Kindred Spirits

Kate Strain is a history major at Grinnell College from Baltimore, Maryland.

On April 2, 1840 the owner of a tavern started a conversation with six members of a drinking club in which he criticized temperance lecturers, calling them hypocrites. From this conversation, part of the unlikely group of heavy drinkers attended a temperance lecture. Convinced that to achieve sobriety, they needed community support, the men encouraged other members of their drinking club to join them, dubbing their cause the Washingtonian Total Abstinence Society. While the telling of the story varies from an accusal of hypocrisy, to one member lost a bet, to the whole drinking club was curious and went to a temperance meeting, in any case, the inception of the Washingtonian Society was momentous.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the United States saw an increase in alcohol consumption due to a variety of factors. The jobs and economic opportunities that accompanied the American Industrial Revolution attracted immense urban growth, followed by a migration from rural towns to cities, and a wage-based economy. With their new disposable income, Americans demanded more distilled liquor than ever before. William White states,

In 1792, there were 2,579 distilleries in the U.S. and annual per-capital alcohol consumption was 2 ½ gallons. In 1810, there were 14,191 U.S. distilleries and annual…consumption had risen to more than 4 ½ gallons. By 1830, annual consumption had risen to 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person. [1]

The Panic of 1837 caused an economic recession until 1843. The unemployed found solstice, comfort, and community in taverns, and an economically efficient option in distilled liquor rather than the previously preferred beer. [2] These various economic factors led to an increase in public recreational drinking and inebriation outside of traditional celebrations.

The Drunkard's Progress nineteenth century poster that shows the perception of drunkards
The Drunkard’s Progress
Photo credit: wikimedia

Most accounts of alcohol abuse in society focus on the traditional Temperance Movement, in which 19th century religious and social elites exercised power over the poor. The elites wanted Americans to be clean, sober and moral, and did so by attempting to control alcohol consumption of the country. In their eyes, to be respectable one must have been sober and religious. John A. Krout stated, “Then, as all who are intemperate will so be dead, the earth will be eased of an amazing evil.” [3] Sobriety was the line between the good and the bad, the productive and the defective in America. [4] Initially focused on limit drinking, by 1825, the temperance movement shifted their message to abstinence, and focused only on infrequent or non-drinkers—ignoring what we today would call alcoholics. Those who really needed the support, faced with an addiction and social stigma, were left to fend for themselves.

In contrast to traditional temperance groups, the Washingtonian Society attended to those addicted to alcohol. The Washingtonian Society was unique in their approach to sobriety. The original Baltimore group set Washingtonian lecturers on speaking tours across the country, leading to mass popularity. At the height of its popularity, more than 600,000 members signed sobriety pledges, thousands marched in local parades, and published a weekly newspaper. [5] New York women created their own community to support female alcoholics and women affected by alcoholism by founding the complimentary Martha Washington Society on May 12, 1841. The core of the Washingtonian Society relied on grassroots community rather than elite institutional support which was a new approach to sobriety.

Washingtonian Community

The Washingtonian Society valued community support over all else, focusing on previously ignored communities. An article in the Baltimore Sun stated, that alcoholic had “taken his cause in his own hands-analyzed his disease and wrought his own cure.” [6] The Washingtonians developed a community made up of their own community, created a sober environment, and bonded over stories. Washingtonians converted their friends and others from local bars. Part of the pledge stated, “Let every man be present, and every man bring a man.” [7] Members reached out to more than just their friends, often times approaching a known drunk on the street and showing them kindness and hope. John Gough, a well-known Washingtonian lecturer, recounted his first interaction with another Washingtonian:

While drunkenly walking the streets, “Some one tapped me on the shoulder. An unusual thing that, to occur to me; for no one now cared to come in contact with the wretched, shabby-looking drunkard. I was a disgrace-‘a living, walking disgrace.’ I could scarcely believe my won senses when I turned and met a kind look; the thing was so usual and so entirely unexpected that I questioned the reality of it-but so it was. It was the first touch of kindness which I had known for months; and simple and trifling as the circumstance may appear to many, it went right to my heart, and like the wing of an angel troubled the waters in that stagnant pool of affection and made them once more reflect a little of the light of human love. [8]

