Grapevine, Inc., February 1971
THURSDAY evening, April 2,1840, nearly 100 years before
the advent of Alcoholics Anonymous, six good drinking
buddies were gathered at Chase's Tavern on Liberty Street
in Baltimore, Md.
The more they drank, the more their discussion centered
on temperance, which was one of the most popular topics
of the day. This meeting and subsequent discussions led
to the formation and brief, spectacular life of the Washingtonian
movement, which grew in membership to over 400.000 "reformed
drunkards" and then destroyed itself overnight and
dropped out of sight.
story of the Washingtonian movement brings sharply into
focus the importance of the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics
Anonymous as guidelines of group behavior designed to
protect us again- st a similar fate. To take our Traditions
for granted or to ignore them should at least justify
a check mark on the debit side of our inventory charts.
the time of this meeting at Chase's Tavern, it was the
prevailing opinion that nothings could he done to help
the drunkard. (The terms "alcoholic" and "alcoholism"
were not yet in general use.) The few occasions when drunkards
did reform did not erase the general pessimism over the
possibility of rehabilitating drunks. Since alcohol was
assummed to be the cause of alcoholism, many temperance
movements of that day were aimed solely at keeping the
nonalcoholic from becoming alcoholic. The rallying cry
was: "Keep the temperate people temperate; the drunkards
will soon die and the land be free!"
April 5. 1840, our six good drinking buddies once again
gathered at this same tavern around another jug of spirits
and were liberally toasting the great advantages of temperance
and condem-ning the curse of drink. Although a number
of active temperance groups was already in existence,
none was acceptable to our friends Good drunks that they
were, they decided to form a group of their own. They
elected officers and drew up a pledge of total abstinence:
whose names are annexed. desirous of forming for our 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
spiritous or malt liquors, vine or cider."
chose the name Washington Temperance Society in honor
of George Washington, and a membership fee of twenty-five
cents was established, together with monthly dues of twelve
and a half cents. With fond embraces they parted, each
agreeing to bring one new member to the next meeting at
the tavern. And they stayed sober!
response to membership growth and at the frantic urging
of the tavern owner, the group eventually rented its own
hall and decided to meet weekly. At these meetings, a
unique format developed. Each speaker told his own story:
"what I used to be like - what happened - and what
I am like now." The idea was greeted with explosive
acceptance. It gave new impact to the entire temperance
movement. Total abstinence had created the miracle of
the man at the podium!
November 1840, the group held its first public meeting.
Newspaper editors were liberal with coverage, complete
with names of members. The audience was standing-room-only.
Both alcoholics and nonalcoholics - all who pledged themselves
to total abstinencewere welcomed into the group. Five
months later, Washingtonian membership claimed over 1,000
"reformed drunkards" and 5,000 members who were
not sure whether they were drunkards or not, but were
also pledged to total abstinence, plus thousands of temperance
advocates who welcomed the Washingtonians crusade.
Newspaper editors were
liberal with coverage, complete
with names of members
promoters that they were, members of the group organized
and marched in a parade. It flaunted bands and banners
and was witnessed by more than 40,000 spectators in Baltimore.
Following the parade, there was a great open-air park
meeting to spread the Washingtonian "Twelfth Step"
message: "Drunkard! Come up here! You can reform.
I met a gentlemen this morning who reformed four weeks
ago and was rejoicing in his reformation. We don't slight
the drunkard. We love him! We nurse him as a mother does
her infant learning to walk!"Tears flowed freely
around the secretary's table as hundreds moved to the
platform and signed the pledge of total abstinence. The
emotional atmosphere was saturated with contagious salvation.
Religious groups embraced the program.Samuel F. Holbrook,
the first president of the society, thundered of God's
part in reclaiming drunks: "The reeling drunkard
is met in the street or drawn out from some old filthy
shed, taken by the arm, spoken kindly to, invited to the
hall, and with reluctance dragged there or carried in
a carriage if not too filthy; and there he sees himself
surrounded by friends and not what he most feared . .
. police officers. Everyone takes him by the hand; he
begins to come to and when sober signs the pledge and
goes away a reformed man. And it does not end there. The
man takes the pledge and from his bottle companions obtains
a number of signers who likewise become sober men, Positively
these are the facts."Now, can any human agency alone
do this? All will answer 'No!'; for we have invariably
the testimony of vast numbers of reformed men who have
spoken in public and declared they have broken off a number
of times, but have as often relapsed again; and the reason
they give for doing this is that they wholly rely on the
strength of their resolution without looking any higher,
Now they feel the need of God's assistance, which having
been obtained, their reform is genuine. Praise God!"The
Washingtonian manifestation of miracles could not be contained
geographically. Members were sure it was within their
power to meet widespread, pressing needs. The reclaimed
drunks active in the movement proved by their example
that drunkards could be helped, and they had an overwhelming
drive to carry their message of hope to other drunks who
still suffered. This drive spilled over into a desire
to prevent such suffering by persuading those not addicted
to insure their sobriety through total abstinence. Influential
temperance leaders of the day needed salesmen to sell
this message of prevention, and the Washingtonians provided
a waiting list of available manpower.New York City beckoned.
