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.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

One aspect of the book alcohol and drug historians might find interesting is the section on temperance, the medical profession, and the 1832 cholera epidemic.  Eight months before the city had it first case of cholera, the president of the Aberdeen Temperance Society, Rev. David Simpson, declared, “The plague then, I would say, has begun; let the intemperate be alarmed, and abandon the ruinous vice to which they are enslaved.”  The minister continued by stating that, “the most eminent and approved physicians” believed that the “entire abstinence from” distilled liquor “as an absolute necessary measure of precaution against this disease.”  This was the advice of the city’s doctors as well, yet paradoxically they prescribed alcohol to treat it.

Another aspect of the book these academics might find unique is the book’s coverage of the opponents of temperance, who were actually the type of people one would traditionally expect to find supporting the cause: the upper class, wealthy merchants and manufacturers, professionals, influential Established Church of Scotland ministers, and professors of the city’s two universities.  In particular, the controversy over allowing temperance meetings in the city’s quoad civilia Established churches, those under the patronage of the town council, or the vitriolic debates in the Aberdeen Presbytery over the acceptance of an 1842 committee report (written by some of the tee-totalling ministers) on intemperance.  In the latter, Rev. Murray of the North Parish pronounced that, “in the New Testament, the Devil is represented as the author of abstinence societies” and that “those who go about commanding” abstinence were “preaching the ‘doctrine of devils’….”

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What I found most interesting in my research was just how prevalent excessive drunkenness was in Aberdeen.  In order to try to decrease illegal smuggling, the British government significantly reduced the duty on Scottish whisky in 1823.  This profoundly changed the drinking habits of the Scots as whisky consumption tripled by 1830.  In Scotland, drunkenness was not a punishable offence between 1828 and 1862 and most of the work of the Aberdeen’s police force was spent taking up people found “drunk and incapable” or those found “drunk and disorderly” in the streets.  In fact, in 1833 the watch-house medical attendant, Dr. Francis Ogston, was praised by the police board for saving several intoxicated individuals “by the timely application of the stomach pump” and gave him funds to purchase a new and improved stomach pump.  It is not clear just how often the device was used, but it probably would have been fairly common.  To illustrate, in the three months from 1 January to 31 March 1841, 170 men and 405 women were taken up for drunk and disorderly.  While this is notable in a city with population of 63,000, it was further noted that their were actually 1,441 cases of female being brought to the watch house drunk, including seventy-four who were committed on average fourteen times each.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned.  What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would like to find out if any petitions from the various Aberdeen temperance societies to Parliament exist since the names listed could provide additional information about the motives of these reformers.

Bonus Question: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

While Sean Connery would appeal to a wider audience, I think Billy Connolly would be a more appropriate choice even though he is a Glaswegian.