By Richard Ewell Brown
Copyright © The A.A. Grapevine, Inc., January 1949
WHAT was the valuable secret that the Washingtonians had stumbled upon and why was the movement such a success?
To begin with, they were the first to discover the now widely admitted fact that no one is quite so well equipped to help the chronic alcoholic as the ex-drunk. Here is no superior person, short on sympathy and long on advice, but a fellow sufferer who has been through the mill and knows all the answers. “An inescapable symbol of the successful escape from pain” – to quote Professor Selden Bacon of Yale University.
SECONDLY the Washingtonians avoided all the time-honored pitfalls that beset the early Nineteenth Century reformer. Heretofore the drunkard had been generally regarded as an object of contempt, denunciation, or ridicule. The new society considered him a sick rather then a sinful man. Religious diatribes and denunciations had no place on the Washington program. According to an early member, self-righteous exhortations or scorn were “calculated to drive him (the drinker) to madness and despair by drinking deeper… (and) embitter his heart.” Modern science puts it a little differently. Professor Bacon says: “The effect of such exhortation is to reinforce the person’s feeling of inferiority and self-depreciation” and to increase his “hostility.” Criticism, as the Washingtonians realized, was one thing the chronic alcoholic couldn’t take.
To make sure that new members would not be frightened away, the Washington charter provided that only ex-drunks could address the meetings. Thus the “benefits of experience spoken in burning words from the heart” were made available for all to bear. If ordinary mortals wished to speak, they had to have permission “by common consent of the members.” Debates, lectures and speeches were definitely out, and matters of business were limited to “as few remarks as possible”. Ministers were not barred, but if they spoke “they were desired to lay aside their pontificals . . . abandon their sermons . . . and speak as men.” Not that the Washingtonian were anti-religious. Dr. Albert Day of that most successful institution for the regeneration of chronic alcoholic, the Washington Home in Boston, had this to say in 1877: “We cannot ignore the religious element in the treatment of inebriety. Let the excellent and heaven-born truth taught by Jesus of Nazareth underlie all our teachings. But let them be shorn of all their dogmatism and taught in all their beautiful simplicity. (The drinker’s) eyes should be opened to new truths,” Although this was said many years after the founding of Washingtonianism, it reflects the beliefs of the earlier members.
ALONG with religious affiliation, the founders of the Washington society wished to avoid any suspicion of political bias so common to other temperance groups. Politics and denominational religion were both taboo as topics of discussion. Every effort was made to prevent the society from encroaching on anyone’s prejudices, so that all people would feel free to join the organization. One purpose and one purpose only, was held in mind: to rescue men from the toils of drink. To that end, the founders tried to make Washingtonianism, in the words of Father Mathew, “a green spot in the desert life where all could meet in peace and harmony.” “Moral suasion” was their weapon, and sympathy their keynote. There was no censoring of erring members. If a man broke his pledge, he was forgiven “not seven times, but seventy times seven:’
Another favorable aspect of Washingtonianism was its simplicity. Responsibility was divided equally, rather than among a few officers. The society constituted a grand committee of the whole, and everyone was kept busy doing missionary work, bringing new members to the weekly meetings and helping old members who had slipped back into former habits. This doing for others had as much therapeutic value for the giver as for the receiver, and accounted to a large degree for the Washington success.
DESPITE the tremendous popular approval which crowned the so- called maiden efforts, however the Washington movement finally met its Waterloo in the conflicting aims of its members. The early Washingtonians bad no desire to stop the liquor traffic by legal means, improve public morals or punish wrongdoers. Why, then, was the organization unable to stick to its original platform?
The founders had made one grave error which not only proved a stumbling block for future work among alcoholics, but which eventually led to the disintegration of the society as such. Stipulating that only ex-victims of intemperance could speak at meetings was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t go far enough. If the rule had been that only exalcoholics could be eligible for membership, the society might well be in existence today.
As it was, the distinction between a temperance organization and a society for the regeneration of alcoholics was never understood. The Washingtonians didn’t realize that in their therapeutic program they had something that was far more important than all the temperance ballyhoo before or since their time. They had discovered an oyster; the pearl, if they’d only known it, was inside.
The nonalcoholic member soon grew tired of listening to an endless chain of ex-drunks expatiate on an experience that, in the final analysis, had no meaning for anyone but another alcoholic. It must have been hard, at times, for him to hide his boredom. Sympathy requires understanding.
To make matters worse, many of the “cures” proved to be of a somewhat less than permanent nature. For the non-alcoholic, there was only one answer: close down the bars and bistros. Many tried to dominate the meetings for sectarian or political purposes. Failing in these attempts, they left the organization to heckle from the outside. As early as September, 1842, a large group of Washingtonians formed a new society, The Sons of Temperance dedicated to the complete suppression of the liquor traffic, as well as to personal abstinence. Thus, torn by dissent from within, and opposed by rival organizations from without, it is not surprising that the Washington movement did not live up to its early promise.