The Washingtonian Society – This Is Going to be One Hell of a Fourth Step


By Ben Spielberg

Can a junkie get sober in a shooting gallery? How about a crackhead in a crack den or an alcoholic in the 19th century? Believe it or not, history has shown that alcohol use was almost three times higher in the 19th century then it is now. The Washingtonian Society was essentially the first group of people to deal with alcoholism around the mid-19th century. Beginning with just six people, Washingtonians held meetings every week that were like modern group therapy circles, telling tales of their experiences with alcohol addiction and relaying their hopes of remaining sober.

Try finding a sponsor in that mess

The search for facts around the Washingtonian [Temperance] Society is riddled with conflicting dates, contradictory values, and differing versions of the group’s demise. Sponsorship, chip taking, and the Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous were all conceived almost 100 years post-Washingtonian times.

For as long as people have been able to distill grain, alcoholics have needed the support of one another to pursue a normal life. While the details are muddy, meetings of the Washingtonian Society were weekly and in a multitude of cities around the east coast. Much like AA today, some meetings featured a “speaker,” while others consisted of strictly shares. Also similar to today’s AA community, the Washingtonian movement seemed to fragment into different groups focusing around different issues. Today, we have Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Anonymous, The Other Bar (AA for lawyers), etc.

The spiritual aspect is unclear. There are some sources that say they were strictly against God/religion of any kind, there are others which state the opposite. Anonymity was also not considered, which meant that certain “known” Washingtonians got some pretty bad publicity during a relapse.

While fragmenting groups by addiction-type works in the support groups of today, you may remember that Washingtonian’s had no uniting traditions like there are now. This brought different political influencers inside the rooms of the Washingtonian Society that led to even more fragmentation into groups of prohibition supporters (both men and women), and anti-abolitionists. As differing politics began to seep into the rooms, with no common practices to unite them like the AA meetings of today, the Washingtonian Society ultimately collapsed.

Alcoholics have the ironic potential to both bring people closer together and tear each other apart. Despite the blood alcohol level in their veins that unites them, politics, religion, and philosophy can still tear them apart. It seems that in order to provide sustaining recovery, certain unifying practices in these meetings must be in place to keep people together in their quest for sobriety despite their differences.

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Filed under 12-Steps, Alcoholics Anonymous, Education, Sobriety, Uncategorized

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