Washington, Lincoln & Temperance In Their Times
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., February 1953
IT is perhaps fitting this new February to consider that the month’s two most celebrated sons can be curiously -identified with the first movement in the United States which brought about a large scale rehabilitation of alcoholics.
The movement was the “Washington Temperance Society,” known most widely as simply the “Washingtonians.” The name was taken to honor President George Washington, deceased some forty-one years previously, and was selected only after a hassle among founding members who had originally preferred the name “Jeffersonians.”
The Washingtonians, founded in 1840, came of age and stature in February, 1841, when they branched out from the first group in Baltimore and began an amazing growth that resulted in a membership variously claimed to be between 100,000 and 600,000.
Abraham Lincoln, himself a lifelong teetotaler, joined the movement and on February 22nd, 1842 made a memorable address in the society’s behalf.
“YOUR HEALTH, GENERAL WASHINGTON!”
The posthumous use of Washington’s name for an alcoholics’ movement was solely a mark of honor for his military and political achievements. That the hero of the cherry tree incident was temperate is generally projected by his biographers; that he would espouse total abstinence for his colonial compatriots is doubtful. His own taste for good wines was known far and wide; he usually took “four or five glasses of Madeira for dinner and finished off with a draught of beer and a small glass of punch.” His journals list large expenditures for “arrack, wine and punch.” He had apparent distaste for rum, writing to Comte de Moustier in 1788 . . . “rum . . . is in my opinion, the bane of morals and the parent of idleness.”Of George’s taste for whisky we are told in a letter of 1794: “. . . as the President will be going into the Country of Whiskey, he proposes to make use of that liquor for his drink.”
There is a modern barroom legend that is wont to rise on February 22nd (when the cup has aptly marked the holiday) that “George Washington musta been alcoholic . . . who else would stand up in a boat?” Another contemporary celebrant remarked that “Washington musta had a problem or he wouldn’t have thrown a dollar away just for the water in a river!” There are no reasons to consider these patent fancies as historical.
In point of sober fact, there were no maxims, no gems of guidance for the temperance society in our first president’s writings. To add reason to the name of the Washingtonians, an early orator found these quotes for use in membership campaigns:
“We do not need wine to fire our blood . . .,” from Washington’s young days as a colonel of British provincial troops; and, “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire,-conscience” from one of the general’s diaries.
LIQUOR SURROUNDS MR. LINCOLN
That the “reform” and temperance movements came of age in Abraham Lincoln’s own time of coming of age is duly recorded by newspapers of the early 1830’s. A thousand units of the American Temperance Society had a total of 100,000 members by 1832. Politicians were taking notice of the temperance tide as it surged in. By 1835, there were 5,000 societies, a million members. Effective literature and temperance newspapers were rolling off presses. The Reverend Dr. Lyman Beecher had already proclaimed that intemperance was not merely drunkenness, but “the daily use of ardent spirits.”
In the midwest of young Abe, whisky was the beverage of a he-man. Up the Mississippi from New Orleans came other potables … Holland gin, French cognac, Tenerife, Malaga and Scotch whisky. There were “men of distinction” in the prairie states, too! A Dayton, Ohio paper reported “whisky, twelve cents a gallon. Eight thousand have signed the temperance pledge in Cincinnati, a fact which has had some effect in lowering the price of whisky.”
“Martha Washington” societies were appearing to “reclaim the intemperate of their own sex.”
But along the Sangamon River, whisky flowed as placid as the fish bare stream. The Sangamon Hardshell Baptist church refused to take a stand against whisky. Mentor Graham, Lincoln’s friend who taught the school, joined the “temperance movement and found himself immediately suspended by the church trustees! To even things up, the trustees then suspended another member who had gone blind drunk.
LAWYER LINCOLN DEFINES TEMPERANCE
By New Year’s, 1842, Abraham Lincoln was the foremost member of the Springfield, Illinois Society of Washingtonians. He had never taken whisky, but he had seen his business partner John Berry overcome by it. His law partner, Mr. Herndon, was often in “the likes of being a liquor head” Such an enemy as whisky needed a strong foe, and Mr. Lincoln was the natural choice for the Washington’s Birthday temperance meeting in the Second Presbyterian Church. Services proper for the occasion were sung by the choir, augmented by Methodist singers. Then, A. Lincoln, Esq., orator of the day, took the platform to deliver an address on “Charity in Temperance Reform.”
