QUART. J. STUD. ALC., VOL. 11, 410-452, 1950.
THE WASHINGTONIAN MOVEMENT
By Milton A. Maxwell, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology, State College of Washington, Pullman, Washington
Certain similarities between the Washingtonian movement of the nineteenth century and the present day fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous have been commented upon by a number of observers. In view of this resemblance there is more than historical interest in an account of the first movement in the United States which brought about a large-scale rehabilitation of alcoholics. The phenomenal rise and spread of the Washingtonian movement throughout the land in the early 1840’s was the occasion of much discussion, exciting a deep interest. The cause of its equally rapid decline have been a subject of much speculation and are still of concern to the members of Alcoholics Anonymous who may wonder whether or not their movement is destined to a similar fate. This article, therefore, will present not merely a description and history of the movement but also an analysis of the similarities and differences between the Washingtonians and Alcoholics Anonymous.
Since the Washingtonian movement is so intimately linked to the larger temperance movement, it may be well to recall the developments which preceded 1840. Before the 1830’s, “temperance” was hardly a popular cause. Even in 1812, when Lyman Beecher proposed to his fellow Congregational ministers that they formulate a program for combating intemperance, “… the regular committee reported that ‘after faithful and prayerful inquiry’ it was convinced that nothing could be done to check the growth of intemperance…”(1). The custom of serving liquor at ecclesiastical meetings probably influenced the outcome of this “prayerful inquiry.” But Lyman Beecher was not to be stopped. He headed a new committee that recommended the following steps:
…. that district assemblies abstain from the use of ardent spirits (not wine) at ecclesiastical meetings, that members of churches abstain from unlawful vending or purchase (not from lawful vending and purchase) of liquor, that farmers, mechanics and manufacturers substitute monetary compensation for the ration of spirits, that voluntary associations aid the civil magistrates to enforce the laws, and that the pamphlet of Dr. Rush (2) be printed and circulated
(1).The fact that these proposals were regarded as radical by the custodians of the New England conscience is a sufficient clue to the state of public opinion in 1812.
It was not until 1825 that Lyman Beecher preached his famous Six Sermons (3), in which he defined intemperance not merely as drunkenness but as the “daily use of ardent spirits.” In 1826, in Boston, Beecher and Justin Edwards spearheaded the founding of the first national society, “The American Society for the Promotion of Temperance” (American Temperance Society) which sought, according to its constitution, “…to produce such a change of public sentiment, and such a renovation of the habits of individuals and the customs of the community, that in the end temperance, with all its attendant blessings, may universally prevail (4).”
The temperance movement began to take hold. In 1829 there were about 1,000 societies with a membership of approximately 100,000. By 1834 there were 5,000 local societies claiming 11000,000 members, a gain of 500 per cent in 5 years. A temperance press had been established. Effective literature had emerged. Politicians were taking notice. In 1836 the American Temperance Society was merged into the new and more inclusive “American Temperance Union,” which decided to take the stand of “total abstinence from all that can intoxicate (5).”
This step required an entirely new orientation. It is therefore not surprising that some 2,000 societies and countless individuals were not ready to go along. Many wealthy contributors, unwilling to forgo wine, withdrew their support. Some leaders were discouraged by the resistance to the new pledge and became inactive. Various controversial issues added to the dissension. The movement fell upon lean years. Its leaders, in 1840, were wondering what could be done to restore the momentum of the years preceding 1836. Their efforts were groping and limited.
As for the alcoholic, it was the prevailing opinion, up to 1840, that nothing could be done to help him. Occasionally a “drunkard” did “reform,” but this did not erase the general pessimism as to the possibility of rehabilitating drunkards. Since alcohol was held to be the “cause” of alcoholism, the temperance movement was aimed solely at keeping the nonalcoholic from becoming an alcoholic. This implied indifference to the alcoholic was epitomized by Justin Edwards in 1822: “Keep the temperate people temperate; the drunkards will soon die, and the land be free (6).”
Thus the stage was set for the emergence of the Washingtonian movement.