Barnum as a Temperance Speaker

In this excerpt from his 1855 autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself, Barnum describes how he became an ardent temperance advocate, from hearing a public temperance lecture to signing the "teetotal pledge" and becoming a temperance lecturer himself. Personal narratives of redemption and publicly signing the "teetotal pledge" were central elements of antebellum temperance crusades. In his public lectures on the evils of drink, Barnum put his skills as a showman to work winning over skeptical audiences to the temperance cause.


from The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written By Himself (1855)

In the fall of 1847, while exhibiting Gen. Tom Thumb at Saratoga Springs, where the New-York State Fair was then being held, I saw so much intoxication among men of wealth and intellect, filling the highest positions in society, that I began to ask myself the question, What guarantee is there that I may not become a drunkard? I reflected that many wiser and better men than myself had fallen victims to intemperance; and although I was not in the habit of partaking often of strong drink, I was liable to do so whenever I met friends, which in. my travels occurred every day. Hence I resolved to fly the danger, and I pledged myself at that time never again to partake of any kind of spirituous liquors as a beverage.

I now felt that I was out of danger, and the sensation was a pleasant one. True, I continued to partake of wine, for I had been instructed, in my European tour, that this was one of the innocent and charming indispensables of life. I however regarded myself as a good temperance man, and soon began to persuade my friends to refrain from the intoxicating cup. Seeing need of reform in Bridgeport, I invited my friend the Rev. E. H. CHAPIN to visit us, for the purpose of giving a public temperance lecture. I had never heard him on that subject, but I knew that on whatever topic he spoke, he was as logical as eloquent.

He lectured in the Baptist Church in Bridgeport. His subject was presented in three divisions: The liquor-seller, the moderate drinker, and the indifferent man. It happened, therefore, that the second, if not the third clause of the subject, had a special bearing upon me and my position.

The eloquent gentleman overwhelmingly proved that the so called respectable liquor-seller, in his splendid saloon or hotel bar, and who sold only to "gentlemen," inflicted much greater injury upon the community than a dozen common groggeries -- which he abundantly illustrated.

He then took up the "moderate drinker," and urged that he was the great stumbling-block to the temperance reform. He it was, and not the drunkard in the ditch, that the young man looked at as an example when he took his first glass. That when the drunkard was asked to sign the pledge, he would reply, "Why should I do so? What harm can there be in drinking, when such men as respectable Mr. A, and moral Mr. B, drink wine under their own roof?" He urged that the higher a man stood in the community, the greater was his influence either for good or for evil. He said to the moderate drinker: "Sir, you either do or you do not consider it a privation and a sacrifice to give up drinking. Which is it? If you say that you can drink or let it alone, that you can quit it for ever without considering it a self-denial, then I appeal to you as a man, to do it for the sake of your suffering fellow-beings. If; on the other hand, you say that you like to indulge moderately in the use of intoxicating drinks, and that it would be a self-denial on your part to abandon the practice, then, sir, I warn you in the light of all human experience, that you are in danger, and should give it up for your own sake. When appetite has so far got its hold upon you as to make the thought of abandoning strong drink uncomfortable, I tell you that the chances are strongly in favor of your dying a drunkard, unless you renounce the use of intoxicating beverages altogether."

I do not pretend to give the precise language of the eloquent Mr. Chapin, and no man can depict the overwhelming power with which he urged his position. But I have given the gist of his argument as applied to the moderate drinker. It sank most deeply into my heart. I returned home and went to bed, but not to sleep. These arguments continued to ring in my ears, and though striving to find a reasonable answer to them, I spent a wretched and sleepless night. I had become fully conscious that I was pursuing a path of wrong-doing, and one which was not only causing great wrong to the community, but was also fraught with imminent danger to myself.

I arose from my bed, and feeling that as a man I could not persist in a practice which I could not conscientiously and logically defend, I took my champagne bottles, knocked off their heads, and poured their contents upon the ground. I then called upon Mr. Chapin, asked him for the teetotal pledge, and signed it.

God knows I am determined never to break that pledge, and my gratitude is so deep at being thus placed in a position to benefit my fellow-man, as well as perhaps to save myself, that I trust there is little danger of my ever again being brought within the charmed circle of the cup. Upon informing my wife that I had signed the teetotal pledge, I was surprised to see tears running down her cheeks. I was afterwards astonished to know from her, that she had passed many a weeping night, fearing that my wine imbibing was leading me to a drunkard's path. I reproached her for not telling me her fears, but she replied that she knew I was self deluded, and that any such hint from her would have been received in anger.

