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Demon rum and Sunday lager: The temperence movemenet in Wisconsin

Written by Joseph A. Ranney, Attorney at Law
Phone: (608) 283-5612

Wisconsin was torn by battles over alcohol during its early years. Many of the first settlers came from New England, which was a stronghold of temperance. But Wisconsin farmers liked the liquor trade because they could make their surplus corn into profitable whiskey. Many workers believed a drink on the job helped them do their work better. Perhaps most important, the German immigrants who poured into Wisconsin during the 1800s regarded beer drinking as a vital part of their culture. A Sunday without a few lagers shared with friends was unthinkable.

Several northern states enacted prohibition laws during the 1850s. Wisconsin did not go that far, but in 1849 the Legislature passed a new type of law known as the "dram shop law." Any tavern keeper who regularly supplied liquor to known drunkards was made responsible for any local welfare costs of supporting the drunkard, and the drunkard's family could sue the tavern keeper for loss of his economic support.

Wisconsin's Germans bitterly opposed the 1849 law. They argued it undermined the principle of individual responsibility and that the penalties it imposed on tavern keepers were too harsh. State Senator Frederick Horn of Cedarburg commented sarcastically that the law was designed to "keep the tippler himself as blameless as possible. Many a poor sinner may, by that doctrine, enter the Kingdom of Heaven, inasmuch as the Devil who tempted him is the only one to blame in the matter."

The law proved difficult to enforce. In Milwaukee a mob attacked the house of state Senator John Smith, the legislator who had sponsored the law. Smith was turned out of office at the next election. In 1851 the Legislature replaced the law with a milder version.

In 1854, several Sauk County women were jailed after they took it upon themselves to close down taverns in Baraboo which were violating local licensing laws. Public outrage at this incident prompted the Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor. But the bill was vetoed by Governor William Barstow. Barstow took a pragmatic view of the situation. He explained: "I cannot see any propriety in depriving our citizens of the right to manufacture liquors or compelling them to go abroad for what they can with profit and advantage manufacture at home."

In the 1870s temperance sentiment arose again. In 1872 the Legislature passed a tough new law, known as the Graham Law, which again made tavern keepers responsible for selling liquor to known drunkards. The new law again spurred Wisconsin Germans to action. Milwaukee's city attorney challenged the law's constitutionality, but in 1873 the Wisconsin Supreme Court held the Legislature had the right to regulate liquor sales.

Thwarted in the courts, the Germans shifted their attention to the ballot box. Late in 1873 they helped defeat the Republican administration which had passed the Graham Law. In 1874 the new Legislature replaced the Graham Law with a milder measure which encouraged municipalities to work with the tavern keepers to prevent the problems caused by drunkenness.

The 1874 law turned out to be a workable compromise between German and Yankee sensibilities and it remained in force for many years. As the years passed, Yankee opposition to alcohol ebbed. When national prohibition was enacted in 1918, Wisconsin went along with it only reluctantly. In 1926 voters approved a referendum to allow the manufacture of beer and in 1929, four years before the end of prohibition nationally, they voted to repeal Wisconsin's prohibition enforcement law. Yankee and German Wisconsinites alike were firmly in the "wet" column, and Wisconsin has remained there ever since.

Note: The views expressed in this article are the author's alone. Distributed as a public service by the Wisconsin Supreme Court in honor of the state's sesquicentennial.

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