Canada Dry: Temperance Crusades before Confederation

By Gauvreau, Michael | The Catholic Historical Review, January 1997 | Go to article overview

Canada Dry: Temperance Crusades before Confederation


Gauvreau, Michael, The Catholic Historical Review


Canada Dry: Temperance Crusades before Confederation. By Jan Noel. (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press. 1995. Pp. xxiv, 310. $50.00 cloth; $19.95 paperback.)

In Canada Dry: Temperance Crusades before Confederation, the author examines the social composition, motives, and success of the campaigns against alcoholic drink in the British North American provinces between 1820 and 1870. Noel rejects older arguments that temperance was simply a form of social control imposed by Protestant middle classes on recalcitrant workers, immigrants, and Catholics. Rather, by insisting upon the primacy of religious motivations in launching and sustaining the various temperance movements, and in particular, radical, utopian forms of both Protestant and Catholic Christianity, Canada Dry posits that the temperance movement enlisted the energies not only of the urban middle classes, but also of large sections of the working classes, and in particular, artisans and small farmers. Of equal importance was the fact that the anti-alcohol crusade was, in social terms, an astounding success. Between 1820 and 1870, nearly half a million British North Americans took the total-abstinence pledge and, while the author reminds us that the movement failed in its stated aim of totally eradicating the consumption of alcohol, it did succeed in "sobering up" colonial Canada. Especially in rural areas and small towns, consumption of drink declined dramatically, and in society as a whole, more moderate patterns of drinking were well established by the 1850's.

By introducing the reader to a colorful galaxy of clergymen and lay leaders whose religious commitments made them prominent in the crusade against drink, Canada Dv makes its case effectively for the central role played by Christianity in defining and organizing the colonial temperance movements. In a wider sense, this book is an important signpost for Canadian scholarship because it is one of the few scholarly monographs which consciously breaks with the assumption that English Protestantism and French Catholicism must be rigidly separated for the purposes of historical analysis, a long-established but unstated canon of Canadian historical writing. Noel's willingness to use temperance as a common theme by which to study the responses of Catholic and Protestant leaders to political and social upheaval should be both commended and more often imitated.

Despite these considerable strengths, however, Canada Dry suffers from a number of structural difficulties. The central thesis of the book rests upon the assumption that what began as a movement on the margins of colonial society in the 1820's had, by the 1850's, become a mainstream" social and cultural phenomenon. It is at this point that the author simply relapses into the view that temperance was a form of social control. …

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