The Temperance Movement at UVA
    by Brittany Acors

In the early days of the University of Virginia, possession of alcohol on the premises was strictly forbidden. Yet with no official disciplinary system, there was little enforcement of the policy. Instead the school relied on students’ honor to curb their behavior, and young people given their first taste of freedom acted predictably to the contrary. One student observed, “[N]othing is more common than to see students so drunk as to be unable to walk” (Bowman and Santos 37). Professors were expected to ensure that students followed college policies, but due to a code of silence among students and frequent threats of dueling, there was little they could do. Students frequented local taverns, taunted authorities, and claimed to be holding alcohol in their rooms for a friend.

Even in the first year of classes, 1825, the situation became so disruptive that Mr. Jefferson himself, now in his early 80s, called an assembly to reprimand the students. Once he took the podium, he burst into tears instead, convinced his experiment had failed (Bowman and Santos 30). Following this shock and disappointment, the students resolved to be better behaved to satisfy their founding father. However, that resolve lasted for only about two weeks, and then they returned to their mischievous ways.

However, throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the University hired a wave of pious professors. These men, including John B. Minor  (P22874, Gessner Harrison (P25515), and William McGuffey (P43668), reached the University simultaneously with a change of culture, which they helped further spread based on their religious values. Primary among these changes were the foundation of the Honor Code and the introduction of the national temperance movement to the University. Students now considered a commitment to truth and the rules more honorable than a commitment to protecting their fellow students from trouble through a vow of silence. They also began to view drunkenness as sinful, and when an official Temperance Association began at UVA in 1856, more than 150 students, approximately one quarter of those enrolled that year, took the pledge to abstain from alcohol (Carmichael 80). Between the presence of a newly built chapel on grounds, the guidance of teetotaler professors, the foundation of the honor system, and the influence of the roots of the prohibition movement, students were finally studying and behaving with the discipline Thomas Jefferson had envisioned.

As University students joined the armies of the Civil War, many maintained their commitment to temperance. Letters from William W. Minor, Jr. (P22559), a University student from 1857-1861 and a Confederate soldier, to his cousin Mary (P48191) reveal his continued avoidance of alcohol. In a January 3, 1862, letter detailing his unit’s New Year’s celebration, Minor relates, “We spent a very quiet time in Camp, not one of our Company misbehaved in any way on that usually jolly occasion, for which we have come to be proud of our men, as we were the only officers in the Regt. who did not have to send some of their men to the Guard House for drunkenness that day.” Just as the pious professors influenced the alcohol tendencies of their students, so did this officer affect his fellow soldiers.

A month later, Minor recounts the difficulties of dating as a soldier, and a dry one, no less. He writes, “I don’t think I have paid but one visit (to a young lady) since I returned & that a very short one to miss Lizzy, but none of the Governor’s’ toddy did I drink that time tho’ my persistent refusal to imbibe was much remarked on, and in the company in which I found myself indeed I was rather remarkable, but I am now & will continue to be as much Temperance as I ever was...” Historians have remarked that “Civil War armies were, arguably, the most religious in American history” (Noll 10), and letters from UVA students turned Confederate soldiers prove no exception. Despite a culture of drinking in the early days of the University, temperance took a strong hold in the antebellum period and maintained control over the students who took the oath for years to come.


Bowman, Rex, and Carlos Santos. Rot, Riot, and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013.

Carmichael, Peter. The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Rebellion. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005.

Letter from William Minor, Jr., to Mary L. Minor. February 2, 1862. (transcription)

Letter from William Minor, Jr., to Mary L. Minor. January 3, 1862. (transcription)

Noll, Mark A. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.