Minnesota's 'Maine' Law (1852)

Minnesota's 'Maine' Law (1852)
"The Drunkard's Progress" Nathaniel Currier/Library of Congress

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

The Maine Law consisted of three main components. The production, possession, and distribution of liquor for non-medical or non-mechanical purposes were prohibited. Second, select city authorities appointed persons to produce approved alcohols for sale at central locations. Finally, if three voters complained of lawlessness, a municipality was entitled to search for banned liquors at offending locations and seize whatever illegal products were found.

Punishment for breaking the law was ten dollars plus the cost of prosecution for the first offense, double for the second offense, and twenty dollars along with three to six months imprisonment for subsequent offenses.

The law had national implications, and soon variations made their way across 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 the east 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 May 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 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 the 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, Judge 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.


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