The Points Interview: Aaron Hoffman

Editor’s Note: The Points Interview series continues on its alcoholic binge, with a third consecutive glance at the world’s most notable psychoactive resource.  Our twenty-fifth distinguished author is  Aaron Hoffman, currently an Associate Professor of History at the Community College of Allegheny County (PA), and a recipient of a Ph.D. in History from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland.  Aaron gives back to that latter community with the recent publication of The Temperance Movement in Aberdeen, Scotland 1830-1845: ‘Distilled Death and Liquid Damnation’ (Edwin Mellen Press, 2011). 

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

In its simplest sense my book attempts to find out why so many people wanted to stop others from drinking alcohol in the second quarter of the nineteenth century in Scotland.  While there are many obvious answers to that question, generally when most people look at it they rely on the words of the leaders of the anti-drink movement.  I wanted to take it to the next level, to actually see who the members of the temperance societies were.  Once you find out who they are you can try to figure out what motivated them to not only personally stop drinking but to join organizations dedicated to convince others to abstain.  This was too large of a project to undertake on a national level, so my focus is one Northeast Scottish city.  Aberdeen proved to be an ideal local-study, large enough to have several temperance groups, but small enough to be studied in detail.  My study begins with the establishment of the first temperance society in the burgh in 1830 and ends in 1845, when the cause experienced a decline in popularity.

Taking the pledge to abstain was a dramatic lifestyle change that broke with traditionally accepted social practices.  Unlike supporting a bible or missionary society or donating money to a charity for the poor, abstinence set an individual apart from the rest of society and, in many cases, was a difficult stance to maintain.  So what type of person did this and why did they do it?  I attempt to explain that by looking at the place of birth, age, occupation, religion, and political affiliation of every person I could find identified with the temperance cause in Aberdeen.  Would this same type of individual be inclined to support other radical causes?  I address that question by examining the connections between temperance and the anti-slavery and Chartists movements in the city.

Since the only temperance manuscript available was a brief Rechabite minute book, the majority of my two hundred and twenty temperance supporters and two hundred and six subscribers to the non-pledge binding “Union of Parties for the more effectual Suppression of Intemperance” were found in the local newspapers.  Many historians have tried to explain temperance with broad classifications, but instead I show that in Aberdeen, in the fifteen years under consideration, the abstinence crusade was not one uniform movement, but three separate movements: anti-spirits, total abstinence, and fraternal.  Furthermore, from my in-depth analysis of the socio-economic background of the Aberdeen abstainers, I discovered that the broad motives often applied to temperance reform may need to be reassessed.  In the Granite City, no one general cause motivated them, but several and more significantly, these motivations changed as the movement changed.  This approach allows for three dominant themes to emerge influencing the reformers: religion, public order, and self-improvement.

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