Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., February 1972
Arriving by horse and buggy on the wintry night of February 22, 1842, at the Second Presbyterian Church in Springfield, Ill., a tall, lanky lawyer proceeded to sow the seeds of basic ideas that eventually blossomed in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. His address on the drinking problem was given before the Washington Temperance Society, so named because George Washington had been “a mild-drinking man who knew when to stop.”* Not yet married, this attorney was practicing in the circuit courts and had already shown congressional interests. With great perception and depth of thought he made keen observations which may come as a surprise to us.
To begin with, he said, “In my judgment, such of us who have never fallen victims have been spared more by the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have. Indeed, I believe if we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and their hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class.” Immediately, he established the fact that degree of intelligence and willpower has nothing to do with our condition.
Speaking mostly to reformed drunkards (though the society also included nonalcoholics), he gave a condensed example of a typical AA talk: “When one who has long been known as a victim of intemperance bursts the fetters that have bound him, and 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 comfortable; of a wife long weighed down with woe, weeping, and a broken heart, now restored to health, happiness, and a renewed affection; and how easily it is all done, once it is resolved to be done – how simple his language! Human feelings cannot resist.”
Here, aside from a good description of recovery, we get: the admission in Step One-“once it is resolved to he done”; the sanity in Step Two – “in his right mind; and Doctor Bob’s admonition against complicating things-“how simple his language!”
Removing any misconception that the use of alcohol was something new, he said, “I have not inquired at what period of time the use of intoxicating liquors commenced; nor is it important to know. It is sufficient that, to all of us who now inhabit the world, the practice of drinking them is just as old as the world itself – that is, we have seen the one just as long as we have seen the other.”
Then be quickly expressed doubt that any plan of prohibition might be called for: “Whether or not the world be vastly benefited by a total and final banishment from it of all intoxicating drinks seems to me not now an open question.” The U.S. experiment of national prohibition began in 1920 and was acknowledged a failure by its repeal in 1933.
As a harbinger of the American Medical Association’s decision that alcoholism is a disease, the lawyer said, “The victims of it [should be] pitied and compassioned, just as are, the heirs of consumption and other hereditary diseases. Their failing [should be] treated as a misfortune, and not as a crime, or even as a disgrace … Is it just to assail, condemn, or despise them?” Even to this day, society jails us and shames us, and disrepute persists.
Again criticizing the attitude of condemnation, he assured his listeners that the alcoholic was not hopeless: “Another error, as it seems to me, into which the old reformers fell, was the position that all habitual drunkards were utterly incorrigible, and therefore must be turned adrift, and damned without remedy. . . . There is in this attitude something so repugnant to humanity, so uncharitable, so cold-blooded and feelingless, that it never did nor ever can enlist the enthusiasm of a popular cause.”
Our lawyer friend realized that no one was spared: “The sideboard of the parson and the ragged pocket of the houseless loafer both hold whiskey.” Further, he noted that the alcoholic was not necessarily a bum: “There seems ever to have been a proneness in the, brilliant and warm blooded to fall into the vice-the demon of intemperance ever seems to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and of generosity.”
On the addictive nature of alcohol, he reflected, “For a man suddenly, or in any other way, to break off from the use of [alcohol], who has indulged for a long course of years and until his appetite has grown ten or a hundredfold stronger, and more craving than any natural appetite can be, requires a most powerful moral effort:” He was describing a physical allergy coupled with a mental obsession. “In such an undertaking, he needs every moral support and influence that can possibly be brought to his aid and thrown around him” -the AA program, a Higher Power, fearless inventory, fellowship, and the example of other recovering alcoholics.
Whether by foresight or by intuition, and perhaps quite unwittingly, the speaker continued by hinting at a program of attraction: “It is an old and true maxim that ‘A drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.”
Even more important, be anticipated the mistrust a drunkard might feet if forced into change: “Assume to dictate to his judgment, or to command his action … and he will retreat within himself.” Aren’t the Twelve Steps suggestions, not commandments? And aren’t we advised to choose a Higher Power as we understand Him, no matter what our individual conception of that power may be?
But perhaps the most significant observation he made was to picture the reformed drunkard as the best of temperance crusaders: “Those who have suffered by intemperance personally, and have reformed, are the most powerful and efficient instruments to push the reformation to ultimate success.” Where would AA be today had not Bill, a sober alcoholic, gone to see Doctor Bob, a drinking alcoholic, thus marking the beginning of twelfth-stepping.?
Yet the speaker was aware that some of us may in addition require doctors, psychiatrists, and the church: “It does not follow that those of us who have not suffered have no part left them to perform.”
As people went out of the church at the conclusion of the address, an eavesdropper standing at the door reported that many of them were not pleased. One marked, “It’s a shame that he should be permitted to abuse us so in the house of the Lord.”
The Illinois State Register inquired whether the speaker and his fellow politicians had joined the Washington Society for any other than political reason!
Abraham Lincoln did not drink.