In March of the following year, Washingtonians and spectators
gathered at the Methodist Episcopal church on Green Street.
During the very first speech, a young man in the gallery
staggered to his feet and cried out, "Is there no
hope for me? God in heaven! Is there no hope for me? Will
you help me?" He was helped to the platform and "pressed
his willingness and readiness to bind himself from that
hour to total abstinence. Others followed. Some were young
men; others were old and gray-headed. The Washingtonians
embraced them all. An organization of woman within the
group, known as Martha Washington Societies, fed and clothed
the poor and reclaimed the intemperate of their own sex.
Members were sure it
was within their power to
meet widespread, pressing needs
less than four years from the first meeting of our alcoholic
friends at Chase's Tavern, Washingtonian membership hit
its peak. At that point, it is commonly computed, the
movement included at least 100,000 "reformed common
drunkards," 300,000 "common tipplers" who
also became total abstainers, and untold thousands who
were simply enthusiastic temperance advocates.
And then came oblivion.
1848, all that remained of the organization's spectacular
power as a method of treatment was its Home for the Fallen
in Boston. That institution has undergone a number of
changes in name and policy, now functions as the Washingtonian
Hospital, and eng-ages in the treatment of alcoholism
by modern medical and social techniques. Otherwise. the
movement destroyed itself completely arid dropped out
of sight. With it went the hope it had held out for thousands
of drunks of that day.
this brief background, it is possible to make a limited
comparison between the Washingtonian movement and Alcoholics
Anonymous and to reflect on the possibility of AA's suffering
a similar fate. The similarities between the earlier movement
and AA might be listed as follows:
Alcoholics helping each other.
The sharing of experiences.
Constant availability of fellowship with the group or
Reliance upon a Higher Power.
Total abstention from alcohol.
it is obvious that this program of the Washingtonians
was incomplete and possessed only limited opportunity
for personality change, as compared with AA's Twelve Steps,
it did provide the tools for at least short-lived sobriety
for thousands of drunks. But it failed to provide any
standards at all that were comparable to AA's Twelve Traditions.
Because there were no such safeguards for the movement
as a whole, it died. Most of the Washingtonians' problems
lay in areas now covered in our Traditions:
The AA Preamble and Tradition Five advise us to protect
our singleness of purpose; Tradition One cautions us to
protect our unity. Without these guidelines, the Washingtonian
movement developed into a three-headed monster. First
was the program of reclaiming suffering alcoholics. Second
was the call to the general public for temperance through
moral suasion. Third was the call for temperance through
legal suasion. Influential men controlled the action of
each head, and it was not long until the heads were fighting
The carnival tactics for promotion and the lack of any
spiritual principle of anonymity created an atmosphere
for spectacular growth -but also led to battles among
personalities competing for prestige and power. One hundred
years later, AA adopted Traditions Eleven and Twelve,
which guide us to base our public-relations policy on
attraction rather than promotion; always to maintain personal
anonymity at the level of press, broadcasting, and films;
and to regard anonymity as our "spiritual foundation
. . . ever reminding us to place principles before personalities."
Nothing can divide and destroy groups more quickly than
theological and political controversy. Tradition Ten states
that AA "has no opinion on outside issues" and
that "the AA name ought never be drawn into public
controversy." Without this Tradition the Washingtonians
walked right into a Donnybrook. A few key church leaders
heard Washingtonian reformed drunks proclaiming among
other things, they were living Christ's program - not
just giving it lip service, like a lot of pastors they
knew. In retaliation, the Rev. Hiram Mattison, minister
of the Methodist Episcopal church of Watertown, N.Y.,
fired this theological blockbuster: "No Christian
is at liberty to select or adopt any general system, organization,
agencies, or means for moral reformation of mankind, except
those prescribed and recognized by Jesus Christ."
He added that his church had been chosen, together with
his gospel, as the system of truth and the only system
to reform mankind. It was war! Other churches reacted
in the same way and finally closed their doors to Washingtonians.
As if that were not enough, some of the Washingtonians'
oratorical circuit riders turned professional, having
no Eighth Tradition to guide them. So their one-drunk-to-another
message lost a great deal of its impact.
final destructive note came when influential leaders of
nonalcoholic groups decided that the need for ex-drunks
to reform other drunks was past, and that emphasis should
be placed instead on the importance of laws to promote
doing the research and writing this article for the Grapevine,
my thoughts have kept returning to this question: After
the movement destroyed itself, what happened to all the
thousands of alcoholics who had found sobriety through
becomes a personal question when I add: What would have
happened to me?
the early days of the AA program, especially prior to
the adoption of our Twelve Traditions, AA did suffer some
of the same symptoms that destroyed the Washingtonians.
The fact that we survived those hazards is one of AA's
it is still a 24-hour day.
D. P., Ogden, Utah
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., February 1971
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