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High License Law (1887)

After failed attempts in the 1883 and 1885 legislative sessions, Minnesota legislators were able to pass a High License Law in 1887. Billed by proponents as the temperance advocate groups alternative to prohibition, the law significantly raised the cost of liquor licenses throughout the state. It intended to lessen the number of saloons in local communities while increasing tax revenue for local municipalities. The law wasn’t put in place to stop the flow of liquor, but rather to price the fringe saloons out of business, leaving the more respectable establishments to continue to serve customers.

The debate in Minnesota, similar to conversations that took place throughout the country at the time was between alcohol temperance or outright prohibition. Proponents felt that high license was a chance to weed out some of the lower class less reputable establishments and open up communities with fewer opportunities to drink intoxicating liquors. The object was to take the ability to do business out of the hands of the many and put it into the hands of the few. When the disreputable saloons closed, those that remained would offer customers a higher grade of liquor due to the increase in paying customers.

The High License bill was a Republican measure that restricted public access to intoxicating liquors in the state by charging saloon owners an exorbitant fee to license their businesses. Proponents hoped that a large number of establishments would be unable to afford the new charges, and therefore be forced to close their doors. While there would be fewer saloons, the increased license fees would place additional monies into local coffers to help pay municipality expenses. The sentiment at the time was that high license was the best option to curb the negative consequences of intoxicating liquors and promote the public good.

Opponents had concerns. They felt licensing fees most negatively impacted immigrant and working-poor saloon owners. The prevailing belief that these smaller, fringe establishments were only to blame for the state's alcohol-related issues was misguided. Lessening the number of saloons would not promote temperance - people would find somewhere else to drink. Also, officials using license fees to help run their municipalities flew in the face of temperance ideals. The High License bill was merely a half-measure, little more than a compromise between liquor dealers and Prohibitionists. It did go far enough. Prohibition was the only way to fix the moral ills of society.

On February 4, 1887, the Senate voted 26-19 to pass the bill. Five days later, by a margin of 59 - 37 the House approved the measure. Subsequently, Governor Andrew McGill signed the bill, making it law. The finished legislation called for saloon owners in cities with a population of 10,000 or more people to pay a $1000 yearly licensing fee, or $500 in less populated towns. It maintained the ‘local option’ of the 1878 liquor laws, allowing local officials to deny license applications that weren’t in the best interest of their region. A provision was later added to require an additional security deposit to ensure further that licensed owners ran legitimate businesses.

The new law took effect on July 1, 1887, everywhere but Minnesota's capital city. The Saint Paul City Council voted to carry their currently enforced liquor licenses through the end of the year and to institute the state High License Law citywide on January 1, 1888. It allowed city saloon owners until February 1 to renew their liquor licenses at the state-mandated $1000 rate.

High License had the desired effect on locations and revenue. The number of saloons and blind pigs dropped statewide. Before its passage, Saint Paul had 770 saloons. By September of 1888, the number had fallen to 335, while city revenue from licenses had grown from $77,000 to $335,000. Communities throughout the state saw varying degrees of comparable positive results. However, drinking remained as prevalent as it was during the days of low licensing fees. While the new law impacted the saloon owners ability to do business, it did little to change the drinking habits of the people of Minnesota.

This failure to wean people away from the evils of intoxicating liquors gave Prohibitionists a platform to convince Minnesotans of the value of their cause. Minnesota became increasingly ‘dry’ after the turn of the century, and in little time complete prohibition of alcohol grew from a political murmur to become the rallying cry of the people of the state. The High License law remained on the books in varying degrees, until being replaced by an act passed by the state legislature declaring Prohibition in Minnesota on July 1, 1919.

Bibliography available here.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial-No Derivatives 4.0 International License.

Matt Reicher

Matt has a BA in history from Metropolitan State University and a MA in museum studies from Oklahoma University.

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