Thursday evening, April 2, 1840, six drinking buddies gathered, as was
their daily customs at Chase's Tavern in Baltimore. A well-known temperance
speaker was lecturing that night, and four of them thought it would
be a good joke to go and hear him. As they discussed the lecture later
that evening, one of them proposed (still not quite seriously that they
form a total abstinence society, and on Sunday, April 5, while strolling
and drinking, the six men did make a decision "to drink no more
of the poisonous draft, forever."
of the six agreed to bring a man to the next meeting, and they wrote
and signed a pledge not to "drink any spiritous or malt liquors,
wine or cider." The name Washington Temperance Society was chosen
in honor of George Washington.
Society continued to meet for a time in Chase's Tavern, but when the
owner's wife objected to the loss of good customers, they switched to
the home of one of the members, and finally rented a hall. In November,
they held a public meeting which, with subsequent monthly meetings,
proved such a success that by their first anniversary, the Baltimore
Washingtonians counted "about 1,000 reformed drunkards and 5,000
other members and friends in the parade to celebrate the occasion."
Washingtonians were zealous in carrying their message of hope beyond
Baltimore. Several leaders turned out to be powerful orators who traveled
widely, speaking to large crowds, and "by May 1842 the movement
had penetrated every major area of the country and was going particularly
strong in central New York and New England."
its peak, the Society's membership was estimated at anywhere from one
to six million, of whom perhaps 100,000 to 600,000 were sober drunks.
(One difficulty is the terminology - the Society claimed to have sobered
up everything from "confirmed drunkards" to "hard drinkers
often drunken" to "sots" to "tipplers in a fair
way to become sots," and the distinctions were never too clear.)
Others who joined up were friends and families (even very young children),
as well as liquor dealers and tavern owners.
Lincoln (according to the February 1953 Grapevine) was "the foremost
member of the Springfield, Illinois, Washingtonians. He had never taken
whisky, but he had seen his business partner ... overcome by it."
And the December 1948 Grapevine describes how "in Dedham, Mass.,
a Mr. Thompson proved himself such an eloquent speaker that the entire
town joined. The leading liquor merchant gave up his business, signed
the pledge, and was made President of the village society" and
poured his entire stock of liquor on the ground.
of the Washingtonians was tied in many ways to the temperance movement,
which had been gaining strength since 1825, but was beginning to lose
momentum. At first, the Washingtonians were notable for their differences.
Unlike temperance advocates, who considered the drunk a hopeless case
(Justin Edwards said in 1822, "Keep the temperate people temperate;
the drunkards will soon die, and the land will be free"), the Washingtonians
treated drunks with love and won them over with "moral suasion."
An 1842 document gave directions for organizing a Washingtonian Society,
which included "Declaring that love and kindness and moral suasion
are your only principles and measures."
of the early Washingtonians are in some ways remarkably similar to descriptions
of AA meetings. The Washingtonians were the first to insist on the recounting
of personal experience in their meetings (apparently this practice began
as a pragmatic measure, when public meetings became popular and the
Society's leaders had to think up a way to keep them interesting). In
January 1949, Richard Ewell Brown wrote in the Grapevine: "The
Washingtonian 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 hear. . . Debates, lectures
and speeches were definitely out, and matters of business were limited
to 'as few remarks as possible.' Politics and religion were both taboo
as topics of discussion."
went on to say: "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." Another aspect
was simplicity: "Responsibility was divided equally... and everyone
was kept busy doing missionary work, bringing new members to the weekly
meetings and helping old members who had slipped back into their former
by 1848, the Washingtonian movement had "destroyed itself completely
and dropped out of sight. With it went the hope it had held out for
thousands of drunks of that day," and the only tangible evidence
remaining was its Home for the Fallen in Boston.
did it happen? The similarities between Alcoholics Anonymous and the
Washingtonians are too clear to be overlooked: alcoholics helping each
other, weekly meetings, sharing of experiences, and constant availability
of fellowship with the group or its members, reliance on a Higher Power,
and total abstinence from alcohol. Why is AA celebrating 55 years of
growth, while its nineteenth century forerunner fell apart within only
a few years? Most historians are agreed on the reasons: For one, the
Washingtonians had no sustained program of recovery comparable to AA's
Twelve Steps. But the real key to their self-destruction lie in the
lack of any guiding principles like those incorporated in AA's Twelve
Traditions. The Washingtonian movement "met its Waterloo in the
conflicting aims of its members.
with outside enterprises; public controversy: From the beginning, the
Washingtonians were closely allied with the temperance movement, and
outside of Baltimore, the early "missionaries" were "invariably
sponsored by temperance organizations." Temperance leaders looked
upon the Washingtonians as a means of "sparking" their cause,
and in the end, this became the chief interest of the Washingtonian
leaders themselves. In many places, Washingtonians spoke in churches,
and some came into conflict with the beliefs of religious entities.
"Nothing can divide groups more quickly ...than religious or political
controversy. Strong efforts were made in the Washingtonian movement
to minimize sectarian, theological and political differences, but the
movement did not avoid attracting to itself the hostile emotions generated
by these conflicts ... it was still caught in all the controversy to
which the temperance cause had become liable.’
of purpose; membership requirements: Formed for the purpose of helping
drunks, a Society whose membership encompassed alcoholics, their families,
and nonalcoholics of many types could not provide that vital ingredient
of AA's success: identification. "The 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." The movement's founding aim, helping drunks,
"became an increasingly secondary interest of those whose primary
interest was the furtherance of the temperance cause . . . And as fewer
and fewer men were reclaimed, the last distinctive features of the Washingtonian
movement dropped out of sight."
- In his discussion of AA and the Washingtonians, Milton Maxwell comments:
"A comparison with the Washingtonian experience underscores the
sheer survival value of the principle of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous.
At the height of his popularity, John B. Gough [one of the most prominent
of the Washingtonian missionaries] either 'slipped' or was tricked by
his enemies into a drunken relapse. At any rate, the opponents of the
Washingtonian movement seized upon this lapse with glee and made the
most of it to hurt Gough and the movement. This must have happened frequently
to less widely known ... Washingtonians. Public confidence in the movement
was impaired. Anonymity protects the reputation of AA from public criticism
important, anonymity keeps the groups from exploiting prominent names
for the sake of group prestige; and it keeps individual members from
exploiting their AA connection for personal prestige or fame. This encourages
humility and the placing of principles before personalities."
W. cited the experience of the Washingtonians in a number of his writings
and he considered them both a forerunner of AA and an object lesson
for the Fellowships future.
an article in the August 1945 Grapevine, he reflected on the lessons
of the movement and emphasized the importance of being "strong
enough and single-purposed enough from within" to be rightly related
to the world: "We are sure that if the original Washingtonians
could return to this planet they would be glad to see us learning from
their mistakes... Had we lived in their day we might have made the same
errors. Perhaps we are beginning to make same of them now"
major source for this article is "The Washingtonian Movement."
by Milton A. Maxwell, Ph.D., Quarterly Journal of Alcohol Studies, September
1950. Other sources include Grapevine articles in the December 1948,
January 1949, and February 1953 issues.