An Unusual Instance of Governance

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I need to begin by explaining why I use the word governance in the
headline above instead of government. It's because of what I think
– and I hope I am being reasonable – about the connotations
and overtones of the two words.

Collegiate Dictionary
gives a one-word meaning for governance:
government. Are these, then, precisely equivalent words? I do not
think so, at least not for me.

enterprise in the world, from rowing a boat on up, requires some
kind of government but, thank God, most of them can be managed with
some modest governance which, as I see it, is light-handed,
non-coercive, and unaccompanied by military might and tax exactions,
in short, government without regulatory busybodies and taxmen with

as I understand and use the word, usually involves just some skill,
some knowledge, some principles, and some real authority, as
in: "he taught them as one having authority" (Mark
1:22), meaning moral authority. I am giving to governance
the second meaning of government in my Webster's Dictionary: "moral
conduct or behavior," a meaning the Dictionary says is now

old, obsolete meaning is clearly what is meant, for example, in
these words Handel chose from the Old Testament (Isaiah 9:6) for
The Messiah:

unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government
shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful,
Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince
of Peace.

consider how libertarian writer Brad Edmonds uses governance in
this quote from his article, "Government
Will Be Abolished
," on December 30, 2003:

is inevitable that forcible government will be abolished, replaced
with the spontaneous, voluntary governance of the market, in which
every participant is responsible to every other and is governed
by the self-interest of 280 million pairs of eyes and 280 million
personal wallets.

that I am not the one saying that the meaning, "moral conduct
or behavior," is now "obs." It's Webster's
Dictionary. They should know. And woe unto us that it is so.
The seven non-obsolete meanings of government that Webster's cites
cover what you usually think of when you say government, including
"direction and supervision of public affairs." All of
them I might summarize roughly by saying: "What the people
who govern us are up to, and the rules, taxes, and force they inflict
on us to get what they want."

to my present purpose: I offer here for your consideration some
notes on an unusual instance in modern times of what I am calling
governance; I mean the entity known as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

have long been fascinated by the history and structure of AA as
one of the most successful governances of the last century. It is
a movement, fellowship, or society that grew from its two cofounders,
who met in Akron, Ohio, in June 1935, to more than two million living
members in something like 150 nations today.

is inappropriate to call AA an organization; one of its Twelve Traditions
contains the language, "AA as such ought never to be organized."
Despite the AA Tradition, however, AA is of course organized
– sort of – but after its own unique fashion. It has a
shape and a scheme of governance. It is a "benign anarchy";
AA cofounder Bill Wilson once called it just that.1)

year, a book I wrote for young people (10 or so and up) was published
by Boyds Mills Press
of Honesdale, PA. Its title: Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous
(Amazon offers it at 30% off list.)

am happy to say my book seems to appeal, not just to school and
public librarians, for whom, primarily, it was designed, but also
to some AA members, especially those who have developed an interest
in AA history. One AA, Mel B., author of five books about alcoholism
and AA published by Hazelden Press
has called it "the best quick summary of Bill's life I've seen."

am presently working on a similar book about the other cofounder,
Dr. Bob Smith. I find the personal histories of the two founders
of AA compelling records of the possibility of a complete turnaround
in "moral conduct or behavior" in the life of anyone who
needs it desperately and will "go to any length," as AAs
say, to get it. I believe their stories have much relevance for
people in assorted kinds of personal jams today.

Bill W., the original AA pioneer and chief scribe and architect
of the movement, died in 1971, The New York Times published
a lengthy page-one obituary on his remarkable life. Up to that point,
Wilson (the Times employed his full name, William Griffith
Wilson) had successfully maintained his anonymity "at the level
of press, radio, and film," as AA's Traditions ask members
to do. He had turned down much personal publicity, including both
a cover story in Time Magazine and a Doctor of Laws degree
from Yale, since both would have involved use of his picture and
his full name.

1971, however, Wilson and Smith have become increasingly well known
as major innovators in the field of alcohol and drug rehabilitation,
and Wilson is truly a major writer – one could make the case
that he is the major writer – in that field in the 20th
century. Except for the case histories in it, he was the author
of the basic AA text, Alcoholics Anonymous, which has gone
through four editions. More than 20 million copies have been published
and sold in English alone, and it has been translated into 40 languages,
most recently into Manchurian.

