Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Springfield's Washingtonians: The Triumph of Legal Sanctions to Save the Soul of the Drunkard

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

Springfield's Washingtonians: The Triumph of Legal Sanctions to Save the Soul of the Drunkard

Article excerpt

On December 5, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation bringing to an end the nation's fourteen-year experiment with prohibition. It is perhaps an irony of history that only eighteen months later, on June 10, 1935, the most successful organization ever to deal with the problem of alcoholism in the United States was established when Bill Wilson and Dr. Robert (Dr. Bob) Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous.

The national preoccupation with intemperance, which resulted in the passing of the prohibition amendment in 1919, which went into effect in January of 1920, had roots going deep into the reform movements of the nineteenth century antebellum period. The founders of A.A. were well aware of these roots and the potential for politicization of any movement seeking reform or recovery of alcoholics. The preamble of the new organization stated their case quite clearly: "A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes."1

One might conclude that the above statement was the direct result of the failure of the prohibition amendment to achieve its objectives, and the tremendous political divisions prohibition generated in the decade of the "roaring twenties." After all, presidential candidate Al Smith was labeled "Alcohol" Smith by drys in the 1928 election over his open advocacy of the repeal of the prohibition amendment.

But this was not the case. The founders of A. A. were looking to the experience of the Washingtonian movement of the 1840s. The tenth tradition of A. A. states "The Washingtonian Society, a movement among alcoholics which started in Baltimore a century ago, almost discovered the answer to alcoholism. At first, the society was composed entirely of alcoholics trying to help one another. The early members foresaw that they should dedicate themselves to this sole aim." With a membership that reached the hundred thousand mark the Washingtonians might have succeeded "Had they been left to themselves." But, according to the founders of A. A., "the Washingtonians permitted politicians and reformers, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, to use the society for their own purposes." The Washingtonians became embroiled in the abolition controversy and more importantly "became temperance crusaders" and within a short time lost their effectiveness. It was one thing for drunks to reform other drunks, but quite another for them to advocate that everyone stop drinking.2

Recent historical research and writing focuses a considerable amount of attention on the Washingtonian movement. This work has produced a much more elaborate analysis of the demise of the organization that cited by the early A. A. literature. Historians have investigated the class antagonisms created by the working class origins of the movement and the middle class origins of the earlier temperance organizations. Also, the issues of deference associated with the orthodox religious establishment and the evangelical style of the Washingtonians; conflict of moral suasion versus legal sanctions which became the focus of the temperance movement; even the question of gender roles within the temperance movement and their application within the Washingtonian movement have been examined.

The early A. A. writers were wrong in stating that the Washingtonians lost their effectiveness when they became temperance crusaders. The Washingtonians were temperance crusaders from the very beginning and their experience meetings always concluded with a call to sign the pledge of abstinence. If anything, the Washingtonians rejuvenated the flagging temperance movement within the United States. The focus of the movement, the rehabilitation of drunkards, was a totally new idea. Their success caught earlier temperance organizations by surprise as they had written off the possibility of rehabilitating drunkards and focused their efforts on prevention. …

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