Keeley Leagues

The Washingtonian Society

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.

Experiencing Sharing

“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)

Closed Meetings

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.

John Hawkins

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

“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.

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318About the Author, Bob K

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.

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  1. John S January 9, 2016 at 7:28 am - Reply

    Thank you Bob. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I never knew a lot about the Washingtonians and I always figured they were part of the temperance movement, but I never realized the support hey provided each other and I never knew about the Martha Washington society. They actually did a lot more to help alcoholics than I ever realized.

    This history is good to know. It’s interesting on a personal level because I have always loved history, and in my early days in AA I devoured all of the conference approved books on AA history, but I am reading this history now with fresh eyes and a new perspective and that makes quite a difference to my understanding.

    I am grateful to you for being so generous with your time and talent to share this with us.

  2. Nancy P January 9, 2016 at 6:38 am - Reply

    I am a relative newcomer (6 months) who is one of those who was “offput” by the religiosity of the steps and in the literature I was given to read, the praying at meetings (all the while insisting the program was not religious); the sexism of “To the Wives”;  the condescension, insult and abysmal lack of intellectual sophistication in “We Agnostics”; and the insistence that I would get drunk again if I did not work the program precisely as others told me I should, even though the literature as I read it, and other of Bill W writings said that the steps and the program itself were only “suggested” (!?)

    Fortunately, I’m pretty independent and have some life under my belt – 63 and just out of my first rehab – and I was able to keep the baby and dispose of the bath water, even in my weakened and vulnerable condition.  The brother- and sister-hood I found in the rooms literally saved my life, and continues to do so, but I have also branched out to other more secular sobriety groups where I can feel more completely accepted and am able to make my shares more open and honest – which is the point after all, isn’t it.

    I could not agree more about the “time” in, which seems a direct contradiction to the core concept of “one day at a time”.  To me, it seems more of a self-aggrandizement when successful, and a source of humiliation when forced to “start over”.  After all, if we come back after a relapse or slip as some call it, are we really starting all over?  Are we the same person we were when we first tried?  Can we ever work the same 1st Step twice, wouldn’t our 4th Step be totally different after our last debacle? “No man ever steps in the same river twice since it is not the same river and he is not the same man” Hericlitus

    I start my program over each day, and whether that would be day 6 or day 1,006 seems irrelevant to me. Whether I was successful on day 5 or day 10,005 or not, I must face today with the same determination to stay sober – today – right?

    Being with others that can empathize with me and my continuing journey is what keeps me sober and relatively sane.  As long as that works, I’ll keep coming back.

  3. John L. January 8, 2016 at 12:15 pm - Reply

    A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous has a chapter, “Washingtonian Forebears of Alcoholics Anonymous”.  In many ways the Washingtonians anticipated the best aspects of A.A.  I think they disappeared as a movement for two main reasons: 1) their membership was open to everyone, not (as in A.A.) only to alcoholics, and 2) they ceased to have a single purpose, going beyond their original mandate to embrace causes other than recovery from alcoholism.  Excerpts from the Washingtonian Pocket Companion are in my personal website:

  4. life-j January 6, 2016 at 10:56 am - Reply

    Bob, thanks. I have always thought the washingtonians interesting for their meteoric rise and fall. A couple of things which seem problematic in the movement:

    Public pledge of abstinence – We just do it a day at a time, and to ourselves, a much less vulnerable position to take it seems, although our practice of clapping when a newcomer comes in, and all the more of giving out chips are a step in that direction. I have known many people in AA who stayed out formonths or years after a relapse, when they could just as well have come back in the day after, but didn’t, because there is all this pressure about losing sobriety and losing their “time”. I’m really beginning to think we need to abolish the focus on time. It’s great for those of us who have it, and probably the fear of losing time keeps some in, but it is a great detriment for those that do go out.

    The other thing is that AA has a program, doesn’t really seem that the washingtonians did. We have the 12 steps. Much as I’m beginning to be disenchanted with the steps, and most of AA for that matter, I think that having a program, almost regardless of the particulars of it, is very important.

    Newly sober people need something to do that will help them focus on sobriety, some form of practice – probably also why -to theextent it was a part of it – religosity  helped some of the washingtonians, gave them a practice and a ritual. I even used to like the reading of how it works early on, sort of helped me settle down the chaos inside to sit there in the beginning of the meeting and let it gently pass in one ear and out the other.

    And I guess also it was problematic to have people that were not actual drunks come in and sign the pledge – whether they were prohibitionist types whojust wanted to throw in their own particular brand of support for abstinence, or the used car salesmen politician types looking for a voter base. By, for and of alcoholics seems to be the best formula.

