Grapevine, Inc., January 1949
WHAT was the valuable secret that the Washingtonians had
stumbled upon and why was the movement such a success?
begin with, they were the first to discover the now widely
admitted fact that no one is quite so well equipped to
help the chronic alcoholic as the ex-drunk. Here is no
superior person, short on sympathy and long on advice,
but a fellow sufferer who has been through the mill and
knows all the answers. "An inescapable symbol of
the successful escape from pain" - to quote Professor
Selden Bacon of Yale University.
the Washingtonians avoided all the time-honored pitfalls
that beset the early Nineteenth Century reformer. Heretofore
the drunkard had been generally regarded as an object
of contempt, de-nunciation, or ridicule. The new society
considered him a sick rather then a sinful man. Religious
diatribes and denunciations had no place on the Washington
program. According to an early member, self-righteous
exhortations or scorn were "calculated to drive him
(the drinker) to madness and despair by drinking deeper...(and)
embitter his heart." Modern science puts it a little
differently. Professor Bacon says: "The effect of
such exhortation is to reenforce the person's feeling
of inferiority and self-depreciation" and to increase
his "hostility." Criticism, as the Washingtonians
realized, was one thing the chronic alcoholic couldn't
make sure that new members would not be frightened away,
the Washington charter provided that only ex-drunks could
address the meetings. Thus the "benefits of experience
spoken in burning words from the heart" were made
available for all to bear. If ordinary mortals wished
to speak, they had to have permission "by common
consent of the members." Debates, lectures and speeches
were definitely out, and matters of business were limited
to "as few remarks as possible". Ministers were
not barred, but if they spoke "they were desired
to lay aside their pontificals . . . abandon their sermons
. . . and speak as men." Not that the Washingtonian
were anti-religious. Dr. Albert Day of that most successful
institution for the regeneration of chronic alcoholic,
the Washington Home in Boston, had this to say in 1877:
"We cannot ignore the religious element in the treatment
of inebriety. Let the excellent and heaven-born truth
taught by Jesus of Nazareth underlie all our teachings.
But let them be shorn of all their dogmatism and taught
in all their beautiful simplicity. (The drinker's) eyes
should be opened to new truths," Although this was
said many years after the founding of Washingtonianism,
it reflects the beliefs of the earlier members.
with religious affiliation, the founders of the Washington
society wished to avoid any suspicion of political bias
so common to other temperance groups. Politics and denominational
religion were both taboo as topics of discussion. Every
effort was made to prevent the society from encroaching
on anyone's prejudices, so that all people would feel
free to join the organization. One purpose and one purpose
only, was held in mind: to rescue men from the toils of
drink. To that end, the founders tried to make Washingtonianism,
in the words of Father Mathew, "a green spot in the
desert life where all could meet in peace and harmony."
"Moral suasion" was their weapon, and sympathy
their keynote. There was no censoring of erring members.
If a man broke his pledge, he was forgiven "not seven
times, but seventy times seven:'
favorable aspect of Washingtonianism was its simplicity.
Responsibility was divided equally, rather than among
a few officers. The society constituted a grand committee
of the whole, and everyone was kept busy doing missionary
work, bringing new members to the weekly meetings and
helping old members who had slipped back into former habits.
This doing for others had as much therapeutic value for
the giver as for the receiver, and accounted to a large
degree for the Washington success.
the tremendous popular approval which crowned the so-
called maiden efforts, however the Washington movement
finally met its Waterloo in the conflicting aims of its
members. The early Washingtonians bad no desire to stop
the liquor traffic by legal means, improve public morals
or punish wrongdoers. Why, then, was the organization
unable to stick to its original platform?
founders had made one grave error which not only proved
a stumbling block for future work among alcoholics, but
which eventually led to the disintegration of the society
as such. Stipulating that only ex-victims of intemperance
could speak at meetings was a step in the right direction,
but it didn't go far enough. If the rule had been that
only exalcoholics could be eligible for mem- bership,
the society might well be in existence today.
it was, the distinction between a temperance organization
and a society for the regeneration of alcoholics was never
understood. The Washingtonians didn't realize that in
their therapeutic program they had something that was
far more important than all the temperance ballyhoo before
or since their time. They had discovered an oyster; the
pearl, if they'd only known it, was inside.
nonalcoholic member soon grew tired of listening to an
endless chain of ex-drunks expatiate on an experience
that, in the final analysis, had no meaning for anyone
but another alcoholic. It must have been hard, at times,
for him to hide his boredom. Sympathy requires understanding.
make matters worse, many of the "cures" proved
to be of a somewhat less than permanent nature. For the
non-alcoholic, there was only one answer: close down the
bars and bistros. Many tried to dominate the meetings
for sectarian or political purposes. Failing in these
attempts, they left the organization to heckle from the
outside. As early as September, 1842, a large group of
Washingtonians formed a new society, The Sons of Temperance
dedicated to the complete suppression of the liquor traffic,
as well as to personal abstinence. Thus, torn by dissent
from within, and opposed by rival organizations from without,
it is not surprising that the Washingiton movement did
not live up to its early promise.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., January 1949
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