JOURNAL OF STUDIES ON ALCOHOL, VOL. 39 (9), 1591-1606, 1978.*
THE INSTITUTIONAL PHASE OF THE WASHINGTONIAN
TOTAL ABSTINENCE MOVEMENT
A Research Note
Leonard U. Blumberg
SUMMARY. Many of the practices and beliefs of the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Movement were adopted by reformatory homes for “drunkards” that were established in Boston, Chicago and Philadelphia in the mid-1800s.
IN A BALTIMORE TAVERN on 5 April 1840 the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Movement began as a working-class anti-alcoholism and temperance movement. As a distinct social movement the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Movement had a relatively short life; it had largely lost its dynamic qualities in most parts of the country by late 1844 or early 1845. Within those few years it had a growth curve that may be characterized by the following stages:
1. The movement had a “gestation” period in Baltimore of about 6 to 9 months. Such an inconspicuous beginning and an initial slow development are typical of social movements. The early development was along friendship networks; the six founders of the group agreed that at the next meeting after they established themselves as a society they would each bring two friends who were also drunkards or heavy drinkers.
2. This was followed by a growth spurt and the group held a public meeting in November 1840. To date no newspaper announcement or broadsheet has been located, so that while we know that the Washington Total Abstinence in Baltimore “went public” we do not know the exact mechanism which linked the society with its projected public. But clearly a second component had been added to the way that the group reached out to find those relevant to its concern; this probably included the press (both newspapers and broadsides) as well as the existing temperance organizations in Baltimore.
3. There followed a period of relatively rapid expansion to the major population centers of the United States during 1841 and 1842. This expansion from Baltimore was initiated by the existing temperance societies which wrote to the Baltimore Society and asked for speakers. The Baltimore group facilitated the process by sending “missionaries” to New York, Boston (by way of Worcester), Philadelphia and elsewhere. One of the most prominent of these early missionaries was John Hawkins, a hatter who had become a drunkard and then had been persuaded to stop drinking by the Baltimore Washingtonians; he proved to be a persuasive speaker and his story of his “experiences” was melodramatic (1). Hawking was a star on the temperance-prohibitionist lecture circuit for many years, having been ordained as a Methodist minister with the understanding that he would specialize in temperance work. There were others such as John Gogh, who were caught up in the movement, became powerful speakers and also achieved middle-class status as a consequence.
4. A high point was achieved during the spring and summer of 1842. The expansion into the major cities was quickly followed by a tendency toward regionalization. That is, Washingtonian missionaries were invited to small towns and villages of a region; they went because they were filled with the zeal that was created by their own conversion and by the Washingtonian caring philosophy. Local temperance groups provided both publicity and places to meet. It was during this dynamic period that locally and regionally prominent persons, such as Abraham Lincoln, were called upon (and found it expedient) to give speeches at the Washington Is Birthday and Independence Day parade-picnic-demonstrations that were sponsored by the local Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society. The theme of these speeches was the denunciation of “King Alcohol” and an analogy between the declaration of independence from the British crown and a declaration of independence from King Alcohol. Often there was a rallying cry for the mobilization of the army of the righteous against King Alcohol, for alcohol was not only anthropomorphized, but a devil figure as well. The excitement about the Washingtonian Movement was sufficiently great within some localities that the local temperance societies (which were probably never very large in numbers in that period despite their vociferousness) were no longer able to function. In Boston, for instance, the local temperance society was unable to conduct its affairs during this period and discontinued its monthly meetings, the members having voted to join and become active in the Boston Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society. (While aimed primarily at drunkards and heavy drinkers, the Washingtonian societies were open to all persons who signed the pledge.) Thus, the local temperance organizations not only provided the previously existing network of relationships for the rapid expansion of the Washingtonian Movement, a phenomenon suggested by others, but, to use political language, the previously existing temperance societies “co-opted” the Washingtonians and colonized the Washingtonian societies also.
5. There followed a curve of decline into obscurity; most local groups apparently became moribund in the succeeding years, but there is reason to believe that Washingtonian societies continued in Boston (at least into the 1860s), Worcester and possibly in Illinois into the 1870s.
Although a social movement my be highly controversial and may even be objectively a “failure” because it did not completely convert the populace to its program, nonetheless more conservative elements of the population may adopt programmatic elements or “fragments” of a movement. Once these programmatic elements become institutionalized as autonomous entities outside the movement organizations, they have their own course of development which eventuates in programs which are quite different from the methods or concerns of the movement. Thus, Hawkins and Gough, who started as Washingtonian moral suasionists, became prohibitionist speakers, although they continued to be strongly sympathetic to drunkards. The Sons of Temperance, a fraternal order, continued the warm fellowship of the Washingtonians, and Christian temperance revivalists continued “telling experiences”; but they had Protestant church support and thereby undercut the anti-clericalism of some of the Washingtonians (and other temperance-prohibitionist) speakers. In the 1870s the Reynolds and the Murphy ribbon campaigns, while different in important aspects from the Washingtonian Movement, emphasized a missionary approach, telling experiences, the pledge and total abstinence. Reynolds was a physician and Murphy was a former saloon-keeper; both were former drunkards who had had conversion experiences.
The best recent treatment of the Washingtonian Movement is Maxwell’s 1950 article (2). His summary of the movement I s practices and ideology includes the following points: (1) alcoholics helped each other; (2) the needs and interests of alcoholics were kept central; (3) there were weekly meetings of members of the various societies; (4) the fellowship of the group and its members was always available to fellow alcoholics, whether members of the local Washingtonian society or not; (5) there was a sharing of “experiences,” that is, alcoholics told each other of their past lives, how they had bested King Alcohol, and the good things that had come of it (in a way that Americans have come to label a “Horatio Alger” success story); (6) there was a reliance on the power of God; and (7) total abstinence from alcohol was advocated as the only way to meet the problem. To these should be added the following: (8) advocacy of moral persuasion rather than prohibition legislation or condemnation of liquor dealers as the means to fight King Alcohol; (9) heavy emphasis on a total abstinence pledge; (10) a style of spreading the “good news’ through traveling delegations that followed the biblical model of the Apostles’ going two-by-two to spread the gospel and convert the sinners; (11) organizational decentralization – the basic unit was the local society, although within several years, at least in the Boston area, some country organizations and a state convention also evolved; and (12) a distinct working-class appeal, although persons of the middle classes also joined and often were prominent at the country and state conventions. Since the movement had a short life, these higher organizational levels were not widespread.
*Posted with permission from Alcohol Research Documentation, Inc., publisher of the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol (now the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs [www.jsad.com]).