Edward C. Delavan

W. J. Rorabaugh
published in
American National Biography

Edward Cornelius Delavan (6 Jan. 1793-15 Jan. 1871), antiliquor leader, was born in Franklin, Westchester County, New York, the son of Stephen Delavan (occupation unknown) and Hannah Wallace. After his father died, the family moved to Albany, where the boy became an apprentice printer at Whiting, Backus & Whiting, from 1802 to 1806. He then attended the Reverend Samuel Blatchford's school in Lansingburgh for two years.

Young Delavan next clerked in his brother Henry's wholesale hardware business in Albany, became a partner at age twenty-one, and in 1815 moved to Birmingham, England, as the firm's import agent. In 1820 he returned to the United States and married Abigail Marvin Smith of Lyme, Connecticut. They had five children. Soon after his marriage, Delavan became a wholesale wine merchant in New York City. Amid the economic boom set off by the opening of the Erie Canal, he successfully speculated in real estate and around 1827 retired wealthy to the Albany area. He settled permanently in Ballston, Saratoga County, in 1833. His first wife died in 1848, and by 1850 he married Harriet Ann Schuyler, with whom he had one child. Continuing to invest in real estate, he had by 1860 accumulated $625,000, which made him one of the two dozen wealthiest New Yorkers.

Delavan devoted much of his fortune and most of his later life to the temperance movement. Shortly after Delavan's youthful retirement, the Reverend Nathaniel Hewitt recruited Delavan to the cause through a chance meeting on the street in Albany, and in 1829 Delavan played a key role in founding the New York State Temperance Society. Until the early 1830s temperance leaders tried to persuade Americans to stop or reduce the use of hard liquor, such as whiskey or rum. In 1831 Delavan became among the first to argue that the wealthy must give up wine, which was expensive, before ordinary Americans would quit drinking cheap hard liquor. At the suggestion of his coachman, he urged everyone to take the teetotal pledge, that is, to renounce all alcoholic beverages voluntarily. Delavan failed to get the state society to adopt his radical view, and in 1836 he quit. At a convention in Saratoga, New York, that same year he gave $10,000 to help launch the American Temperance Union on teetotal principles.

Delavan's attack on Christian communion wine produced controversy among temperance leaders in 1835. Delavan insisted that the "wine" mentioned in the Bible was unfermented grape juice. This dispute grew so bitter that Delavan left the Presbyterian church to become an Episcopalian. Delavan's religious argument did not appeal to his friends, abolitionist Gerrit Smith and Eliphalet Nott, president of Union College. They were willing to give up wine for ceremonial purposes but only on grounds of consistency and expediency. Smith and others scorned Delavan's approach, but, after a gentlemanly public disagreement, Nott yielded to Delavan, who became one of Union College's trustees from 1837 to 1870 and a major donor. He gave the college a substantial collection of minerals and shells in 1858.

Delavan frequently attacked commercial alcoholic beverages as impure. In 1835 he accused Albany's brewers of drawing water from a pond where a slaughterhouse and a glue factory dumped carcasses. He was sued for $300,000. In a celebrated case finally tried in 1840, he defended the truth of his charges and won an acquittal. In 1850 Delavan tried but failed to organize a life insurance company for abstainers. He believed, based on his knowledge of the wine trade, that adulterated beverages caused drinkers to die young.

In 1838 Delavan traveled to Europe to promote temperance. On the voyage over, he persuaded fifty-seven passengers to sign a petition urging the Great Western to withdraw liquor from its dining tables. He carried hundreds of antiliquor tracts with him and had them distributed and reprinted in England. Visits to France and Italy confirmed his disapproval of wine-drinking countries, about which he later wrote a pamphlet, Temperance of Wine Countries (1860). In 1845 he established one of the first temperance hotels, Delavan House in Albany, which became a favorite resort for abstinent legislators. The hotel, however, lost money, and, much to Delavan's annoyance, the manager used a loophole in the lease to introduce liquor.

Delavan's greatest contribution to his cause was as a propagandist. According to his own count, he financed the publication and distribution of more than 36 million antiliquor tracts and periodicals. In 1837 he mailed an issue of the Journal of the American Temperance Union (1837-1865) to every member of Congress, minister, and postmaster in the United States. New, cheap printing technology made such action possible. Delavan employed one of the country's first steam-powered presses. In 1842 he commissioned a colored lithograph of Dr. Thomas Sewall's eight drawings of alcohol-diseased stomachs and furnished 150,000 reproductions to poorhouses, prisons, hospitals, and schools. In 1846 he sent a copy of one antiliquor leaflet to every household in New York State. No one had ever used direct mail advertising in that way before. In addition to the Journal of the American Temperance Union, he sponsored a series of periodicals, the Temperance Recorder (1832-1843), American Temperance Intelligencer (1834-1836), the Enquirer (1841-1847), and the Prohibitionist (1854-1856).

In politics Delavan followed William Henry Seward's reform faction in New York's Whig party. In 1845 he persuaded the New York legislature to enact local option prohibition, which voters throughout the state considered in 1846. More than 80 percent of the state's towns rejected liquor, but in 1847 many towns reversed themselves and voted to resume sales. In the 1850s Delavan advocated statewide prohibition, which New York adopted in 1855. The courts quickly overturned the law. Delavan then shifted to a program of voluntary abstinence. Embracing the American (Know Nothing) party, he publicly endorsed Millard Fillmore for president in 1856. By that time, Delavan's fanaticism against alcohol and disinterest in slavery placed him outside the mainstream of northern reformers.

During the Civil War, Delavan sent a million copies of a temperance tract to soldiers in the Union army. In 1868 he retired to Schenectady, New York, where he died. To the surprise of many, he left nothing to the antiliquor movement and gave his property, valued at $800,000 to $1 million, to his family. Liquorless towns in Wisconsin and Illinois were named in his honor.


Some Delavan letters and an autobiographical fact sheet are at Union College. Other letters are in the Gerrit Smith Miller Collection at Syracuse University, in the John H. Cocke Papers at the University of Virginia, and in "Miscellaneous Manuscripts" at the Library of Congress. Important printed primary materials include A Report of the Trial of the Cause of John Taylor vs. Edward C. Delavan (1840) and Delavan's Temperance Essays (1865). A biographical sketch is in American Temperance Magazine and Sons of Temperance Offering (1851) 1: 30-41. Additional material may be found in Elmer M. Bennett, The Delavan Family (1940); Codman Hislop, Eliphalet Nott (1971); and John Marsh, Temperance Recollections (1866). Obituaries are in the National Temperance Advocate, Feb. 1871, and the Schenectady Weekly Union, 19 Jan. 1871. An article on the will is in the New York Times, 20 Jan. 1871.

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first posted: 8/20/01