By Bob k
“Jack Alexander, Saturday Evening Post, was also one of the friends to whom Bill sent material. Of the Twelve Tradition essays, Alexander has this to say: ‘The only serious (in my view) defect is that you have treated the old Washingtonian Society too briefly; most people never heard of it.’” (Pass It On, p. 354)
In the twenty-first century, AA members generally have heard of the movement, but often in snippets that have been distorted in the various re-transmissions. With thanks mainly to William L. White, here is an account of the principal details of the early mutual-aid group.
The Drunkard’s Mind and Heart
How much more influence then has the man who stands before an audience to persuade them to abandon the use of strong drink, when he can himself tell them of its ruinous and blasting effects on his own life and character – trace the program of his own habits of intemperance – and warn others to avoid the rock on which he spit. A reformed man has the best access to a drunkard’s mind and heart, because he best knows, and can enter into a drunkard’s feelings. And such appeals from such sources, properly directed, can rarely fail of entire success.
John Zug (The Foundation, Progress and Principles of the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore, John D Troy, 1842)
The arrival of 1840 in America saw a temperance movement that was fragmented and in decline. The shift from moderation to total abstinence, emerging advocacy for the legal prohibition of alcohol, and conflict regarding its stand on the abolition of slavery, had hurt the organization’s membership.
It was also recognized that what needed was some means of reforming the drunkard.
The Chase Tavern
“On April 2, 1840, six members of a drinking club at the Chase Tavern in Baltimore, Maryland were prompted, by an argument with the proprietor, to send a delegation to investigate a temperance lecture being given that very night by the Reverend Matthew Hale Smith.” (Slaying The Dragon, The History of Addiction and Recovery in America, Second Edition, p. 13)
Further discussion led, the following day, to the formation of the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society. William Mitchell, John Hoss, David Anderson, George Steers, James McCurley, and Archibald Campbell all signed the pledge drafted by Mitchell:
We, whose names are annexed, desirous of forming a society for mutual benefit, and to guard against a pernicious practice which is injurious to our health, standing and families, do pledge ourselves as gentlemen, that we will not drink any spirituous or malt liquor, wine or cider.
Unlike other temperance groups which tended to be led by, and composed of, the social elite, the Washingtonians were from the artisan and working classes.
“The main bill of fare at a Washingtonian meeting was experience sharing – confessions of alcoholic debauchery followed by glorious accounts of personal reformation… As each newcomer came forward, he was asked to tell a little of his own story, then sign the abstinence pledge amid the cheers of onlookers. This ritual of public confession and public signing of the pledge carried great emotional power for those participating. It evoked, at least temporarily, what would be described one hundred years later as ego deflation and surrender.” (Dragon, p. 14)
The converts immediately sought others.
“Let every man be present, and every man bring a man.”
The proselytizing effort was highly organized, with “ward committees” taking charge of given areas. The sequence of drinker recruiting drinker led to rapid growth.
“From the beginnings as a working class movement, the Washingtonians recruited a growing number of the affluent and famous… (including) two men who became mayors, one who became governor of his state, and several members of Congress.” (Dragon, p. 14)
Until November of 1840, Washingtonian meetings were not open to outsiders, and as such, constituted “the first widespread ‘closed meetings’ of alcoholics banded together for mutual support and recovery”. (Dragon, p. 15) All of this took place a full century before Alcoholics Anonymous.
Public meetings led to a change in primary purpose. Initially a society for reformed drunks, “the only requirement for membership became the pledge of personal abstinence… The speed with which the membership changed was quite remarkable… by June of 1841, the Washingtonian Society in Worcester had 500 members, only 50 of which had been hard cases.” (Dragon, p. 15)
Abe Lincoln and Good Press
One sympathetic guest speaker was Abraham Lincoln, who on February 22, 1842, addressed the Springfield, Illinois branch with these words: “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”.
The group’s results were so remarkable, and often with those considered beyond redemption, that they were sometimes referred to as the “Resurrection Society”. “The Press of the day gave the society uncounted columns of publicity.” (AA Grapevine, July 1945, History Offers Good Lesson For AA) “The drunkard has taken the cause in his own hands – analyzed his disease and wrought his own cure.” (Baltimore Sun)
“Never in history had an alcohol abstinence movement taken off so explosively… At the height of the movement, more than 600,000 pledges were signed, thousands marched in Washingtonian temperance parades, and a weekly newspaper was launched.” (Dragon, p. 15)
Martha Anon and Marthateen
Special meetings were organized for women and children. The first Martha Washington Society was… May 12, 1844, in New York. The goals… were to provide moral and material support to reforming inebriates, and to provide special support to female inebriates and to the wives and children of inebriates… Although other temperance societies were quite conscious of the social class and reputation of those they recruited, the Martha Washington Societies extended support to some of ‘the most disreputable members of their communities.’
One of their parade banners, “Total abstinence or no husband” indicates that they may have scored a “first” in the use of “detachment”, loving, or otherwise. Other temperance movement “firsts” were in helping inebriate women, and in having females in leadership roles.
As these successes were reported, requests for speakers flooded in from all over the country. Various pairs went on extended tours propelled by a single purpose: to spread the Washingtonian message of hope to the alcoholic.
John Henry Hawkins, having lost two wives and a career as a hatter, was approached by his daughter who begged him to not send her for more whiskey again. He joined the original Baltimore group two months after its founding. “His organizational skills and charismatic speeches contributed to the spread of the movement… Hawkins made a profession of lecturing on the temperance circuit and held a paid position with the Massachusetts Temperance Society.” (Dragon, p. 17)
Hawkins was convinced of the role of religion in long term recovery, and became a Methodist minister. He is said to have travelled in excess of 200,000 miles, and delivered more than 5,000 speeches in the eighteen years between his reformation and death.
