Washingtonians: The Washingtonian Movement

The Washingtonians were members of the Washingtonian Total Temperance Society. There is a lack of consistency in the naming used. One group might be called the  Washington Total-Abstinence Society. Another might be the Washingtonian Temperance Society. There were many variations. The individual Societies  resembled non-religious Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings. Yet they pre-dated AA by about 100 years. It’s an amazing story.

In 1840, a group of six men in Baltimore drank together every night at the same tavern. On April 2 of that year, they decided that it would be fun for several of them to hear an evangelist who was speaking that evening. Those who attended would later report on the event to their friends at the tavern.

However the evangelist had made a strong impression on them. Perhaps conversion would be more accurate. On April 5, they decided to quit drinking. Moreover, they decided to form a total abstinence society. They called it the Washingtonian Society in honor of George Washington. (Ironically, Washington was by far the new country’s largest distiller!)

The new Washingtonians made this pledge.

We whose names are annexed, desirous of forming a society for our mutual benefit, and to guard against a pernicious practice which is injurious to our health, standing, and families, do pledge ourselves as gentlemen that we will not drink any spirituous or malt liquors, wine or cider.1

They decided to meet weekly. Each member was to bring a potential member to the following meeting. The president suggested that each member describe his own experience with alcohol. He began with his own story of heavy drinking for 15 years. He ended by describing the benefits he enjoyed with abstention. Others did the same. This became a popular feature of the meetings. Membership grew quickly.


The major distiller after whom the Washingtonians were named.

A newspaper editor attended one of the meetings. He wrote that ‘The peculiar characteristics of this great reform are first, a total abstinence pledge…. Secondly, the telling of others what they know from experience of the evils of intemperance, and the good which they feel to result from entire abstinence .”2

The movement quickly spread. At first it was through newspaper reports. Then new Societies would send proselytizing  teams to surrounding areas. New Societies would form. These, in turn, would send out their own teams.

In 1841, the first Martha Washington Society was formed. Its members also pledged abstinence from alcohol.

One of the de facto leaders expressed concerned about the attitudes of some of the Washingtonians. It was “A lack of readiness on their part to acknowledge their dependence on God, no small desecration of the Sabbath, and a painful unwillingness, in not a few professed Christians, to connect the temperance cause…with religion.’3

After a few years the movement had run its course and began to decline. There was opposition to the Society’s belief that religion was not necessary to achieve abstinence. Many churches began to reject the movement. Many clergy saw the movement as a threat to them or their churches. Other temperance groups competed for membership and allegiance.

The Washingtonians and the Washingtonian movement are now all but forgotten.



1  Maxwell, M.  The Washingtonian Movement: The Baltimore origins. Q J Stud Alcoh, 1950, 11,  410-452.

2 Harrison, D. A Voice from the Washingtonian Home. Boston: Redding, 1860.

3  Wooley, J. and Johnson, W. Temperance Progress in the Century. London: Linscott, 1903.