June 2, 1851 – Maine Passes First Prohibition Law in the U.S.

Maine enacted the first law in the country to prohibit alcohol on this day in history. Neal Dow, the Quaker mayor of Portland, Maine from 1851 to 1858, was a staunch prohibitionist who cofounded the Maine Temperance Society in 1827 when he was 23. He worked hard to pass the 1851 law that prohibited the manufacture and sale of liquor except for medicinal, mechanical, or manufacturing purposes. The law also included a search-and-seizure provision that enabled any three voters to obtain a search warrant if they suspect someone of selling liquor.

Several passions motivated Dow besides the influence of the puritanical Christian Temperance Movement. Dow was deeply affected by the poverty, suffering and dysfunction he saw that he believed were conditions caused by drunkenness. Dow, an abolitionist, also believed rum and slavery were related. [A website dedicated to Neal Dow reports: “In his youth, Portland was a booming center for rum trade with the West Indies. Maine eagerly traded its wealth in lumber and fisheries for rum and molasses. Molasses was converted to rum in Maine distilleries, of which Portland had seven. Saloons, taverns and even some grocery stores made liquor very accessible on nearly every corner block.”] Third, he deplored the influx of immigrants, many of whom were Irish Catholics, and who, in Dow’s opinion, drank too much. Four years after the passage of the Maine Law, the immigrants fought back in what became known as the Portland Rum Riot.

Neal Dow

Rumors circulated that the Mayor Dow was hypocritically storing alcohol in City Hall vaults. The rumors, as it happened, were true – Dow was buying up alcohol to distribute to doctors in the area.

Portland’s large Irish immigrant population were also incensed over what they (also correctly, as it happened) interpreted as prejudice against their culture. On the afternoon of June 2, 1855, angry crowds gathered in front of City Hall. Police were unable to deal with the growing mob, and Dow called out the militia. After ordering the protesters to disperse, the militia detachment fired into the crowd on Dow’s orders. One immigrant was killed, and seven others were wounded.

Portland, Maine city hall in the 19th Century

The crowd was dispersed, but Dow was widely criticized for his heavy-handed tactics during the incident.

Widespread bootlegging and other problems led to the repeal of the law in 1858.  The state replaced it with a law that simply limited sale of alcoholic beverages. But in 1885, Maine included prohibition in the state constitution. Of course, bootlegging continued.

A repeal effort failed in 1911. In 1934, a year after national prohibition was repealed, Maine’s prohibition of alcohol law was repealed.

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