of AA History
Grapevine, Inc., January 1991
Thursday evening, April 2, 1840, six drinking buddies
gathered, as was their daily customs at Chase's Tavern
in Baltimore. A well-known temperance speaker was lecturing
that night, and four of them thought it would be a good
joke to go and hear him. As they discussed the lecture
later that evening, one of them proposed (still not quite
seriously that they form a total abstinence society, and
on Sunday, April 5, while strolling and drinking, the
six men did make a decision "to drink no more of
the poisonous draft, forever."
of the six agreed to bring a man to the next meeting,
and they wrote and signed a pledge not to "drink
any spiritous or malt liquors, wine or cider." The
name Washington Temperance Society was chosen in honor
of George Washington.
Society continued to meet for a time in Chase's Tavern,
but when the owner's wife objected to the loss of good
customers, they switched to the home of one of the members,
and finally rented a hall. In November, they held a public
meeting which, with subsequent monthly meetings, proved
such a success that by their first anniversary, the Baltimore
Washingtonians counted "about 1,ooo re- formed drunkards
and 5,000 other members and friends in the parade to celebrate
Washingtonians were zealous in carrying their message
of hope beyond Baltimore. Several leaders turned out to
be powerful orators who traveled widely, speaking to large
crowds, and "by May 1842 the movement had penetrated
every major area of the country and was going particularly
strong in central New York and New England."
its peak, the Society's membership was estimated at anywhere
from one to six million, of whom perhaps 100,000 to 600,000
were sober drunks. (One difficulty is the terminology
- the Society claimed to have sobered up everything from
"confirmed drunkards" to "hard drinkers
often drunken" to "sots" to "tipplers
in a fair way to become sots," and the distinctions
were never too clear.) Others who joined up were friends
and families (even very young children), as well as liquor
dealers and tavern owners.
Lincoln (according to the February 1953 Grapevine) was
"the foremost member of the Springfield, Illinois,
Washingtonians. He had never taken whisky, but he had
seen his business partner ... overcome by it." And
the December 1948 Grapevine describes how "in Dedham,
Mass., a Mr. Thompson proved himself such an eloquent
speaker that the entire town joined.. .. The leading liquor
merchant gave up his business, signed the pledge, and
was made President of the village society" and poured
his entire stock of liquor on the ground.
of the Washingtonians was tied in many ways to the temperance
movement, which had been gaining strength since 1825,
but was beginning to lose momentum. At first, the Washingtonians
were notable for their differences. Unlike temperance
advocates, who considered the drunk a hopeless case (Justin
Edwards said in 1822, "Keep the temperate people
temperate; the drunkards will soon die, and the land will
be free"), the Washingtonians treated drunks with
love and won them over with "moral suasion."
An 1842 document gave directions for organizing a Washingtonian
Society, which included "Declaring that love and
kindness and moral suasion are your only principles and
of the early Washingtonians are in some ways remarkably
similar to descriptions of AA meetings. The Washingtonians
were the first to insist on the recounting of personal
experience in their meetings (apparently this practice
began as a pragmatic measure, when public meetings became
popular and the Society's leaders had to think up a way
to keep them interesting). In January 1949, Richard Ewell
Brown wrote in the Grapevine: "The Washingtonian
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 hear.
. . Debates, lectures and speeches were definitely out,
and matters of business were limited to 'as few remarks
as possible.' Politics and religion were both taboo as
topics of discussion."
went on to say: "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." Another aspect
was simplicity: "Responsibility was divided equally...
and everyone was kept busy doing missionary work, bringing
new members to the weekly meetings and helping old members
who had slipped back into their former habits."
by 1848, the Washingtonian movement had "destroyed
itself completely and dropped out of sight. With it went
the hope it had held out for thousands of drunks of that
day," and the only tangible evidence remaining was
its Home for the Fallen in Boston.
did it happen? The similarities between Alcoholics Anonymous
and the Washingtonians are too clear to be overlooked:
alcoholics helping each other, weekly meetings, sharing
of experiences, constant availability of fellowship with
the group or its members, reliance on a Higher Power,
and total abstinence from alcohol. Why is AA celebrating
55 years of growth, while its nineteenth century forerunner
fell apart within only a few years? Most historians are
agreed on the reasons: For one, the Washingtonians had
no sustained program of recovery comparable to AA's Twelve
Steps. But the real key to their self-destruction lie
in the lack of any guiding principles like those incorporated
in AA's Twelve Traditions. The Washingtonian movement
"met its Waterloo in the conflicting aims of its
with outside enterprises; public controversy: From the
beginning, the Washingtonians were closely allied with
the temperance movement, and outside of Baltimore, the
early "missionaries" were "invariably sponsored
by temperance organizations." Temperance leaders
looked upon the Washingtonians as a means of "sparking"
their cause, and in the end, this became the chief interest
of the Washingtonian leaders themselves. In many places,
Washingtonians spoke in churches, and some came into conflict
with the beliefs of religious entities. "Nothing
can divide groups more quickly ...than religious or political
controversy. Strong efforts were made in the Washingtonian
movement to minimize sectarian, theological and political
differences, but the movement did not avoid attracting
to itself the hostile emotions generated by these conflicts
... it was still caught in all the controversy to which
the temperance cause had become liable.',
of purpose; membership requirements: Formed for the purpose
of helping drunks, a Society whose membership encompassed
alcoholics, their families, and nonalcoholics of many
types could not provide that vital ingredient of AA's
success: identification. "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."
The movement's founding aim, helping drunks, "became
an increasingly secondary interest of those whose primary
interest was the furtherance of the temperance cause .
. . And as fewer and fewer men were reclaimed, the last
distinctive features of the Washingtonian movement dropped
out of sight."
In his discussion of AA and the Washingtonians, Milton
Maxwell comments: "A comparison with the Washingtonian
experience underscores the sheer survival value of the
principle of anonymity in Alcoholics Anonymous. At the
height of his popularity, John B. Gough [one of the most
prominent of the Washingtonian missionaries] either 'slipped'
or was tricked by his enemies into a drunken relapse.
At any rate, the opponents of the Washingtonian movement
seized upon this lapse with glee and made the most of
it to hurt Gough and the movement. This must have happened
frequently to less widely known ... Washingtonians. Public
confidence in the movement was impaired. Anonymity protects
the reputation of AA from public criticism
important, anonymity keeps the groups from exploiting
prominent names for the sake of group prestige; and it
keeps individual members from exploiting their AA connection
for personal prestige or fame. This encourages humility
and the placing of principles before personalities."
W. cited the experience of the Washingtonians in a number
of his writings and he considered them both a forerunner
of AA and an object lesson for the Fellowships future.
an article in the August 1945 Grapevine, he reflected
on the lessons of the movement and emphasized the importance
of being "strong enough and single-purposed enough
from within" to be rightly related to the world:
"We are sure that if the original Washingtonians
could return to this planet they would be glad to see
us learning from their mistakes... Had we lived in their
day we might have made the same errors. Perhaps we are
beginning to make same of them now."
A major source for this article is "The Washingtonian
Movement." by Milton A. Maxwell, Ph.D., Quarterly
Journal of Alcohol Studies, September 1950. Other sources
include Grapevine articles in the December 1948, January
1949, and February 1953 issues.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., January 1991
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