The Significance of The Alcohol Prohibitionists

The Washingtonians

The Significance of The Alcohol Prohibitionists For The Washington Temperance Societies

With Special Reference to Paterson and Newark, New Jersey

Leonard U. Blumberg*

SUMMARY. The establishment and activities of the Washington Temperance societies in Paterson and Newark are described, and the role of the temperance-prohibitionists in their decline is analyzed.

THE WASHINGTON TEMPERANCE SOCIETIES of the 1840s used a self help conversion approach to drunkards and heavy drinkers, assuring them that they could once again become prosperous and respectable members of the community, reassume their socially mandated responsibilities for their wives and children, liberate themselves from their subservience to King Alcohol, relieve themselves from the terrible fate of eternal damnation and renew the prospect of heavenly salvation if they would only sign the pledge that, as gentlemen, they would no longer drink intoxicating beverages. Maxwell (1) and Blumberg (2) have noted the similarities between Alcoholics Anonymous and the Washingtonians. However, the fact that they developed in different societal contexts may explain the greater stability, success and significance of Alcoholics Anonymous compared with the Washingtonians. The Washingtonians were associated with the nineteenth-century moral reform movements, especially the temperance - prohibition movement,* while A.A. has articulated with the medical profession in its mental health and public health manifestations.

The present essay deals with the significance of the temperance - prohibitionist groups of the 1840s for the rise and decline of the Washingtonian societies. It is the thesis of this paper that, while a number of other elements were involved in the decline of the Washington temperance societies, a major factor was the relationship between the Washington temperance societies and the temperance - prohibitionists.**

* Usually referred to as the (alcohol) temperance movement, the movement by the 1840s had become committed to prohibition. The present paper emphasizes this prohibitionism rather than personal abstinence from alcohol.

** The thesis is similar to the conclusion of Tyler (3,pp. 338-346). Tyler's conclusion is undocumented, however, and must be regarded as hypothetical.

The advocates of temperance had already conducted a considerable agitation campaign by 1840, and the Washingtonians may be regarded as one of the major results of the efforts by the temperance advocates to define the consumption of alcohol in their own terms. Thus, the Baltimore Washingtonian Temperance Society developed after a discussion among six friends as Chasels Tavern about an announced temperance lecture; two of their number agreed to go and hear the speaker and to report back (4). They discussed the matter further and agreed that they would give sobriety and total abstinence a try - but on their own terms. In its organizational beginnings, therefore, the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore was autonomous from the local temperance societies in Maryland; it was working-class oriented, while the temperance societies were middle-class in origin and predominantly in composition; it was dominated by artisans, while the temperance societies were dominated by ministers. Further, the Washingtonians pledged themselves to exclude politics and religion from their meetings (in order to minimize the sectarian divisiveness of the era and to keep attention focused on the enemy - alcohol), while the temperance societies made a considerable effort to create a link between their cause and religion. From the 1840s on, the temperance societies advocated governmental intervention in the sale of alcohol in order to protect the community and to preserve the family. The founders of the Washingtonian Temperance Society of Baltimore decided to use the practice of telling their "experiences" as the basic agenda (i.e., they witnessed to the destructive effects of alcohol and how abstinence had been beneficial both financially and in terms of respectability) and thereby provided a basis for the rapid spread of Washingtonianism among a population that was ready for it. This growth was facilitated by the recruitment procedures of the Washingtonians from the earliest meetings in Baltimore, it was agreed that members would seek out other drunkards and heavy drinkers and tell them about the society and how it had helped them. From this evolved a missionary or evangelistic style; delegations of at least two would go to other cities and towns to tell the story of how others could be saved from drunkenness and degradation. While a New Testament model is suggested by these practices, it is just as reasonable to suggest that the Washingtonians went in pairs as a way of helping each other over the rough spots of total abstinence. Further, traveling in pairs made it easier to certify that neither had been drinking privately (although it did not guarantee it); the temptation was overpowering at times and alcohol was omnipresent during the period.

Sometimes the Washingtonian missionaries operated as itinerant moral reformers who came into town and began telling their experiences to anyone who would listen; in the bigger towns and cities, however, they were usually invited by local residents who had heard them elsewhere or who had read about them in the local or temperance press. The audience was often sympathetic to begin with. In addition, a number of curious heavy drinkers and "rum sellers" would come, some to scoff and jeer and some hoping to be convinced and converted. The persons who invited the Washingtonian missionaries were deeply involved in the local temperance organizations - they were already committed to a moral cause, which, from their point of view, was of the first magnitude. As committed people they seized upon the Washingtonians as an opportunity to broaden their impact on the community. This was especially important because in the late 1830s the temperance movement was divided as the consequence of a rift between the relativists (who objected only to the use of distilled spirits) and the absolutists (who were against any use of alcohol.) Their network existed in the cities and towns, and they seized upon this chance to mobilize a population that they had been unable to reach - the drunkards and heavy drinkers. By the time the Washingtonian movement began to fade, the absolutists had captured the temperance movement (with the help of the Washingtonians) and had converted it into a prohibitionist movement.

