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History of Addiction Treatment Fredrick Douglass

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Temperance Movement

The temperance movement, which began in 1800s America, gave rise to the ideas that we currently have about addiction and the duty for a society to help with the suffering of its addicts. This was the first time that the idea of rehabilitation for people struggling with addiction was established in this country. Before this, the approach to “treating” alcoholics was to lock them up and throw away the key.

The temperance movement was founded on the idea of abstinence. The goal of the temperance movement was to completely refrain from the use of substances, and given the time period, this specifically meant alcohol.

Out of this movement was borne the earliest versions of rehab facilities in the United States, which were known as “sober houses.” Sober houses were sober living communities for men, which provided the much-needed isolation from what was thought of as the temptations of the world – what today we refer to simply as “people, places, things.”

As early as 1840 the Washingtonian society, a branch of the temperance movement, had established sober houses in cities like New York and Boston. The temperance movement then turned its focus on the society, in general. Their belief was that, if American society was alcohol-free, then it could then there would be no alcoholics in need of treatment, therefore solving the alcoholic problem.

Frederick Douglass and the Temperance Movement

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was an escaped slave who became internationally recognized as an orator, the author of Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, a newspaper editor, and a powerful social reformer and statesman. Douglass is perhaps mostly regarded for his huge role in the emancipation of American slaves. As a politician, Douglass also used his political clout and gift of speech in advocating for women’s rights as well as for the temperance movement.


Having earlier acknowledged a period of “intemperance” in his life, Frederick Douglass signed a pledge of abstinence and became heavily involved in promoting temperance among the African American community. This was a profound gesture that called for abstinence as a foundation and catalyst to abolish slavery and prepare Black people for full American citizenship. It left a lasting mark on modern Afrocentric models of addiction recovery, especially when it comes to addiction treatment of people of color.

Douglass on His Own Struggles with Alcohol

Douglass was quite candid about his prior issues with drinking when touring and speaking in Scotland in 1846.

In a speech he delivered in Glasgow on February 18, 1846, Douglass announced, “I used to love drink—That’s a fact. I found in me all those characteristics leading to drunkenness.”

The following month, when in the town of Paisley, Scotland, Douglass again spoke candidly about his previous intemperance, “I have had some experience with intemperance… I knew once what it was like to drink with all the ardor of an old soaker [drunkard]…Some of the slaves were not able to drink their share, but I was able to drink my own and theirs too. I took it because it made me feel I was a great man.”

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