How many persons became members of the Washingtonian societies? There is no satisfactory answer to this question. The statistics that are available are varied, contradictory and, hence, unreliable; furthermore, they are given on two different bases – the number who signed the total abstinence pledge, and the number of drunkards reclaimed. Neither of these coincides with the membership of Washingtonian societies.
Several sources (12, 14) repeat the American Temperance Union estimate (7) that by 1843, 5,000,000 had signed the total abstinence pledge and were associated with over 10,000 local societies. Since only 350,000 such signers had been claimed in 1839 (15), this would mean a gain of over 4,500,000 as a result of the Washingtonian “pledge-signing revival.” This would represent nearly one-fourth of the total U.S. population aged 15 years and over. When it is considered, as E.M. Jellinek has estimated, that for the population aged 15 years and older the per capita consumption of distilled spirits decreased by only 14.3 per cent (form 4.9 gallons) between 1840 and 1850, some doubt is thrown upon the validity of this estimate. Marsh himself, in 1848, revised his estimate of total abstainers downward to 4,000,000 (7). Even this number points to the probability that a large percentage of the pledge signers were under the age of 15.
Furthermore, since the signers belonged to all kinds of temperance societies, it is impossible to estimate what percentage, or how many, were enrolled in Washingtonian societies.
In attempting to estimate the number of alcoholics reclaimed by the Washingtonian movement, more difficulties are encountered. The major one is the fact that all the societies had mixed memberships – former teetotalers (often children), moderate drinkers, excessive drinkers, and confirmed alcoholics. Nevertheless, estimates have been made and the claims vary from 100,000 (12) to 600,000. The latter figure, often repeated, seems to be based on the 1843 Report (7) of the American Temperance Union, in which it stated that: “A half-million hard drinkers often drunken and a hundred thousand sots…may safely be considered as having been brought to sign the total abstinence pledge within the last two years.” Wooley and Johnson (12) state: “It is commonly computed that at least one hundred thousand common drunkards were reclaimed in the crusade and at least three times as many common tipplers became total abstainers.” This seems to be based on Eddy (14), who in turn seems to be quoting an American Temperance Union estimate that, by the summer of 1842, “the reformation had included at least 100,000 common drunkards, and three times that number of tipplers who were in a fair way to become sots.”
One chief difficulty resides in the employment of an undefined terminology, including “hard drinkers often drunken;” “confirmed drinkers;” “drunkard;” “common drunkard;” “conformed drunkard;” “inebriate;” “sot;” “tippler;” “common tippler;” and “tipplers in a fair way to become sots.” What do these terms mean and how were they distinguished from each other?
Ignoring the loose use of these terms, for the moment, and turning to the percentage of reclaimed inebriates in Washingtonian societies, a great variety of claims is to be noted. Eight months after its beginning the Baltimore society claimed that two-thirds of their 300 members were reclaimed drunkards (9). At the close of 1841 it was claimed that 100,000 pledges had been taken as a result of Washingtonian activity, “more than one-third by confirmed drinkers”(16). But in the statistics offered by the same source, and for the same period of time, by the vigorous Cincinnati Washington society, only 900 (11.3 per cent) of the 8,000 members were said to have been reformed drunkards. A Battleboro, Vt., report stated: “We have 150 members already in our Washington Society, six or seven hard cases.” This comes to four or five per cent. Of the 42,273 pledged members in 82 Vermont towns cited in the 1844 Report, only 518 (1.2 per cent) were reformed drunkards probably varied greatly from community to community – and probably varied at different times even in the same society.
Since the American Temperance Union records are the chief source of information for later historians, some weight may be given to John Marsh’s later estimate (13) that 150,000 drunkards were permanently rescued as a result of Washingtonian activity. But when his 1843 estimate of “A half million hard drinkers often drunken, and a hundred thousand sots” is recalled, it is impossible not to be suspicious of his estimates – and particularly of his use of terms. The number may well have been less than 150,000, and it may well have included everything from “confirmed drinkers,” to “hard drinkers often drunken” to “common drunkards” to “sots.” What are the numbers of true alcoholics was, is anyone’s guess.
But if there is uncertainty concerning the number of alcoholics temporarily helped or permanently rehabilitated – or the number of persons who became total abstainers – there is no question that the movement made a tremendous impact.
Its results, furthermore, were not short-lived. Within the temperance there was not only a decided gain of strength but also the opening of “the way for more advanced thought and effort… (14).” As for the problem of alcoholism, some permanent though limited gain resulted. Dr. T.D. Crothers, a leading psychiatrist of his time, wrote in 1911:
The Washingtonian movement…was a great clearing house movement, breaking up old theories and giving new ideas of the nature and character of inebriety. It was literally a sudden and intense projection of the ideas of the moral side of inebriety, into public thought, and while it reacted when the reform wave died out, it served to mobilize and concentrate public attention upon the question, of how far the inebriate could control his malady, and what efforts were needed to enable him to live temperately. This first practical effort to settle these questions was the beginning of the organization of lodging houses for the members of the societies who had failed to carry out the pledges which they had made. This was really the beginning of the hospital system of cure, and was the first means used to give practical help to the inebriate, in a proper home, with protection, until he was able to go out, with a degree of health and hope of restoration (17).