Bill W. and his fellow Vermont native and cofounder of AA, Dr. Bob
S. seem to be achieving an almost iconic status not just in AA but
to some extent in the world at large. As the recognized co-founders
of AA, they are still the only two widely known AA names, and they
are likely to remain that way for the indefinite future. This I
believe is true for three reasons:

  1. because
    of their cofounder status;
  2. because
    they were the senior AAs throughout their lifetimes in their respective
    bailiwicks, New York City for Wilson, and Akron, Ohio, for Smith;
  3. because
    Wilson, as the chief architect of the movement, deliberately designed
    out of its future any replacements for himself and his cofounder

Wilson said when he stepped down in 1955 and relinquished his role
as the surviving cofounder and therefore the elder at the top, it
was time for the younger members to take over and see if the bottom-up
structure he had devised by that time would actually work without
any sort of guiding and ruling big shots.

Bob died in 1950. AA published his official biography in 1980 and
employed in it his full name, Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith. Smith left
behind, unlike Wilson, very little in the way of a paper trail;
his legacy was a prodigious and truly heroic record of 12th
Step work, which is the AA term for one-on-one attention to newcomers
to the program, who typically arrive at AA in some stage of demoralization
and physical collapse. In the last fifteen years of his life, all
his years after he finally got sober himself, Dr. Bob, with the
help of a Catholic nun, Sister Ignatia, hospitalized, attended,
and introduced to the AA principles (without pay) approximately
5,000 alcoholics, who in their turn carried the AA message, initially
all over the Midwest and by chain reaction ultimately everywhere.

Wilson's official biography, Pass
It On
, was published by AA World Services, Inc., in 1984;
but even before that, in 1975, a writer friend of his, Robert Thomsen,
had published the first full-length biography of Wilson, called
simply, Bill W. As it happens, I knew both Wilson and Thomsen
in the 1960s when I was working for a New York daily (the Middletown
Times-Herald Record), and on one occasion I took the photo
of them which accompanies this article, as they sat chatting together,
I think in 1966 or '67, at a function in the Roosevelt Hotel in
New York City.

biography is based on Bill's written and spoken records of his life
and on many conversations the two men had over a number of years.
Thomsen notes in his introduction that Bill knew that his biography
would inevitably be written. Wilson wrote a volume on his first
40 years himself,2 and as he talked
to Thomsen he insisted that, since he knew he would be written about,
he wanted "to set the record somewhere near straight."

bio includes a quotation from British writer Aldous Huxley, who
was a friend of Bill's. Huxley said that Bill was "the greatest
social architect of the 20th century."3
Bill's official biography4 quotes
Thomsen on this point. As far as I know, there is no other source
for this comment of Huxley's, and so I do not know the context in
which it was made.

remark is, I think, usually understood as referring to Wilson and
Smith's adaptation of the Oxford Group's5
spiritual principles to the salvaging of alcoholics. That was indeed
an extraordinary contribution, but I tend to think, rather, that
Huxley was referring to Bill's superb organization (always with
Dr. Bob's concurrence while he was alive) of the governance
of AA.

summarize major features of the AA structure as it emerged over
the first decades of its existence:

  • It would
    have but one purpose, to help drunks get permanently sober.
  • It would
    be entirely self-supporting.
  • AA would
    own no property and accumulate no wealth beyond a prudent cash
    reserve to meet projected expenses.
  • It would
    have no opinion on anything except its own affairs and enter no
    controversies, adopt no causes.
  • The individual
    AA groups would be autonomous.
  • AA would
    have but one ultimate authority – "God as he may express
    Himself in the group conscience," and all "leaders are
    but trusted servants, they do not govern." (That tends to
    deflate swollen egos.)
  • Membership
    would be by self-election, no dues or fees required, merely a
    desire to stop drinking.

every AA group, however new and however small, is essentially a
pick-up thing, like a vacant-lot ball game in my youth. It welcomes
anyone who shows up willing to play. Being willing to play in AA
means having what AA's Preamble, read at the start of every meeting,
calls a "desire to stop drinking."

well-known writer Susan Cheever has a major new biography of Bill
scheduled for publication by Simon and Schuster in February 2004.
She thinks, and I agree, that Bill and Bob's Vermont background
is a major factor in their approach to setting up AA and establishing
how it would run. There is the venerable tradition of the Vermont
town meeting, where things are decided by consensus and with full
participation of townspeople. That is precisely how each AA group
operates. Each one is autonomous "except in matters affecting
AA as a whole." There is no bossing from headquarters, which
consists, anyway, only of service corporations (chiefly to accomplish
publishing), with no government functions at all.

is a possibility that the governance of Protestant congregational
churches – each congregation responsible for its own affairs
– was also an influence on AA's founders; except that the typical
emphasis on a strong pastor that is characteristic of many church
structures may well have furnished Bill and Bob with an additional
model of what not to do. They saw, even before Bob died in 1950,
how they had become special, hardly even AA members at all, as Bill
once wrote in the Fellowship's national magazine, the AA Grapevine.
He wrote that he wished that he and Dr. Bob could become members
of AA and not always be founders getting special attention.