“John Gough was popular during his drinking years. His imitations, stories, and songs brightened many a tavern and street corner. Through the years of his drinking, he descended from a light-hearted man of the town to a drunken buffoon.” (Dragon, p. 17)
Touched by what he heard at a temperance meeting in October, 1842, he signed a pledge and almost immediately began a career as a speech maker. The former bookbinder had a flair for it.
“His emotional and highly dramatic presentations were in high demand. He was paid $2 for his first lecture, $10 per lecture in a 1844 tour of New York, and as much as $170 per lecture in the years following the Civil War. ($2,800 in 2014 money) Thirty years after signing the pledge, John Gough has amassed a small fortune from his skills on the lecture stage.” (Dragon, p. 17)
Gough was not without relapses, the first possibly triggered by tincture of opium prescribed by his physician. He confessed to that particular fall, and gained a new understanding of the insidious nature of addiction. However, after being found in a “house of ill-repute” following a later relapse, his claim of being drugged and abducted by the enemies of temperance was less credible.
Other Washingtonians disagreed with his advocacy of the legal prohibition of alcohol, and some colleagues accused him of exploiting temperance for his own financial gain. Some of this sprung from obvious jealousies over his legendary oratorical skills.
“On February 15, 1886, John Gough collapsed and died while giving a speech. He was 69 years old. In his lifetime, he had travelled more than 450,000 miles and delivered more than 8,600 temperance addresses.” (Dragon, p. 18)
Carrying the Message
Hawkins and Gough, and others like them, carried the Washingtonian message across the nation. They shared openly and intensely the story of their lives, before, and after they quit drinking. In doing so, they inspired many to reach for a pledge card and to tell their own tales. Rehabilitated inebriates sought out others of their ilk who might be open to being inspired to a new way of living.
Gough also pushed religion, and was especially high on the importance of a posture of humility.
“Key leaders of the Washingtonian Movement such as John Hawkins and John Gough continued their travels long after the movement’s demise… Hawkins and Gough were among the first recovered alcoholics working in paid roles to carry a message of hope to other alcoholics.” (Dragon, p. 19)
Demise and Lessons for AA
As quickly as it had come about, so did it dematerialize. “By 1845, the Washingtonian movement’s energy was spent. Almost none of the Washingtonian Societies were active beyond 1847, with the exception of those in Boston.” (Dragon, p. 19)
Even to this day, some mystery surrounds the downfall. The multiplicity of possible contributory causes are excellently reviewed in Mr. White’s “Slaying the Dragon – The History of Addiction Treatment in America.”
Although they lacked an unambiguously articulated ideology, their cor activities are clearly identifiable.
The Washingtonian program of recovery consisted of:
- public confession;
- public commitment;
- visits from older members;
- economic assistance;
- continued participation in experience sharing;
- acts of service toward other alcoholics;
- sober entertainment. (Dragon, p. 16)
The criticisms are varied, and in some instances, reflect the prejudices or agendas of the detractors. Those favoring legal prohibition of alcohol saw “moral suasion” as inherently inadequate as a strategy. Religious leaders attacked the lack of religion and the reliance on social camaraderie. Some even went so far as leveling charges of “humanism”.
Land O Goshen!!
A Michigan author of a Grapevine article published in July, 1945, brought knowledge of the Washingtonians, at that time, an arcane bit of recovery history, to the attention of Bill Wilson and other AA members. Regarding the ruination of the group, he wrote, “politicians looked hungrily at its swelling membership. Some of them climbed aboard the wagon and they helped to wreck local groups through their efforts to line up votes”. (Lesson For AA)
The essayist’s personal agenda was reflected in his own summary of the Washingtonians “real” problem – that “its organizers thought they could get along without a ‘Higher Power’”. (Lesson For AA)
As speakers attempted to “outdo” each other, there were charges of sensationalism, even fabrication. Meetings were criticized for vulgarity, and instances of relapse were particularly damaging.
As Bill Sees It
The article above prompted Bill W. to explore, then weigh in on, the Washingtonians, and the “Lessons” article, in the very next issue. “Those who read the July Grapevine were startled, then sobered, by the account which it carried of the Washingtonian movement.” (AA Grapevine, August, 1945, Modesty One Good Plank For Public Relations)
He found the reports of “triumphal parades in Boston” to be “overdone self-advertising”. The stories of members who were hungry politicians reflected dangerous “personal ambition”, and also injudicious was the “unnecessary group participation in controversial issues… (such as) the abolition of slavery”. (Modesty)
The Washingtonians were “too cocksure, maybe. Couldn’t learn from others and became competitive instead of cooperative”. (Modesty)
A crucial error was made in the society’s deviation form its initial prime directive. “The original strong and simple group purpose was thus dissipated in fruitless controversy and divergent aims.” On the issue of the general proscription of alcohol, members and spokespersons debated each other, the prohibitionists alienating manufacturers and distributors in the process.
Ultimately, it was a death blow that there was “no national public relations policy which all members were willing to follow”.
The Washingtonian Society contributed many firsts. It was the first widely available mass mutual-aid society organized by and for alcoholics in American history… Washingtonian legacies included:
- the importance of maintaining a focus on the welfare and reformation of the individual alcoholic;
- the potential power of a personal and public commitment to total abstinence from alcohol;
- the benefit of regular sober fellowship…
- the power of experience sharing…
- the use of recovered alcoholics as charismatic speakers and in service work to other alcoholics, and;
- the use of a spiritual religious foundation for sustained recovery (not part of the official program but incorporated by key Washingtonian leaders. (Dragon, p. 21)
The lessons to AA were in the greater part from an examination of the Washingtonians errors. AA’s Traditions were formed, in the main, from mistakes made, and lessons learned.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
History has value.
Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.