The Mayor Who Kick-Started Prohibition in America

The Mayor Who Kick-Started Prohibition in America

Why you should care

Prohibition started in part with the actions of a social reformer in Portland, Maine, decades before the 18th Amendment.

One hundred years ago. the United States embarked on a remarkable, albeit short-lived, national experiment when Congress ratified the 18th Amendment. It may be hard today to imagine an America in which it was illegal to make or sell alcoholic beverages, but it’s actually not that difficult to understand what motivated the early leaders of the temperance movement in their crusade to ban alcohol — what sparked the moral outrage of men like Neal Dow, the mayor of Portland, Maine, who was once known as “the Napoleon of Temperance.”

In the mid-19th century, Portland was a town of fewer than 10,000 people, but it had around 200 licensed liquor dealers and numerous unlicensed ones. Alcohol was a staple in the lives of the farmers, fishermen and millworkers, and it seemed like almost every commercial establishment in Portland had a barrel of rum out front for which you could pay a nickel for a “dipper” of the potent liquor.

Maine’s struggles with Prohibition would eerily presage what the nation at large would experience.

Widespread drinking may have been the cultural norm, but it came with tremendous social costs. Walking down the streets of his hometown, Dow witnessed intoxicated children who had been sneaking dippers of rum; he heard countless stories from women about the husbands and fathers who abused them and spent their entire paychecks on booze. It seemed that so much of what afflicted the town arose from a single liquid source: alcohol. And so Neal vowed to do something to change that, and his efforts to turn Portland and Maine “dry” would help spark a brush fire of reform that 70 years later would dry up an entire nation.

When Dow, a lifelong teetotaler, first joined the early temperance movement in America in the 1830s, it was, like the early abolitionist movement, one focused primarily on what was called “moral suasion” in an effort to persuade others of the virtues of abstaining from alcohol. “Moral suasion meant agitation short of politics,” says Bruce Laurie, professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Today we would call it the civil sphere, those nongovernmental organizations that agitate for issues without engaging in politics.”

Dow, whose long hair and bushy sideburns made him look more like a Romantic poet than a social reformer, had grown up Quaker. Unlike other Quakers, however, Dow refused to renounce violence (he thought it justified in a worthy cause), and unlike other temperance activists, he refused to limit himself to “moral suasion.” He felt that when it came to America’s national addiction to alcohol, true reform was only possible if the laws were changed, and if the police power of the state was employed to enforce them.

Dow started by leading the push for the Maine Legislature to pass the “Twenty-Eight Gallon Law,” in 1846, which prohibited the sale of alcohol in less than 28-gallon quantities and effectively ended “dippers” and single-sale drinks to recreational imbibers. Dow’s success put Portland at the epicenter of a new social experiment, and the issue propelled him into politics. Dow, who later would be called everything from “the Father of Prohibition” to “America’s moral Columbus,” was elected Portland’s mayor; and on July 2, 1851, thanks to Dow’s fierce campaigning, Prohibition was born in Maine. The “Maine Law” prohibited making or selling any form of alcoholic beverage in the state (though it could still be sold for industrial or medicinal purposes). Initially, the new law seemed to be working — at least on the surface. “A remarkable spectacle can be seen in Portland,” one local account of the time reads. “Temperate men, and nothing but temperate men walk her streets. A strange quiet prevails.”

But that strange quiet was misleading, and Maine’s struggles with Prohibition would eerily presage what the nation at large would experience the following century. Enterprising Mainers quickly found ways around the law: Many brewed liquor at home to sell to neighbors, fishermen sneaked it ashore in coffins, itinerant salesmen offered passers-by swigs from bottles they kept hidden under their pant legs — earning the nickname “bootleggers.” And when frustrations with the new laws did boil over into public view, the man who was leading the police raids of illicit liquor sellers became their target.

Lampooned as a “sublime fanatic,” Dow was accused in 1855 of secretly storing his own supply of liquor in the City Hall basement (which the virtuous mayor did but for the town’s doctors’ use, not his own). A mob gathered around City Hall to protest their mayor’s apparent hypocrisy. They threw rocks and started breaking bottles. In response, Dow called out the state militia and ordered them to fire on the crowd of 3,000. In what became known as the Portland Rum Riot, seven men were wounded, and one was killed.

The riot and Dow’s overbearing response led to the repeal of the Maine Law the following year and the end of Dow’s political career. But Dow and Maine had started something. Dow, ever the unrepentant reformer and lapsed Quaker, continued to preach the evils of alcohol for the rest of his life, including on the battlefields of the Civil War, where he led an alcohol-free “temperance regiment.” And soon enough, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and other states had passed their own laws (Maine’s was eventually re-enacted), and the nation was well on its path toward Prohibition.

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