The Washingtonians created a sober community by giving members more than just emotional support. To support the poor and get them back on their feet, the “group provided food, clothing, and shelter… [and] even served as employment clearinghouses.” [9] They fostered a safe environment leading to sobriety in a society where the majority of social life social life relied on drinking. “By forming a circle of friends with other nondrinkers, teetotalers could remove themselves from ridicule, abuse, and temptation to drink, and could reinforce one another’s resolve and sense of virtue.” [10]

At Washingtonian meetings, members could come together as a community and support each other rather than the traditional “debates, formal speeches, and abstract principles” of other temperance groups of the time. [11] In contrast, the Washingtonians created space with no stigma and low pressure “with minstrel acts, comic songs, and jokes bandied about in the language of the streets.” [12] Members felt comfortable sharing personal experiences, emotional stories of their drunken mishaps, and sober successes, serving as a model for new members. John Zug, stated that “The experience of others who had been like him, and the good influence set to work upon him, soon led him to feel, think and act alright.” [13]

Higher Institutions

So what happened to the Washingtonian Society? In 1847, just six years after it was founded, all but the Boston branch of the Washingtonian societies had closed. Historian William White argues that the relapse of famous Washingtonian speakers, such as John Gough, invalidated the movement. “Under the Washingtonian guidance, legions recovered – perhaps 600,000 by the late 1840s. Of these, about 150,000 ultimately remained abstinent. This meant, of course, that 450,000 relapsed at least to some degree.” [14] White notes that though the meetings were enthusiastic and emotional, the movement failed to harness that energy outside of the meetings, even leaving some audience members who thought that the lecturers were disingenuous because of the dramatization. Jack Blocker agrees that the failure of the movement was due to “damaged public credibility.” [15] Jed Dannenbaum and Thomas Peagram look at the movement from an economic angle, arguing that with the end of the depression came the return of labor unions and a return to work, which meant members didn’t have time to spend drinking. [16] By looking at the movement in the context of social movements and structures of society, ultimately the loss of support from temperance leaders and clergy led to the long-term failure.

Without support from elites the Washingtonian Society lacked funding and organization present in other successful long-lasting temperance groups at the time, eventually leading to the Washingtonian’s downfall. It was an informal means of support rather than a structured sobriety program, and many returned to drinking without institutional support. In 1851, Samuel Cary stated, “The pledge was all; there were no regular meetings, no discipline, no systematic way of securing contributions to sustain the reformed, or keep up the interest.” [17] As a majority of leadership among the Temperance Movement, elites were an important resource because of their wealth and higher social standing during the height of recession. The elites felt threatened and alienated, as they were “accustomed to exercising leadership and to commanding the respectful deference of their social inferiors, yet they frequently found themselves rudely displaced by less affluent Washingtonians, their advice and experience ignored.” [18] Additionally, other temperance societies felt that ignoring legal action and relying on moral change was a mistake and believed that the Washingtonian Movement distracted people who could have become members to their temperance groups. [19] Elites looked down on Washingtonian meetings because they considered the experiences of the lower class offensive and didn’t want to associate with the lifestyles of the poor. The alternative social activities that Washingtonians hosted for their members “seemed vulgar to many among the old guard who preferred sobriety to be accompanied by a refinement of manners and mores uncongenial to working-class sensibilities.” [20]

Similarly to a lack of elite support, the Washingtonians lost another means of institutional support by alienating established religious leaders. The Washingtonians asserted that before anyone could find God, first they must become sober. This threatened the position of religious officials who preached the opposite: that finding God was the path to sobriety. Religious leaders were offended, and “many evangelical clerics found the society of reformed drinkers irreligious.” [21] Though initially, most of the members were religious, as time went on they attracted non-religious members. The leaders “severely curtailed or even eliminated the prayers, hymns, and sermons that had been standard at earlier temperance meetings” as not to scare off these potential members. [22] The Washingtonian movement did not accept religious input and religious leaders felt alienated and threatened by the Washingtonian movement, this turned into a harsh relationship. “Some clergy envied the success of the lay movement, hurt that ex-alcoholics proved better reformers than learned ministers.” [23]

