A Spirited Affair meets Rowland Burr: Temperance Advocate

A Spirited Affair is coming quickly! On September 25th, we’ll be having a night of wine, whisky, beer, music, and food to fundraise for the restoration of our Burwick House.


Ironically, the man behind Burwick was a staunch temperance advocate. Rowland Burr (1798-1865) was born in Philadelphia, but moved with his family to Canada as a young boy. He was a contractor, landowner, and Justice of the Peace. While he didn’t live in our Burwick House, he established the village in which it was built (Burrwick: now Woodbridge). From 1851 onwards, he lived in a large house in Toronto—the 1861 census lists him as living in St. Andrew’s ward (between Queen/King and Yonge/Strachan streets) with his wife Hester. That census also lists him as being a Wesleyan Methodist, which may partly explain his attitude towards alcohol.

I first found an outside reference to Burr in an American treatise on temperance: it referenced a “Mr. Burr, Esq.” who had petitioned the Canadian legislature to adopt prohibition. “Say,” I thought, “I wonder if that’s our Mr. Burr.”

Spoiler: it was.

In 1860, Burr published a pamphlet of extracts from temperance-related reports. Some of them from an 1834 British parliamentary inquiry into drunkenness; the majority were from The Report of the Select Committee of the Legislative Assembly of Canada on the Prohibitory Liquor Law (1859).

Burr felt that alcohol was dangerous, but more, a twisted use of divine gifts: “…an immense amount of wholesome and nutritious grain given by a bountiful Providence for the food of man, which is now by distillation converted into a poison” (5). The symbolism here is potent. Grain which is given by God (think of the importance of the bread of life in an Evangelical/religious context) is instead transformed into something sinful.

Indeed, according to the Committee, intemperance was the reason behind most of the suffering, sorrow, and poverty in Canada. Burr himself was particularly worried about the role alcohol played in encouraging crime and pauperism. This is in itself very telling of the Victorian mind. In the nineteenth century worldview, poverty was a moral failing and/or defect. Alcohol just made you a worse person.

Won't someone think of the children??? (Courtesy www.victorianweb.org)
Won’t someone think of the children??? (Courtesy http://www.victorianweb.org)

Hence why Burr was pushing not just for increased control of liquor sales, but for outright prohibition:

“I believe the morals of the public are greatly injured by the use of intoxicating liquors. My experience as a Justice of the Peace and Jail Commissioner for nearly 20 years, shews that 9 out of 10 of the male prisoners and 19 out of 20 of the female prisoners, have been brought there by intoxicating liquors. I have visited the Jails from Quebec to Sandwich through the length and breadth of Canada, and I have personally examined nearly 2000 prisoners…they nearly all signed a petition that I presented to them for a Maine Liquor Law, many of them stating that it was their only hope of being saved from utter ruin, unless they could go where intoxicating liquors were not sold.” (20)

Here’s where the story gets particularly interesting: the Maine Liquor Law that Burr references is in fact the prohibition legislation that had been passed in Maine in 1851. You know, the same Maine Law that we learned about last month. Burr was also very keen to get Neal Dow, the temperance-loving/alcohol-hoarding mayor of Portland, up to Toronto. Dow couldn’t make it, but did communicate with the Canadian Committee about the history and operation of his prohibitory system in Maine.

We meet again, Mr. Dow (courtesy www.fineartamerica.com)
We meet again, Mr. Dow (courtesy http://www.fineartamerica.com)

There are a few things to tease out here. First, it’s interesting to see how well-organized and far-reaching the temperance movement had become by the 1850s. These temperance advocates are reaching across national borders, drawing on the experience of other figures in their field. It’s a more consolidated movement.

Second, it’s interesting to see the transition from “tempering” alcohol consumption by avoiding hard liquors, to prohibiting all alcoholic beverages: from controlling alcohol to criminalizing it. Burr states several times throughout his report that measures aimed at simply regulating the sale of alcohol do nothing to curb intemperance; the only way to solve the problem is to ban alcohol outright. This is certainly a strengthening of rhetoric and attitude. Temperance advocates are becoming more rigid, more extreme in their views, and more willing to adopt radical measures.

Finally, Burr also includes several references to former/current alcoholics who support the Maine Law. Essentially, they claim that they are slaves to alcohol, and thus they have more freedom to enjoy their rights without it. I suspect Burr is trying to circumvent the argument that the government is restricting the populace’s rights and freedom through prohibition by reframing ideas of liberty. To his mind, he’s actually giving people more freedom: the freedom from the control of alcohol.

The extracts themselves are fascinating reading and give great insight into the dialogue that was happening at the time. Temperance ties itself up in so many other social and political issues—like many other parts of brewing history, it’s not solely about beer!


PS. Dear Mr. Burr: I hope that you are okay with our using alcohol sales to restore the house you built.

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