An organizational approach is useful in the analysis not only of the diffusion of the Washington phenomenon, but also of its decline. Whatever their socioeconomic backgrounds, the heavy drinkers and drunkards who were recruited into the local Washingtonian total abstinence societies were not respectable, although they could gain or regain respectability, while the temperance - prohibition advocates who joined the Washingtonian societies were eminently so. That is, one way to view what happened after November 1840, when the Baltimore Washingtonians began to have meetings which were open to the general public, is that a substantial number of temperance - prohibitionists came to the meetings. The temperance - prohibitionists chose to define their activities with respect to the Washingtonians as "lending support;" in political language we might say that the respectables had "infiltrated" the Washingtonian societies. While in the early period it is clear that they did not "take over," the temperance prohibitionists did seek to influence the attitudes of the converted drunkards and heavy drinkers as well as the policies of the societies. I will examine the process as it took place in two north New Jersey societies, pointing out how the temperance prohibitionists sought to shift the emphasis of the Washingtonian temperance societies from "moral suasion" to "legal suasion.11. Further, when it became possible to do so, the temperance - prohibitionists bypassed the Washingtonians and thereby accelerated their decline.

While the discussion that follows will focus on Newark and Paterson, New Jersey, it is necessary to begin with some attention to the beginnings of the Washington Temperance Benevolent Society of New York, for the origins of the Newark and Paterson societies were both related to the missionary activities of the New York society. As reported in the Journal of the American Temperance Union, we can trace the beginnings of the New York Washington Benevolent Society to news about events in Baltimore. In a letter to the editor in the January 1841 issue of the Journal of the American Temperance Union, John Zug reports that from 5 April to 12 December 1840 the membership of the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore grew from the original 6 founding members to about 300 members, two-thirds of whom were said to have been "reformed drunkards." In the same issue of the Journal there is a report of a speech by a Mr. Pollard at a Maryland Temperance Convention held late in 1840. We know now that Pollard was a Washingtonian, but the editor of the Journal, apparently unaware of this fact, made no connection between the reference to Pollard and the letter by Zug, which was printed several pages later. In the February 1841 issue of the Journal of the American Temperance Union, an unsigned letter from Baltimore dated 19 January 1841 states that "Benevolence, philanthropy, patriotism and piety have united in the erection of the proudest monument which has ever graced the most favored city of Christendom. Men, women and children fired with a holy seal, are employed assiduously in collecting materials for this noble work, whose base shall rest upon the rock of truth and whose top, though not expected to 'reach to heaven, I shall be guided by the unclouded rays of truth, and glitter in the effulgence of a 'sun that shall go down no more.

The author of the letter adds that there had developed in Baltimore (by inference as a consequence of the Washingtonian activity) a network of "local and auxiliary associations...formed on the aggressive principle, and meet every, and some of them twice in each week, where crowded assemblies, with an enthusiasm rarely seen on any subject, listen to and applaud their deliberations and plans of operations, which hundreds are coming forward, anxious to participate in the honors of this bloodless triumph."

This, then was the dramatic news from Baltimore to New York where the Journal of the American Temperance Union was published. By late February or early March the Baltimore Washington Temperance Society had grown to 1200 members with several auxiliaries numbering about 1500 more. These data are taken from a circular letter of the Baltimore Washington Temperance Society that was published in the March 1841 issue of the Journal of the American Temperance Union Announcing plans for a grand temperance celebration on 5 April 1841, the first anniversary of the Baltimore society. Among the members were drunkards, habitual drinkers, moderate drinkers and those previously committed to total abstinence who were part of the organized temperance movement. Further, we know from the letter of 19 January 1841, cited above, that the membership included juveniles as well as adults. It seems evident, then, that once the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore "went public" in November 1840 there were substantial numbers of persons involved in the society who were not drunkards or even heavy drinkers. We must, therefore, regard the report of the New York Herald of 1 February 19841 that the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore had a thousand members "consisting entirely of reformed intemperate individuals" as an exaggeration, an exaggeration that was repeated in the Journal of the American Temperance Society in the report on events in New York City.

The reports of the activity in Baltimore excited the interest of the Executive Committee of the New York Temperance Society, and they invited the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore to send a delegation of reformed men (5). The visit began on 26 March and continued for more than a week; more than 20 meetings were held in the largest churches in the city and in the park; nearly 2000 persons signed the total abstinence pledge for the first time, and on 29 March 1841 the Washington Temperance Benevolent Society of New York City was formed. By 4 October 1841, it claimed to have 2263 members, 4 city auxiliaries with 600 members and 4 "country" auxiliaries with 1280 members; in that 6-month period it had sent out 62 speakers. Several of these speakers went to Paterson and Newark. Clearly, the New York City temperance society was able to mobilize energy and talent for its cause on a much greater scale than had ever been done before, and this activity was directed not only to the city but to the surrounding areas as well.

 

 
 
The Significance of the Alcohol Prohibitionists for the Washington Temperance Societies
References Paterson


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