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Minnesota's 'Maine Law' (1852)

A temperance movement that called for the banning of all intoxicating liquors swept the nation in the 1840s and continued into the 1850s. In 1851, Portland, Maine mayor and noted temperance advocate Neal Dow helped push through state-level legislation that would soon become known as the 'Maine Law,' banning liquor and making Maine a 'dry' state. It was passed by the Maine state legislature on May 31 and was signed by Governor John Hubbard on June 2. This legislation was the nation's first statewide prohibition law.

In effect, the Maine Law had three principal components. The production, possession, and distribution of liquor for non-medicinal or non-mechanical purposes was prohibited. Second, select city authorities appointed persons to produce approved alcohols for sale at central locations. Third, based on complaints of lawlessness levied by three voting residents, a municipality had the right to search offending locations for banned liquors and seize any illegal product discovered. The penalty for breaking the law was ten dollars plus the cost of prosecution for the first offense, the fine doubled for the second offense, and subsequent offenses included twenty dollar fines along with three to six months imprisonment.

The law had national implications, and soon variants of the Maine legislation made its way through the country. Minnesota passed its version on March 6, 1852. Called “An Act for the Restriction of the sale of Intoxicating Liquors within the Territory of Minnesota,” the verbiage of the law virtually mirrored the language of the Maine Law. One essential component was that its passage was contingent on the results of a special referendum election. On April 5, 1852, territory voters approved the measure by a margin of 853 to 662. The law went into effect on May 5, 1862. Upon learning of the results of the vote, church bells throughout the city of Saint Anthony rang for joy.

Different municipalities treated the new law with varying degrees of seriousness. The people of Saint Paul were mostly against the Maine Law while Stillwater and Saint Anthony saw it as gospel and set out to close down all city establishments that served liquor. The fact remained that while the liquor law wasn’t universally loved, it was passed by a will of the people. Many of the territory's residents came to Minnesota from New England area, and the middle-class values and Protestant sensibilities of that area had come with them. In the eyes of those ‘Mainites,’ what was good for the people of that territory was good for the people of Minnesota.

An early attempt to enforce the new law set in motion the first significant test of its constitutionality. Saint Anthony saloon and pool hall owner Alexis Cloutier was granted a one-year license to distribute liquor by two Ramsey County commissioners on April 29, 1852. On June 21, based on complaints from three legal voters, a warrant was issued to search Cloutier’s business. Authorities located three barrels of intoxicating liquors and charged Cloutier in violation of the territory's liquor law. He was found guilty in justice court and fined for his actions. The court ruled that the May law had voided the license Cloutier was issued in April. The illegal liquor was subsequently forfeited and destroyed.

Cloutier appealed the ruling. On November 23, 1852, the case came before Judge Henry Z. Hayner. Cloutier's representation argued that the liquor law, having been enacted after the results of a popular vote, was unconstitutional and therefore void. The Organic Act of 1849, which established the territorial government of Minnesota, vested legislative power only in the governor and the assembly. Delegating responsibility to the people of the territory to pass the law via popular vote was beyond the scope of their authority. Therefore the liquor law was unconstitutional. On November 27, 1852, Hayner agreed, ruling the Minnesota Maine Liquor Law null-and-void.

Attempts to re-enact the law were made in both 1853 and 1854. In 1853 the measure failed to pass by a single vote, and by 1854 it didn’t make it to the legislature to be voted on. Minnesota was in the midst of a population boom, and the changing make-up of its populace was less interested in imposing temperance reforms within the territory. In spite of this setback, temperance advocates remained passionate about their cause.

Bibliography available here.

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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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Minnesota's 'Maine Law' (1852)
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