the Oxford Group perhaps provided another kind of warning: it had
many and wonderful volunteer workers directed from the top, first,
the OG founder Frank N.D. Buchman, and after his death, Peter Howard.
When Howard died a few years after taking over, the OG (Moral Re-Armament
by that time) went under the standard, top-down direction of trustees.
It seems never to have had the will or the power to produce local
groups everywhere, like amoebas dividing, as AA did, although its
international work remains remarkable.6

of Wilson's particular efforts in his final years was to ensure
that the corporation operating the service headquarters in New York
City came finally under a body of trustees of which the majority
were alcoholics, which represented a change from the initial make-up,
which had, "for safety's sake," in the early days of AA
had a non-alcoholic majority.

1950 and 1955, the year of the second every-five-years International
AA Conference in Cleveland, Wilson had come to the tremendously
important decision to step down as leader (he was only 60) and turn
the movement over to younger people. That way he felt that AA "would
be safe even from himself," as Thomsen reported.

in fact, for the next 16 years, although Bill never wavered in his
love for, and devotion to, AA, he did pursue quite other interests
most of the time. Other men and women now were doing the day-to-day
work of the headquarters service corporations and of the burgeoning
thousands of AA groups (more than 100,000 of them worldwide by present

my opinion the most brilliant element in AA's governance was the
lodging of all power and authority in the individual group. The
groups would be quite literally autonomous. This was, from a libertarian
point of view, to establish the right to secession as the norm from
the beginning. It is a classic AA wisecrack that "all you need
to form a new group is a coffee pot and a resentment."

representatives of the groups determine AA policy and rule over
the service committees and corporations. In the language I noted
previously, AA "leaders are but trusted servants; they do not
govern." Thus are the concepts leader, servant, and government
linked in AA's Traditions, and so far it has worked. There has not
yet, in 68 years of AA, been a usurpation of power by higher ups,
because, essentially, there are no higher ups. That in turn may
be because there is no real source of power in the sense of property
and money. The moral control in AA issues from the principles enunciated
in the Twelve Steps, and their guarantor is the threat of insobriety
if anyone wanders too far from the founding principles.

now, 54 years after the death of one cofounder and 33 years after
the death of the other, AA continues to function quite smoothly,
and presumably will do so as long as there are alcoholics needing
its services. I am not sure what other societies could emulate the
AA model, but I have the feeling quite a few should.

Bill Wilson,
cofounder of AA, at right, and his first biographer,
Robert Thomsen, in a 1967 photo taken at the Roosevelt Hotel in
New York City.
Photo by Tom White


  1. "When
    we come into A.A. we find a greater personal freedom than any
    other society knows. We cannot be compelled to do anything. In
    that sense our society is a benign anarchy. The word ‘anarchy’
    has a bad meaning to most of us. . . . But I think that the gentle
    Russian prince who so strongly advocated the idea felt that if
    men were granted absolute liberty, and were compelled to obey
    no one in person, they would voluntarily associate themselves
    in the common interest. AA is an association of the benign sort
    the prince envisioned." Bill W. in A.A. Comes of Age
    (AA World Services, Inc., New York, 1957), page 224.
  2. Bill W.:
    My First Forty Years (Hazelden, Center City, MN, 2000).
  3. Bill
    by Robert Thomsen (Harper & Row, New York, 1975) page
  4. Pass
    It On: Bill Wilson and the A.A. Message
    (A.A. World Services,
    Inc., New York, 1984) page 368.
  5. For much
    of the first four years of AA history, 1935–1939. the groups
    that were to become AA were actually elements in Oxford Group
    chapters in Akron and New York City. AA has always acknowledged
    that the spiritual principles of its recovery program came from
    the Oxford Group, although with certain new verbal formulations
    (e.g. the Twelve Steps), with a narrowing of focus to concentrate
    on the recovery of alcoholics (where the OG aimed at personal
    "change" at depth for all people), and with the innovations
    in structure I discuss in this article.
  6. I have
    necessarily scamped the story of the OG’s importance as the incubator
    of AA in the earliest days. The extraordinary story of the OG,
    later called Moral Re-Armament, (MRA), and now named Initiatives
    of Change ( ) is too little known,
    as is the story of its founder, Frank N.D. Buchman. There is a
    large library of books detailing its record. It is important not
    to confuse the Oxford Group (a 20th century phenomenon) with the
    19th century Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church associated
    with the name of John Henry Newman.

9, 2004

White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous


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