Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> The North Carolina Experience >> Document Menu >> Summary

University of North Carolina (1793-1962). President and David L. Swain (David Lowry), 1801-1868
[Chapel Hill?, N.C.: The University], [1840].


Items summarized here:

North Carolina history is full of conflict and commentary regarding the charms and dangers of alcohol. Writing in 1728, Virginia planter William Byrd II noted that his joint party of surveyors endeavoring to chart the "dividing line" between Virginia and North Carolina was kindly provided with "Excellent Madera Wine . . . Strong Beer, & half a Dozen Quarts of Jamaica Rum." Byrd characterized the "Carolina men" in his party as "Knights of the Rum-Cask," commenting that they "were more impatient to eat [and drink] their supper than to earn it" (p. 153, p. 187). Almost 250 years later, UNC graduate Walker Percy imagined his fictional protagonist, Dr. Thomas More, stocking an abandoned Howard Johnson's motel room with "cases of Early Times [bourbon] and Swiss Colony sherry . . . [and] the Great Books" for what he believed might be the end of the world (p. 219). For Percy, alcohol was both a staple of southern manhood and a manifestation of moral dissolution, and for More, the "Tarheel alma mater" called up "fall football music" and "happy-sad bittersweet drunk Octobers" (p. 290).

Moral, medical, emotional, and financial considerations have long prompted activists in North Carolina to attempt to limit the availability of alcohol and to minister to its victims. Proponents for the state's temperance movement have often cited both statistical and anecdotal evidence for the degrading influence of alcohol and its traumatic effects on individuals and families alike. Though it was not the first of its kind—in 1808, Billy J. Clark and Reverend Lebbeus Armstrong founded the Temperance Society of Moreau and Northumberland, New York (Burns pp. 61-62)—North Carolina's temperance movement was well under way as early as 1832. In that year, Washington, NC, resident and physician William A. Shaw delivered a series of lectures to the Washington Temperance Society in which he lambasted "intemperance" as a "source of disease" and a "national evil," noting that consumption of alcohol "fills prisons with dishonest, weak, and wicked criminals . . . fills alms houses with paupers . . . makes tens of thousands of men poor and wretched, and leaves their widows indigent and destitute [and] throws on the charity of this cold world great numbers of helpless poor orphans" (p. 28).

Concerns over the uses and abuses of alcohol were mounting in 1840, when a "Circular," apparently mailed to the parents of UNC undergraduates from University President David L. Swain, concluded that the "justice, morality and good breeding" of UNC students had been compromised by parties involving "wine and ardent spirits" (p. 1). One particularly wild "Festival in the woods," which Swain called "a Senior or a Freshman treat," resulted in "a series of disorders," including the battering of classroom doors and other "gross indignities." Swain's "Circular" concludes with a terse form letter, apparently to be filled out by faculty advisors, which indicates that "your son [blank space] has been absent from prayers [blank space] from recitation [blank space] times, and from attendance on Divine worship [blank space] times" (p. 3). Similarly, in 1854, a group calling itself "the Friends of Temperance of Guilford County" proposed a series of "Resolutions" that classified "the use of intoxicating drinks" as a "horrible evil" (p. 1). Warning legislators that the issue of temperance "will be one of the first consideration [sic] in the bestowal of our suffrages," the pamphlet proposed legislation to prevent counties from granting licenses to sell liquor (p. 1).

One of the most outspoken advocates for the movement to ban the sale of alcohol in North Carolina was Thomas Jordan Jarvis, who served as Governor from 1879 to 1884, and whose ardent support of prohibition helped the measure pass overwhelmingly (62% to 38%) in May 1908. This referendum made North Carolina the first Southern state to prohibit the production and sale of alcoholic beverages (McKown). In a 1908 pamphlet titled "Schools vs. Saloons," Jarvis announced that the "school-room" "makes men . . . sends [them] to the Legislature . . . [and] carries light and knowledge into the home and community," while the "bar-room destroys them . . . fills the jails and penitentiaries with criminals and murderers . . . [and] sends them to the scaffold and hell" (p.1). Jarvis appealed to the shared identity of North Carolinians, arguing that the "railroad, telegraph and the telephone have annihilated space and time, and made us one people in all our aspirations, plans, and purposes, to become a great people and a great State" (p. 2). Therefore, he concluded, the state as a whole would be best served if all counties prohibited alcohol.