This, let me here observe, is the ease of thousands of individuals to-day. They are moving in respectable society, and regard intemperance as a dreadful evil. They would despise the thought of ever becoming intemperate themselves, and would look upon such a suggestion as the height of impudence and folly. The man who commences tippling is the last person in the world to discover his dan-ger. If he has a wife, she probably is the first to know and shudder at his position. His neighbors know it long before he is aware of it, and if instead of passing it by in silence, as is usually the case, they would candidly point out to him the perilous course he is pursuing, many a valuable member of society would be saved from degradation, and his happy family snatched from misery, disgrace and despair.

I thanked Mr. Chapin, from my heart of hearts, for being the instrument of saving me, and great was his astonishment in discovering that I was not already a teetotaller. He supposed such was the case from the fact that I had invited him to lecture, and he little thought, at the time of his delivering it, that his argument to the moderate drinker was at all applicable to me. But it was, and through the mercy of God, it saved me.

I now felt that I had a great duty to perform. I had been groping in darkness, was rescued, and I knew it was my duty to try and save others. The morning that I signed the pledge, I obtained over twenty signatures in Bridgeport. I talked temperance to all whom I met, and very soon commenced lecturing upon the subject in the adjacent towns and villages. I spent the entire winter and spring of 1851-2 in lecturing through my native state, always travelling at my own expense, and I was glad to know that I aroused many hundreds, perhaps thousands, to the importance of the temperance reform. I also lectured frequently in the cities of New-York and Philadelphia, as well as in other towns in the neighboring States.

About this time the Maine Law was enacted, and its successful workings filled the hearts of temperance men and temperance women with hope and joy. We soon learned that in order to stay the plague, we must have a total prohibition of the sale of intoxicating drinks as a beverage. Neal Dow (may God bless him!) had opened our eyes. We saw that moral suasion had done much good. We could see that the Washingtonians and Sons of Temperance, the Daughters of Temperance, the Rechabites, and the Temples of Honor, had discharged their mission of peace and love; but we also saw that large numbers who were saved by these means, fell back again to a lower position than ever, because the tempter was permitted to live and throw out his seductive toils.

Our watchword now was, "Prohibition!" We had become convinced that it was a matter of life and death; that we must kill Alcohol, or Alcohol would kill us, or our friends.

While in Boston with Jenny Lind, I was earnestly solicited to deliver two temperance lectures in the Tremont Temple, where she gave her concerts. I did so, and although an admission of twelve and a half cents was charged for the benefit of a benevolent society, the building on each occasion was crowded.

In the course of my tour with Jenny Lind, I was frequently solicited to lecture on temperance on evenings when she did not sing. I always complied when it was in my power. In this way I lectured in Baltimore, Washington, Charleston, New-Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati, etc. -- also in the ladies' saloon of the steamer Lexington, on Sabbath morning.

In August, 1853, I lectured in Cleveland, Ohio, and several other towns, and afterwards in Chicago, Illinois, and in Kenosha, Wisconsin. In the latter state I found the field was nearly read; for the harvest, but there were few reapers. A state election was to come off in October, on which occasion the people were to decide by ballot whether they would or would not approve of a prohibitory liquor law. Owing to an immense German population, who in the main were opposed to prohibition, the temperance friends were apprehensive of the result. They solicited my services for the ensuing month. I could not refuse them. I therefore hastened home to transact some business which required my presence for a few days, and then returned, and lectured on my way in Toledo and Norwalk, Ohio, and Chicago, Illinois. I made the tour of the State of Wisconsin, delivering two lectures per day for four consecutive weeks, to crowded and attentive audiences. I was glad to believe that my efforts contributed to a good result. The voice of the people declared, by a wholesome majority, in favor of a prohibitory liquor law, but a political legislature, hostile to so beneficent an act, refused to give it to them. I trust their deliverance is not far off.

In my temperance speeches, I have frequently been interrupted, and sometimes interrogated by opponents. I always take things coolly, let them have their say, and endeavor to give them a "Roland for an Oliver."

At New-Orleans, I lectured in the great Lyceum Hall in St. Charles Street, a new building just completed by the Second Municipality. I did so on the invitation of Mayor Crossman, and several other influential gentlemen. The immense Hall contained more than three thousand auditors, including the most respectable portion of the New-Orleans public. I was in capital humor, and had warmed myself into a pleasant state of excitement, feeling that the audience was with me. While in the midst of an argument illustrating the poisonous and destructive nature of alcohol to the animal economy, some opponent called out, "How does it affect us, externally or internally?" "E -ternally," I replied.

