Vice Squad
Saturday, February 07, 2004
 
The Washingtonians


I recently finished reading Drunkard's Progress: Narratives of
Addiction, Despair, and Recovery
, edited by John W. Crowley,
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. The volume collects
excerpts from "temperance narratives" of the 1840s: some of these
are drawn from books that were quite big sellers in their day.

U.S. drinking habits underwent a sea-change between 1830 and 1840.
Around 1830, the per capita consumption of alcohol in the US peaked
at approximately 7.1 gallons per adult (it's never been nearly
that high since); ten years later, drinking had fallen to well less
than half of that figure, to 3.1 gallons per adult. In part, the fall
was due to the success of myriad temperance societies that had formed
to combat, well, intemperance, but more mechanized workplaces (and
overall productivity gains) also made drinking more hazardous and
costly. Despite or because of the decline in drinking, temperance societies
were themselves in serious decline by the late 1830s.

In 1840, however, in my hometown of Baltimore, a new type of
temperance society was founded. Naming themselves after alcohol
drinker and manufacturer George Washington (they considered but
rejected the option of honoring a famous oenophile by adopting the
sobriquet of Jeffersonians), the initiates were themselves inebriates,
or at least tending in that direction. Rather than temperance, they
signed a pledge of abstinence, and they vowed mutual support to
help themselves and other drinkers throw off the habit. (Some of the
earlier temperance societies preached abstinence, too, though
others even served wine at their meetings.) The early Washingtonians
generally were hostile to moral reformers or religious
exhortations, and to upper class efforts to reform the hoi polloi.

According to Crowley's introduction to Drunkard's Progress, "The
heart's blood of Washingtonianism was the confessional narrative.
Instead of cerebral clergymen talking down to the inebriated
unwashed, drunkards gave hope and inspiration to each other through
the unadorned telling of their own life stories [p. 7]."

Washingtonianism spread like the proverbial wildfire throughout the
land. Closed meetings grew into large public affairs, and within a
couple of years, a pledge first signed by six Baltimore friends was
joined by 600,000 followers. (The seriousness with which drinkers
signed the pledge -- sometimes steeling themselves with drink for
the purpose -- is a constant throughout the narratives in Drunkard's
Progress
.) Parallel Martha Washington Societies were formed
to help women drinkers and the families of male drinkers. Meeting
attendance and pledge signing were engaged in by many people
who were not inebriates -- indeed, in all likelihood, the vast majority
of participants were not drunkards. Nevertheless, Washingtonianism
was a very positive development, if not a lifesaver, for many
thousands of drinkers and their families.

But the Washingtonian wildfire soon burned itself out, with almost
no active chapters remaining after 1847. It isn't clear why, though
the interested reader should see Chapter 2 ("The Washingtonian
Revival") in the masterful Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction
Treatment and Recovery in America
, by William L. White
(Bloomington, Illinois: Chestnut Health Systems, 1998), which I have
drawn upon here. Some 95 years after the first Washingtonian meeting,
however, a new group formed to help intemperates -- Alcoholics
Anonymous -- unknowingly adopted many of the strategies first
developed by their all-but-forgotten Washingtonian forebearers.

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