Minnesota High License Law (1887)

Minnesota High License Law (1887)
Savage Saloon Minnesota Historical Society

State legislators passed the High License Law in 1887 after failing to pass it in 1883 and 1885. Touted by proponents as the temperance movement's alternative to prohibition, the law substantially raised the cost of liquor licenses throughout the state. The legislation aimed to reduce saloons in local communities while increasing taxes. The law was not put into place to halt the flow of liquor but rather to drive out the fringe saloons and keep the more respectable establishments in business.

The High License law was a Republican measure that restricted public access to intoxicating liquors by charging saloon owners an exorbitant license fee. Although there would be fewer saloons, increased license fees would bring in extra funds to supplement local government expenditures. There was a belief expensive liquor licenses were the most effective way to curb the negative consequences of intoxicating liquors and promote public health.

Like other states at the time, Minnesota debated whether to institute alcohol temperance or outright bans. The law seemed to provide the best of both worlds. A high license fee would eliminate some lower-class, less reputable establishments and offer fewer opportunities for residents to drink intoxicating liquors. In other words, the aim was to take business power from the many and give it to the few. But, due to the increase in paying customers when the disreputable saloons closed, saloons that remained could provide their customers with better liquor.

Opponents had concerns. They felt licensing fees most negatively affected 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 saloon license fees to help run their municipalities flew in the face of temperance ideals.

In their eyes, the High License bill was a half-measure, little more than a compromise between liquor dealers and Prohibitionists. It didn't 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. Governor Andrew McGill signed the bill, making it law. The finished legislation called for saloon owners in cities with 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.

Lawmakers later added a provision to require an extra security deposit to further ensure licensed owners ran legitimate businesses.

On July 1, 1887, the new law took effect 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 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. Yet, drinking remained as prevalent as it was during the days of low licensing fees. While the new law harmed a small saloon owner's ability to do business, it did little to change the drinking habits of the people of Minnesota.

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. In little time, total alcohol prohibition 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.


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