traumatic enough to lead some to self-medicate, but men weren’t the primary users of opium. Most studies from the time reveal a roughly 60-to-40 percent female-to-male division among opium users. In the 19th century, opium was also a distinctly midlife drug: The average user was about 35 years old, and she most likely got her first taste from her doctor. Nineteenth-century opium users were predominantly middle- and upper-class, too, hardly the proletarians who fought in the war.
As use and addiction rose, the temperance movement finally caught up with opium. The Chinese became scapegoats. The first American narcotics law was passed in San Francisco in 1878, and it targeted not opium but opium dens, which were run by Chinese immigrants and attracting a multicultural crowd. By 1885, opium was less socially acceptable than alcohol, which it had begun to replace only a half-century earlier. A New York Times article about a courtroom scene displays the prevailing attitudes of the decade:
James Bradford…was nobbily attired in a tight-fitting Prince Albert coat, carried a new-market on his arm, and he held a silver-headed cane and a high hat in his hand. He was an ideal of the creature known as “dude.” He denied having smoked the drug.
“Well, Officer Reynolds caught you in the place,” said the court. “How do you account for that?”
“Well, Judge, to tell the truth,” he replied faintly, “I was a little bit—a little bit—well, I must admit that I was full, and I don’t know how I came to go into such a disreputable house.”
“The officer further claims that you had an opium pipe in your mouth,” said the magistrate. “What is your explanation of this charge?”
“That I can’t tell,” he answered meditatively, “unless some fellow put it in my mouth for a joke. I was full, you know, and they could have done anything they pleased without my knowing it.”
Assistant District Attorney Purdy said that the case was a very clear one, and from the evidence he thought the prisoner guilty of the charge of selling opium to be smoked on the premises. He said he thought it was bad enough for a Chinaman to be charged with this offense, but it was a crime of more importance when one of our own race is caught in the act of selling this cursed drug, and he implored the court to show no leniency to the accused.
The opium den’s owner was sent away for three months and fined $500, which the Times reports was the highest penalty given to date in New York. Bradford got a $25 fine and 10 days in the city jail. “He was unable to pay his fine and he stepped down stairs a very crestfallen ‘dude,'” notes the story’s kicker.
As amusing as the story seems, its author is working with some seriously held assumptions: that opium use should be confined to the Chinese, that drinking—or being “full”—is more acceptable than getting high, and that opium is a “cursed drug.”