In a more focused letter addressed to the "men" of his own Pitt County, Governor Jarvis wrote that he felt confident that "a large majority of the people [of North Carolina] are going to vote AGAINST THE MANUFACTURE AND SALE OF INTOXICATING LIQUOR" (p. 1). This measure was crucially necessary, Jarvis explained, because alcohol (and the money spent to purchase it) "creates lawlessness, makes criminals, wrecks homes and brings trouble to innocent women and children" (p. 1). However, as a true politician, Jarvis hoped that Pitt County would vote strongly in favor of Prohibition, because he "earnestly desire[d] to see it become 'The' county in eastern North Carolina" (p. 1). Therefore, a local vote in favor of Prohibition, to Jarvis, was also a demonstration of the elevated status of his home county.

The measure did pass, and North Carolina was won by the "Drys" for a time. State laws in North Carolina and elsewhere helped usher in the era of federal Prohibition. On January 16, 1919, the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which banned alcohol, was ratified. But the days of Prohibition, both nationally and statewide, were numbered, and in the 1930s the political winds began to change. In a 1934 address to the Convention of the United Dry Forces in Greensboro, North Carolina, Frances Renfrow Doak triumphantly announced that efforts to repeal the 18th Amendment had failed in North Carolina because "there are and have been for twenty-five years more Drys than Wets in the State" (p. 3). Doak's address goes on to describe the grassroots efforts to educate and organize so-called "dry forces" against the proponents of repeal. Nevertheless, the efforts of Doak and her colleagues had already been defeated on a national level: the 21st Amendment (repealing the 18th Amendment) was ratified in December 1933, and thus Prohibition was erased from federal law.

After the federal government returned control of alcoholic beverages to the states, North Carolina relinquished control to its counties. The 1937 Alcoholic Beverage Control bill "allowed voters in each county to determine whether or not spirituous liquor should be sold at retail" and established a commission to oversee state-regulated "ABC stores" ("Brief History"). However, opponents of the alcohol industry did not immediately accept their defeat. A 1937 document prepared by the United Dry Forces of North Carolina tabulated the crimes and abuses observed in specific counties after ABC stores opened across the state. The document denied the claim of "the Wets" that "Liquor stores will reduce drinking and promote temperance" and offered substantial tables of evidence to the contrary (p. 1).

Though most Americans (and North Carolinians) take for granted their right to purchase and consume alcohol, it is both intriguing and important to realize that these laws resulted from a sustained compromise between contending forces. The history of prohibition and repeal in North Carolina parallels national movements and legislation, revealing a well-organized and enduring movement to outlaw the sale of alcohol. If some North Carolina residents were aptly characterized as "Knights of the Rum-Cask," others challenged the state's permissive stance toward alcohol, which they viewed as a source of degradation and a cultural vice.

Works Consulted: "Brief History of ABC Boards," North Carolina Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission, accessed 28 Nov. 2009; Burns, Eric, Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004; Byrd, William, Histories of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967; "Jarvis, Thomas Jordan," James Grant Wilson and John Fiske, Eds, Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. 3, New York: D. Appleton and company, 1888: 407; McKown, Harry, "This Month in North Carolina History: May 1908 – Statewide Prohibition," North Carolina Collection, UNC University Libraries, accessed 16 Nov 2009, ; Percy, Walker, Love in the Ruins, New York: Ballantine Books, 1971; "The Temperance Archive: The Lost Museum," Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, accessed 16 Nov 2009.

Patrick E. Horn

Document menu