Maine: First Dry State in 1851
Maine occupies a unique position in the history of the temperance movement. It banned the sale and consumption of alcohol in 1851 and remained officially dry until the repeal of National Prohibition in 1934; a total of 83 years! The world’s first Total Abstinence Society was founded in Portland in 1815. This places Maine squarely at the beginning of the movement, and for a while temperance laws were referred throughout the country simply as “The Maine Law”.
To understand the motivation behind the movement, it is necessary to recall the drinking habits of Mainers of long ago. An entertaining way to find out is to watch The Strange Woman, a 1946 movie starring Hedy Lamarr. The movie is set in Bangor, Maine in 1824 and is free to view on line here. In the movie, the rum swilling crowds of lumberjacks and dock workers create a constant backdrop of chaos which is historically accurate. Our country was founded on drink. Even the Puritan ship Arabella carried three times as much beer as water for its transatlantic voyage in 1630. As trade with the West Indies increased, Mainers developed a taste for rum, especially along the coast. Cheap rum replaced beer and other homebrews, and the effects of the stronger drink began to be recognized for its negative effects. By 1785 The Falmouth Gazette became the first Maine newspaper to advocate temperate use of spirits. But as the years passed, consumption rose, reaching a peak in 1830. Social ills like violence, spousal and child abuse and loss of work became rife (see the movie). The rise of the temperance movement started out as just that, a movement to temper or moderate one’s consumption of alcohol. But by mid century a new temperance movement emerged, one which took no prisoners and made no compromise.
The leader of this movement was Maine’s “Napoleon of Temperance”, Colonel (later General) Neal Dow. He was the first to embrace the idea of a legislative solution to fight alcohol consumption as well as a total abstinence stance. This was in contrast to Maine’s governor at the time, William King, who besides being the founder of the first temperance association, enjoyed drinking wine. The Maine Law was established in 1851 and its influence spread nationwide.
This no-compromise approach was not without problems. First, there was Portland’s Rum Riot of 1855, when rumors spread of a cache of liquor in the city hall. One person was killed. Second, the movement was overwhelmingly Protestant. The Irish and other Catholic immigrants were left out and bore the brunt of blame for illegal consumption. Finally, Prohibition never really worked. People kept on drinking and the criminal infrastructure necessary for supplying booze grew. The Maine Law was unpopular as was the loss of personal freedoms necessary for its enforcement. Life among the summer visitors to Bar Harbor continued in its usual spirited way.
From 1920 to 1934 National Prohibition created a huge demand for smuggled booze, and Maine was well positioned for this activity. Our borders were long and sparsely populated; Quebec and the French islands of St Pierre and Miquelon had no problem supplying the drink.
In the end, Prohibition served if not to eliminate drinking, to raise awareness about its adverse health and social effects. In this way, the original intent of the temperance movement, to encourage moderation, became ingrained in our society. Our state motto, “Dirigo”, means “I lead”. Maine certainly lead the way toward moderation.