"Death to King Alcohol!" Temperance in the 19th Century

by Jennifer Erbach


Students will utilize 19th century songs, drawings, stories, and lecture materials to explore the temperance movement in the United States during the 19th century.

Students will form a classroom Washington Temperance Society and work in groups to analyze temperance campaign strategies

Prior to the Lesson:

Students should read excerpts from Timothy Shay Arthur's “Strong Drink, the Curse and the Cure” and fill in the "Problem of Alcohol Worksheet."


Play the audio recording of "King Alcohol."

Throughout the 19th century, various societies and organizations formed with the goals of banning the sale and production of alcoholic beverages and rescuing lost souls who were under the grip of “King Alcohol.” This movement used many different methods to try and convince people to abstain from using or selling alcoholic beverages. For the next three days we will explore how the temperance movement used songs, pictures, stories, and lectures to enlist people to their cause.

Day 1

Have students get out their readings and worksheets that were completed prior to this lesson. In the readings, Timothy Shay Arthur describes many of the 'curses' that have come from the use of alcohol. On the board, create four lists entitled “Moral Problems,” “Social Problems,” “Economic Problems,” “Health Problems.”

As a class, discuss the following:

  • What were the problems identified with alcohol? Categorize the problems into the board list.
  • Do you think the temperance movement had a good case for banning alcohol?
  • Do you think any of these arguments are flawed?
  • Why do you think that alcoholism was such a widespread problem in the 19th century?

Concerned with the growing problem of alcoholism in our town, we have met here today to form our own chapter of the Washington Temperance Society. Read through the “Constitution and Pledge of the Washington Temperance Society.” If you wish, have the students sign the pledge at the end of the constitution.

Since the pledge in our constitution states that “we will in all suitable ways discontinuance their use by others; and we will contribute by all kind and friendly means in our power to induce any of our friends and acquaintances who may be in the habit of using them, wholly abstain from their use as a beverage that they may be restored to all the comforts and blessings of a sober life.” We must now come up with an effective campaign to persuade people not to drink alcohol. Therefore, four committees have been formed to examine different methods of persuading people to be temperate.

Give students their group assignments and have them get together with their groups. Hand out the assignment packets for each group.

  • Song Group (song transcripts, song analysis worksheet)
  • Image Group (images, image analysis worksheet)
  • Story Group (story excerpts, story analysis worksheet)
  • Lecture Group (lecture excerpts, lecture analysis worksheet)

Groups have the rest of the period to read through their group assignment and begin working. Instructor should meet with each group to make sure they understand their assignment.

Day 2

Students should continue working in their groups for the first 20-25 minutes of the period. Groups should focus on finishing up their analysis and preparing their presentations.

Each group will have 5-7 minutes to make their presentations to the rest of the class.

State Standards Addressed:

  • 16.A.5a Analyze historical and contemporary developments using methods of historical inquiry (pose questions, collect and analyze data, make and support inferences with evidence, report findings)
  • 16.D.5 (US) Analyze the relationship between an issue in United States social history and the related aspects of political, economic and environmental history
  • 14.D.4 Analyze roles and influences of individuals, groups and media in shaping current debates on state and national policies.

Notes for the Instructor

Time required for this lesson should be about two 50-minute class periods or two block periods. Teachers may wish to allow additional time for work to be completed outside of class.

To allow groups more time to work, teachers may want to begin this project on a Friday, allowing students to have the weekend to work with their group.

Teachers may want to take into account their students' reading ability when assigning them to groups. The Lecture group will have about 8 pages of somewhat challenging reading, and the Stories group will have about 16 pages of fairly easy reading.

The full text "Ten Nights in Bar Room and What I Saw There" and other works by Timothy Shay Arthur, as well as other writings by Frances Willard are available at Illinois During the Gilded Age.

To download this lesson plan, click on these links and when prompted save it to your computer.


Song Group

Image Group

Story Group

Lecture Group