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What Abraham Lincoln Got Right About Addiction

When he wasa 33-year-old Illinois state representative in 1842, Abraham Lincoln was invited by a local chapter of the Springfield Washingtonian Temperance Society to address them on the occasion of the 110th birthday of the first president of the United States. Despite being invited to address the Washingtonians, Lincoln had no problem with his liquor. Child of the Kentucky and Illinois frontiers that he was, Lincoln was of course familiar with beer and cider, whiskey and bourbon, but he was asked to speak to the group as an interested outsider. The future president would tell the Washingtonians that “In my judgement… such of us who have never fallen victims have been spared more by the absence of appetite than from any mental or moral superiority over those who have.” It’s worth remembering the largely-forgotten Washingtonians this September, recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as National Recovery Month. Established to promote the “benefits of prevention, treatment, and recovery for mental and substance use disorders,” National Recovery Month exists to acknowledge the “message that recovery in all of its forms is possible… treatment is effective and people can and do recover.” In parsing Lincoln’s remarks to the Washingtonians, there are important historical reminders of what recovery can look like. 

As a nineteenth-century American, Lincoln would have understood how liquor was seemingly omnipresent in both personal and professional life, contributingto the massive public health crisis of rampant alcoholism. Historian Daniel Okrent explains in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition that in the “early days of the Republic drinking was as intimately woven into the social fabric as family or church.” Okrent writes that by “1830 American adults were guzzling, per capita, a staggering seven gallons of pure alcohol a year,” which in modern terms are the “equivalent of 1.7 bottles of standard 80-proof liquor per person, per week – nearly 90 bottles a year for every adult in the nation.” Despite that environment, like most people (both then and now) Lincoln had no physical dependence on alcohol himself, no addiction to the substance, no inability to temper his own drinking. But unlike many people (both then and now) Lincoln didn’t attribute his lack of that malady to a particular moral fortitude. Instead, like the current medical consensus, Lincoln believed addiction is a disease rather than a lack of will on the part of the sufferer. 

The Washingtonians were a remarkable group within the larger temperance movement, for they were not founded by any particular religious denomination looking to convert unregenerate drunks, but rather by alcoholics themselves who were seeking moral support and solution. Acknowledging the public health crisis of alcoholismand the lives and families liquor had ruined,  Lincoln extoled the Washingtonian understanding that such an affliction was a disease rather than simple moral failing. “On this point,” Lincoln said, “the Washingtonians greatly excel the temperance advocates of former times…. They know [alcoholics] are not demons.” The future president argued that alcoholics should be treated as anyone would approach “the heirs of consumption and other hereditary diseases.” The belief that addicts were “utterly incorrigible” was a dangerous and deadly fallacy that Lincoln argued must be abandoned. Just as George Washington fought a war against tyranny, the Washingtonians would struggle against their own bondage in addiction. 

For centuries “dipsomania” had been understood as either something to be laughed at or as a freely chosen sin, but in a nineteenth-century United States where alcoholism resulted in infirmity, abuse, and early death, there was an increasing sense that addicts were not people in need of castigation or conversion, but rather treatment. For the six reformed alcoholics who ironically founded the Washingtonians in the back of a Baltimore barroom in 1840, the addiction to liquor was something that people needed liberation from, not something that merited their denunciation or criminalization. In that regard, writes historian Christopher M. Finan in Drunks: The Story of Alcoholism and the Birth of Recovery, the Washingtonians are a chapter in one of the “great liberation movements” of American politics and history. 

As such, the Washingtonians were inheritors of early movements such as the Native American chief Handsome Lake’s sobriety movement known as the Longhouse Religion that was founded in 1798, up to the establishment of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 by a failed stockbroker and former drinker named Bill W. and his compatriot, an alcoholic surgeon with several failed attempts at quitting who is remembered fondly as Dr. Bob. Central to the perspective and methodology of AA was a belief that it was through the group sharing of experience that alcoholics would best be able to alter their behavior, and in writings like Alcoholics Anonymous (normally referred to as the “Big Book”) and Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. and other authors enumerated the flexible, decentralized principles by which alcoholics could move towards recovery. As an organization, AA unknowingly took up the mantle of the Washingtonians, affirming that alcoholics and addicts were best served not by chastisement or imprisonment, that as Lincoln told his listeners it is not “just to assail, condemn, or despise them.” 

The recovery movement encompasses not just the Washingtonians and AA, but also a plethora of organizations that, for all of their different philosophies and methods, are united in the conviction that whether because of genetic predisposition, personal trauma, or acculturation, physical and psychological dependence on both drink and drugs is not a failure of will, but rather an affliction that deserves treatment. Twelve Step organizations like AA and Narcotics Anonymous use the template developed by Bill W. and Dr. Bob, and they are joined by more secular approaches such as SMART Recovery, LifeRing Secular Recovery, Rational Recovery, and the non-abstinence-based Moderation Management. Despite the success of such groups, and their radical role in personal emancipation for millions of Americans, there is still stigma around addiction that results in death. Finan writes that for too long “Many people blame the drunks” (and the drug addicts), and that even after the emergence of the contemporary recovery movement, for “many drunks [who] want to stop drinking, the major institutions of American life [have] refused to help them.”  

If recovery today has one advantage over the Washingtonians, it’s that the former has largely rejected disastrous prohibitionist policies against both drink and drugs or takes no official line on the issue. Even with initially understandable aims, prohibition has served only to ever make the drunk and the drug addict illegal, a punishment of people rather than a banning of substances. Without reducing Temperance to its most objectionable stereotypes, and acknowledging that it’s aims were often estimable if not utopian, it must be admitted that the “War on Drugs” which started with the Nixon administration comes from a very different ideological underpinning and has resulted in the unjust imprisonment of countless people. What has made such calamitous polices possible (beyond theirclearly racist nature) is the fundamental misunderstanding thatmost people still have regarding addiction. As Finan wrote,  the “drunk’s responsibility for abusing alcohol was still being debated at the dawn of the twenty-first century.” Debating something that is medically settled has led to undue stigma against addicts, and has contributed to the current addiction crisis. 

Last year over 70,000 Americans died as part of the opioid epidemic, a human catastrophe that has lowered the national life expectancy for the first time in our history. As horrific as the opioid epidemic has been, drinking related death are still more numerous, with over 88,000 people dying from alcohol overdose, injuries that resulted from drinking, alcohol withdrawal, or alcohol-related diseases. Worse, there has actually been a 35 percent increase in alcohol-related deaths over the past decade, as reported by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Perhaps this is in part a strange contemporary paradox: drinking is socially acceptable, if not encouraged, but there is a profound stigma around self-identifying as a recovering alcoholic.The Washingtonians understood that what’s so often offered is castigation, when what’s needed is charity; that what’s assumed to be conviviality, can sometimes be a crisis. 

What the Washingtonians understood was that addiction is a form of imprisonment, and recovery can be a type of liberation, or as Lincoln told the assembled “we shall find a stronger bondage broken… a greater tyrant deposed. In it, more of want supplied, more disease healed, more sorrow assuaged.” There’s much that can be said about the Washingtonians, and the recovery movement which came after them. No doubt observations can be made that are historiographical, sociological, and epidemiological. But if there is one lesson imparted that’s the most important to the individual sufferer it’s this – history demonstrates that recovery is possible, and that it’s worth it.