    • Bob K January 6, 2016 at 11:33 am Reply

      You and I don’t always agree, but I think your comments on this are extremely insightful. As a newly sober person, I had to feel like I was doing SOMETHING. I do think the particulars are FAR less important than the fundies would have us believe. The Washingtonians were doing SOMETHING.

      Initially, going to meetings was HUGE, partially for the purely distracting effect. My solitary efforts had worked each time until the day they didn’t. I surely don’t think AA is the only way, but solitary quitting as an act of the will has a low probability of success.

      The positive lesson of the Washingtonians (and there were numerous other societies that were similar) is in the power of community, and identification – the efficacy of one alcoholic talking with another. Alas, that got all screwed up by admitting one and all – prohibitionist, politician, and reform preacher.

      Although the movement collapsed due to organizational errors, it clearly WORKED in keeping a bunch of folks sober. Many things can help a person stay sober including my own inglorious forays into a bastardized version of AA’s 12 steps. Different resources likely lead to similar results. In spite of my “don’t likes” about AA, it was ubiquitously available, and it was free.

      My whole AA interest is revived in the movement to offer secular meetings. The growth in the Toronto area is remarkable.

      I too have some mixed feelings on our recognition of time. Not wanting to lose my 66, 29, or 5 days, kept me sober countless times. Overall, I’d vote to keep the chips.

      All the best.

  5. jen January 6, 2016 at 9:31 am - Reply

    Interesting photo: all white males!

    • life-j January 6, 2016 at 11:06 am Reply

      And looks like they could all afford a decent looking suit, too.  Must have been the “better” men posing for the photo.

    • Roger C. January 6, 2016 at 9:55 am Reply

      We, um, borrowed that photo from the cover of the book, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, written by our good and dear friend, Bill White. Apparently – back in the day – the only slayers of dragons were men…

      • Bob K January 6, 2016 at 12:26 pm Reply

        Whatever our complaints regarding stigmatization in 2016, being an alcoholic woman in the 19th century was a disgrace beyond description. The Washingtonians were among the first to offer help to women inebriates, but they would not likely have been keen to have their photographs taken.

  6. Thomas Brinson January 6, 2016 at 7:06 am - Reply

    Thanks Bob and John for another excellent article !~!~!

    It strikes me that just as the Washingtonian Society had a rapid demise, partially due perhaps to prominent speakers proselytizing a Christian message of reformation of the drunkard, so too is AA experiencing a slower demise since the 1990s due to the proselytizing of “Back to Basics” and “Simply AA” movements, which stress our roots in the evangelical Christian Oxford Group in Akron. Some evidence suggests that millennials are seeking other paths of recovery due to AA being too religious for their non-regilious orientation. Like beasts in the wild, we either change, in other words evolve, or we die off.

    I’m grateful for the evolution of our secular AA recovery movement within AA, which perhaps can influence AA to update it’s archaic literature to be more accommodating to those of us who have different beliefs from the orthodox Christian orientation we derived from the Oxford Group or who have no beliefs at all.

    Thank you, Bob, for your yeoman efforts to present a more enlightened view of AA’s history.

    • Thomas B January 6, 2016 at 5:59 pm Reply

      Makes sense Bob, but even in the “enlightened” 20th Century during the early days of AA, Lois had to berate Bill when initially he didn’t want Marty Mann to attend meetings in the basement of their brownstone on Clinton Street and Dr. Bob was dead set against women in attending early Akron-based AA meetings. Plus, notoriously, Bill and/or Hank Pankhurst wrote the “To the Wives” chapter. Slowly both AA co-founders changed, thank Kosmos . . . 😉

  7. JHG January 6, 2016 at 6:41 am - Reply

    Most AA members are blissfully ignorant of (and sometimes even hostile toward) the Twelve Traditions and have a distorted understanding of the history that shaped them. The result is the frequent adoption of a mythic narrative which represents a profound misunderstanding of AA’s success, such as it is, and of how to build on that success and improve AA’s ability to reach “the still suffering alcoholic”. By equating “the program” with the god-drenched Twelve Steps, what gets lost is the whole idea that personal recovery depends on unity and that unity depends on finding common ground in a solution rather than defining the AA community in terms of any religious ideas, cultural identities, or political ideology. The Traditions certainly aren’t perfect, but they do seem to be explicitly designed to make it harder to exclude anyone who wants to quit drinking.

    • Roger C. January 6, 2016 at 9:57 am Reply

      “God-drenched” Twelve Steps. I like that, JHG!

      • Bob K January 6, 2016 at 12:27 pm Reply

        Me too!!!

        You guys need a towel?

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