Washington Society Pledge

The Washingtonians

In April 1840, nearly a century before Bill W. and Doctor Bob joined together in forming Alcoholics Anonymous, six hard drinkers met at Chase's Tavern in Baltimore to address a common problem — the devastating effect the "poisonous draught" was having on their lives, their families, their businesses and their hopes for the future. The solution, they decided, was that by relying on each other, sharing their alcoholic experiences and relying on Divine help, they could keep each other sober.

When one, who has long been known as a victim of intemperance, bursts the fetters that have bound him, appears before his neighbors "clothed, and in his right mind," a redeemed specimen of long-lost humanity, and stands up with tears of joy trembling in his eyes, to tell of the miseries once endured, now to be endured no more forever; of his once naked and starving children, now clad and fed comfortably; of a wife long weighed down with woe, weeping, and a broken heart, now restored to health, happiness and a renewed affection; and how easily it is all done, once it is resolved to be done; how simple his language, there is a logic, and an eloquence in it that few, with human feelings, can resist. They cannot say that he desires a union of church and state, for he is not a church member; they cannot say he is vain of hearing himself speak, for his whole demeanor shows he would gladly avoid speaking at all; they cannot say he speaks for pay for he receives none, and asks for none. Nor can his sincerity in any way be doubted; or his sympathy for those he would persuade to imitate his example be denied.

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To these new champions, and this new system of tactics, our late success is mainly owing; and to them we must mainly look for the final consummation. The ball is now rolling gloriously on, and none are so able as they to increase its speed, and its bulk — to add to its momentum, and its magnitude. Even though unlearned in letters, for this task none are so well educated. To fit them for this work, they have been taught in the true school. They have been in that gulf from which they would teach others the means of escape. They have passed that prison wall which others have long declared impassable; and who that has not shall dare to weigh opinions with them, as to the mode of passing.
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By the Washingtonians, this system of consigning the habitual drunkard to hopeless ruin is repudiated. They adopt a more enlarged philanthropy. They go for present as well as future good. They labor for all now living, as well as all hereafter to live. They teach hope to all — despair to none. As applying to their cause, they deny the doctrine of unpardonable sin. As in Christianity it is taught, so in this they teach, that
‘While the lamp holds out to burn,
The vilest sinner may return.’

— Abraham Lincoln

Total abstinence from alcohol was their goal. Such a great purpose should be reflected in its name, its members felt, and adopted the Washington Temperance Society of Baltimore as the new oranization's name.

Members sought out other "drunkards" (the term "alcoholism" would not be created until 1849, and "alcoholic" was not in general use until Alcoholics Anonymous was formed), told them of their personal experience and how the Society had helped them achieve sobriety.

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The Washingtonians

It was this emphasis on the drunkards that the Washingtonians, as they became known, differed from the temperance movement, which focused on keeping sober individuals from becoming drunks.

The Society's message was spread by what we would call "speaker meetings," whereby a member, indistinguishable from the individuals in his audience save his sobriety, would plainly tell his story — what his life had been like before joining the Society and what his life was like now. (Sound familiar?) In this common man, who spoke without the oratory skills of a temperance preacher, drunkards saw themselves as they were and wished to be, and many would sign the Society Pledge at the conclusion of each meeting.

As members spread out to other cities to speak to other men, the organization rapidly grew; at its peak the Washingtonian movement is estimated to have had 300,000 members, and had even been addressed by a 33-year-old Illinois State Legislator named Abraham Lincoln (see sidebar).

Less than two decades after its establishment, however, the Washington Temperance Society had all but ceased to exist. Thus an organization whose purpose and methods closely paralleled those of Alcoholics Anonymous disappeared quickly, while A.A. will celebrate its 74th Anniversary this year.


First, the Washingtonians lost their focus. While begun with a clear purpose — to enable the drunkard to gain and maintain sobriety — by the time of its demise the organization had divided into many factions, each with its own agenda: societal temperance, religious conversion, political goals. Rather than a gathering for a single purpose, meetings became battlegrounds of conflicting opinions about everything but alcoholism.

The second error occured when the group opened its membership to non- alcoholics. Its success had depended on its meetings being closed to all but ex-drunkards who shared their personal experiences with other alcoholics. Once non-alcoholics were added to the Society, their boredom with listening to man after man tell his story moved them to speak, and to hold forth about every topic except drinking.

Third, over a period of time the Washingtonian organization lost its spiritual foundation. The introduction of any religion was strictly prohibited, thus the men were denied the benefit of being able to turn to a Higher Power when all their secular resources had been exhausted.

Finally, there existed little of the structure we take for granted — the Steps, the Traditions, the slogans, mentoring new members, engaging in service at all levels of the organization. Without this framework on which to build a program of recovery, the Washingtonians were rudderless in a hostile ocean of temptation.

When Doctor Bob and Bill W. formed Alcoholic Anonymous in 1935 they had never heard of the Washingtonians, even though many of the goals and processes of the two organizations were remarkably similar. It was the formation and establishment of A.A.’s Twelve Traditions during the period of 1940-1950 that has ensured its longevity.

The lesson we can learn from the demise of the Washingtonians is that A.A. needs to avoid outside, controversial, non-A.A. issues. This singleness of purpose has been established by the Fifth Tradition:   Each group has but one primary purpose — to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.