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, denunciation, 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 reinforce 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 take.
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 membership, the society might well be in existence
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 Washington movement did not live up
to its early promise.