“The warfare hitherto waged against the demon intemperance has somehow or other been erroneous” Mr. Lincoln said. “Either the champions engaged or the tactics they have adopted have not been the most proper. These champions for the most put have been preachers lawyers and hired agents. They are supposed to have no sympathy of feeling or interest with those very persons whom it is their object to convince and persuade”
The best of temperance crusaders, Lincoln told the large audience, is the reformed drunkard. “When one who has long been known as a victim of intemperance appears before his neighbors ‘clothed and in his right mind,’ a redeemed specimen of long-lost humanity, and stands up, with tears of joy trembling in his eyes, to tell of the miseries once endured, now to be endured no more forever; of his once naked and starving children, now clad and fed comfortably; of a wife long weighted down with woe, weeping, and a broken heart, now restored to health; and how easily it is all done, once it is resolved to be done; how simple his language! –there is a logic and an eloquence in it that few with human feelings can resist. They cannot say he is vain of hearing himself speak, for his whole demeanor shows he would gladly avoid speaking at all; they cannot say he speaks for pay, for he received none and asked for none. In my judgment, it is to the battles of this new class of champions, that our late success is greatly, perhaps chiefly, owing.”
Prohibition and denunciation of dram-sellers and dram-drinkers was “both impolitic and unjust.” The reason? “Because it is not much in the nature of man to be driven to anything; still less to be driven about that which is exclusively his own business; and least of all where such driving is to be submitted to at the expense of pecuniary interest or burning appetite.”
A “Twelfth Step” instruction from lawyer Lincoln: “A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”
The lanky orator spoke of whisky, commodity of trade, in his own forefathers’ time. “Even then it was known and acknowledged that many were greatly injured by it,” Lincoln asserted. “But none seemed to think the injury arose from the use of a bad thing, but from the abuse of a very good thing. The victims of it were to be pitied and compassionated, just as are the heirs of consumption and other hereditary diseases. Their failing was treated as a misfortune and not as a crime, or even as a disgrace.”
In the audience was the drunkard law partner, Herndon. Perhaps to him Lincoln continued: “If we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and their hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class. There seems ever to have been a proneness in the brilliant and warm-blooded to fall into this vice–the demon of intemperance ever seems to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and of generosity.”
And in conclusion, Mr. Lincoln seemed to speak directly to the reformed drunkards of the Washington Society . . . “In my judgment such of us as have never fallen victims have been spared more from the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.”
As a code for the success of the Washingtonians in bringing new feet to the path of sobriety, Mr. Lincoln used simple phrases . . . “go for present as well as future good . . . labor for all now living, as well as all hereafter to live . . . teach hope to all, despair to none. As in Christianity it is taught, so in this teach, that ‘While the lamp holds out to burn, the vilest sinner may return.'”
It was five score less seven years before Alcoholics Anonymous that the man who freed other men from bondage and slavery spoke to a church room full of reformed drunkards, and people come to hear, and people come to scoff.
Lincoln was never again recorded as speaker on temperance from alcohol. . .but there were to come many words to be graven in men’s hearts and immortalized on granite. Words that had great meaning in the dark and confusion and desperate illness of a whole nation … words that are still comfort, and light and milestones for faith for those today who through AA are winning their own civil war … who are uniting their own house that it may stand righteously and honestly and undivided.
Listen to that homely voice, leaving these words for the ages:
“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”
“It is difficult to make a man miserable while he feels he is worthy of himself and claims kindred to the great God who made him.”
And, from the Second Inaugural Address, perhaps the most sublime phrase of Lincoln’s rich gifts to America … a message to a nation sobering up from the dreadful nightmare of four years’ bloodshed . . . a message for our use today …
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right . . .”
A MESSAGE HE MUST CARRY
It was the second month of the new year, and those to whom he had brought a new way of life, a new belief, were now far away. He could not know if they still kept the faith, if they practiced in their living the simple principles of honesty, of humility and of helpfulness to others that he had found for himself and had, in turn, given to them.
He had lived the long first of his own life quite differently. Born to wealth and position he had scorned those who did not share his own sophistication.
And then troubled and weary of the old ways within himself, there had come to him a vision, a sort of spiritual experience that changed his whole pattern of living and gave him the courage and the peace that he later described as “passing all understanding.” That others might know the new way, he traveled far and wide, speaking to such little groups as would hear him . . . telling them simply of the change within himself.
‘And many said to him: “This will not work, this loving one’s neighbors and making amends for past misdeeds and finding answers to the hard business of daily living in such vague ways as meditation and prayer.” And they turned him out of their meeting places and he despaired that anyone should believe him and follow where he led.
But he had a message, and he kept on with it. And in the second month of the year 53 AD. This man Paul wrote to those he had sponsored in a place called Philippi.
This was his message-just 1900 years ago this 1953: “Brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if them be any praise, think on these things”
S.H., Montclair, N.J.