Scarcely ever have I heard such tremendous and simultaneous merriment as followed this reply. I was not allowed to proceed for several minutes, on account of the repetition of applause. I heard no more from the inquisitive gentleman, and have not the remotest idea who he was. My reply however was so sudden, that one gentleman who considered himself "up to snuff," remarked the next day in the Verandah Hotel, that if the truth could be known, he would wager a thousand dollars that I placed the man there on purpose to put the question. "By heavens," said he, "Barnum got out 'eternally' before the fellow had finished 'internally.'" The gentleman's suspicion, although wholly unfounded, I regarded as a compliment.

While lecturing in front of the Court House in Cleveland, Ohio, one afternoon in 1853, in presence of a large crowd, including many farmers, an auditor, who I afterwards learned was an extensive liquor dealer, called out, "What will become of all the grain, if you stop the distilleries?"

"Feed it to the drunkard's wife and children; they have been without it long enough," I replied. "The husband and father will then be a sober man," I continued, "and will be able and willing to pay for it. You will find that the sober, industrious man and his family will require more grain than is now necessary to rot into whiskey to keep him drunk."

I then related the anecdote, that soon after the enactment of the Maine Law, a gentleman met a little girl in the streets of Portland, who had been in the habit of coming to his house as a beggar. "Why don't you come to our house nowadays for cold victuals?" said he.

"Because father can't get any liquor, and he is sober and works every day, and we have plenty of warm victuals at our house now, I thank you, sir," replied the little girl.

The old farmers greatly enjoyed that reply, and "the liquor seller (said a correspondent of the New-York Tribune) hauled off to repair damages."

On the first evening that I lectured in Cleveland, (it was in the Baptist Church,) I commenced in this wise: "If there are any ladies or gentlemen present, who have never suffered in consequence of the use of intoxicating drinks as a beverage, either directly, or in the person of a dear relative or friend, I will thank them to rise."

A man with a tolerably glowing countenance arose. "Had you never a friend who was intemperate?" I asked.

"Never!" was the positive reply.

A giggle ran through the opposition portion of the audience. "Really, my friends," I said, "I feel constrained to make a proposition which I did not anticipate. I am, as you are all aware, a showman. I am always on the look out for curiosities This gentleman is a stranger to me, but if he will satisfy me tomorrow morning that be is a man of credibility, and that no friend of his was ever intemperate, I will be glad to engage him for ten weeks at $200 per week, to exhibit him in my American Museum in New-York, as the greatest curiosity in this country."

A laugh that was a laugh followed this announcement. "They may laugh, but it is a fact," persisted my opponent with a look of dogged tenacity.

"The gentleman still insists that it is a fact," I replied. "I would like therefore to make one simple qualification to my offer. I made it on the supposition that, at some period of his life, he had friends. Now if he never had any friends, I withdraw my offer; otherwise, I will stick to it."

This, and the shout of laughter that ensued, was too much for the gentleman, and he sat down. I noticed throughout my speech that he paid strict attention, and frequently indulged in a hearty laugh. At the close of the lecture he approached me, and extending his hand, which I readily accepted, he said "I was particularly green in rising to night. Having once stood up, I was determined not to be put down, but your last remark fixed me!"' He then complimented me very highly on the reasonableness of my arguments, and declared that ever afterwards he would be found on the side of temperance.

Among the most gratifying incidents of my life, have been several of a similar nature to the following:

After a temperance speech in Philadelphia, a man about thirty years of age came forward, signed the teetotal pledge, and then, giving me his hand, he said, "Mr. Barnum, you have this night saved me from ruin. For the last two years I have been in the

habit of tippling, and it has kept me continually under the harrow. This gentleman (pointing to a person at his side) is my partner in business, and I know lie is glad I have signed the pledge tonight."

"Yes, indeed I am, George, and it is the best thing you ever did," replied his partner7 "if you'll only stick to it."

"That will I do till the day of my death; and won't my dear little wife Mary cry for joy tonight when I tell her what I have done" he exclaimed in great exultation.

At that moment he was a happy man -- but be could not have been more so than I was.

I need not farther pursue this theme, than to add that I have lectured in Montreal, Canada, and many towns in the United States not here set down, always gladly doing so at my own expense; and one of the greatest consolations I now enjoy, is that of believing I have carried happiness to the bosom of many a family.

In the course of my life I have written much for newspapers, on various subjects, and always with earnestness, but in none of these have I felt so deep an interest as in that of the Temperance Reform. Were it not for this fact, I should be reluctant to mention, that besides numerous articles for the daily and weekly press, I wrote a little tract on "The Liquor Business," which expresses my practical view of the use and traffic in intoxicating drinks.