The Washingtonian Society offered a community outlook, with alcoholics supporting other alcoholics. But the Washingtonian Society lacked support from other community institutions. Without regular meetings or a plan to sustain sobriety past the pledge, there was no way to sustain interest in the group. Although short lived and fleeting the Washingtonian society is an overlooked part of history that served as an important moment in the history of addiction treatment and a precursor to Alcoholics Anonymous. The ideas of the Washingtonian movement live on because it was the most progressive and accessible approach, but unfortunately, as a group during the time, the Washingtonian Movement was unsustainable because it alienated powerful institutions.



[1] William White, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (San Francisco: Pacific Productions, 1987), 4.

[2] Thomas Pegram, Battling Demon Rum: The Struggle for a Dry America, 1800-1933 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998), 27.

[3] John A. Krout, The Origins of Prohibition (New York, 1925), 108 quoted in Jed Dannenbaum, Drink and Disorder: Temperance Reform in Cincinnati from the Washingtonian Revival to the WCTU (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 32.

[4] Joseph R. Gusfield, “Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement” in Drugs and the American Dream: An Anthology, Ed. Patricia A. Adler, Peter Adler, and Patrick K. O’Brien, (Malden: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 35.

[5] White, Slaying the Dragon, 10.

[6] Quoted in Zimmerman, J. (1992) Dethroning King Alcohol: The Washingtonians in Baltimore, 1840-1845. Maryland Historical Magazine, 87(4):379 (Winter) quoted in White, Slaying the Dragon, 9.

[7] White, Slaying the Dragon, 9.

[8] John Bartholomew Gough, “An Autobiography by John B. Gough,” in Drunkard’s Progress: Narratives of Addiction, Despair, and Recovery, ed. John W. Crowley, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 155.

[9] White, Slaying the Dragon, 10.

[10] Jed Dannenbaum, Drink and Disorder: Temperance Reform in Cincinnati from the Washingtonian Revival to the WCTU (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 32.

[11] White, Slaying the Dragon, 9.

[12] Pegram, Battling Demon Rum, 29.

[13] John Zug, The Foundation, Progress and Principles of the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore, 1842 p. 13-17, quoted in Jared Lobdell, This Strange Illness: Alcoholism and Bill W. (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2004), 35.

[14] Mark Edward Lender and James Kirby Martin, Drinking in America: A History (New York: The Free Press, 1982), 75.

[15] William White, Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History Volume I, “Alcoholic Mutual Aid Groups (United States)” (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 25.

[16] Pegram, Battling Demon Rum, 30; Dannenbaum, Drink and Disorder, 38.

[17] Templar’s Magazine, June, 1851, 310-311, quoted in Dannenbaum, Drink and Disorder, 41.

[18] Dannenbaum, Drink and Disorder, 40.

[19] Lender and Martin, Drinking in America, 76.

[20] Jim Baumohl, Alcohol and Temperance in Modern History Volume II, “Washingtonians” (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003), 644.

[21] Pegram, Battling Demon Rum, 29-30.

[22] Dannenbaum, Drink and Disorder, 39.

[23] Lender and Martin, Drinking in America, 76.


Further Reading

Alexander, Ruth M.. 1988. “”We Are Engaged as a Band of Sisters”: Class and Domesticity in the Washingtonian Temperance Movement, 1840-1850”. The Journal of American History 75 (3). [Oxford University Press, Organization of American Historians]: 763–85. doi:10.2307/1901529. Accessed March 17th, 2016.

Maxwell, Milton A. “The Washingtonian Movement.” Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol 11, no. 3 (1950): 410-451. Accessed March 17th, 2016.

Barber, James G.. 1994. “Alcohol Addiction: Private Trouble or Social Issue?”. Social Service Review 68 (4). University of Chicago Press: 521–35. Accessed March 17th, 2016.