Michigan: A History of the Great Lakes State

By Bruce A. Rubenstein; Lawrence E. Ziewacz | Go to book overview

Chapter 6

Decade of Turmoil

A GREAT REFORM ZEAL SWEPT THROUGH THE United States during the 1840s and 1850s. Religious revivals stressed that people were capable of improving both themselves and society. Since these moral crusades for a Utopian America began in western New York, from whence numerous people had emigrated to Michigan, it was to be expected that Michigan would be in the forefront of many reform movements, especially those for temperance and abolition of slavery.


Evils of “Old John Barleycorn”

From its early territorial stage, liquor traffic in Michigan had been restricted. Sale of intoxicating spirits to Indians, minors, servants, soldiers, and prisoners was forbidden, as were all Sunday sales. Liquor vendors were required to be licensed and, in 1845, the state legislature allowed each city, village, and township to vote whether or not it wished to issue licenses. Very few communities chose not to license because fees from sales went directly into the local treasury and were the major source of income for many areas. In 1850 local option ended because the new state constitution forbade issuing of licenses to regulate liquor traffic. Liquor dealers and their attorneys interpreted this to mean that unregulated sale of ardent spirits was legal, and the state supreme court concurred.

Michigan residents opposing the sale and use of “hard liquor” always believed that regulation would be futile, and in 1833 they formed the first of nineteen branches of the Michigan Temperance Society. Initially the organization sought moderation and permitted consumption of an “occasional glass” of wine or beer. However, since whiskey was inexpensive, and permissible substitutes costly, the society was denounced as undemocratic and elitist, and soon temperance advocates were forced into supporting full prohibition.

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