December 22, 2013

Commentary: Portland, champion of temperance

How a city that just enacted the East Coast’s first marijuana legalization law was once at the forefront of national prohibition.

By Paul Mills

The Portland city ordinance purporting to legalize the recreational use of marijuana took effect earlier this month – the first in the eastern United States.

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This 1911 photo shows a pro-Prohibition parade float. Portland was once in the vanguard of enacting the country’s first laws outlawing liquor.

Courtesy photo

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The Rum Room in Portland City Hall, where confiscated liquor and liquor-making equipment was stored, from a postcard mailed in 1928.

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About the author

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail:

Seeing Portland take the lead in a loosening-up of drug laws arouses a sense of irony in that the city was once in the vanguard of enacting the country’s first laws outlawing liquor, boasting the two most prominent Prohibition leaders in America. A complete turn-about in the city’s mindset has not, however, necessarily occurred, as the story of these two early Portland temperance advocates illustrates.

“Prohibition” is a term most frequently invoked to denounce efforts to regulate a variety of substances and even ideas. It’s a term used almost interchangeably with repression.

There was a time, however, when the movement to outlaw alcoholic beverages was closely allied with such progressive causes as giving women the right to vote and civil rights for minorities. This was especially the case during the 65-year period from just before the Civil War until World War I when the Portland-based campaign for Prohibition had taken successful root in Maine. For almost throughout this era, Maine had its own Prohibition laws – put and kept in place by leadership from the city – well before the advent of national Prohibition in 1919.

The two foremost exponents of this early brand of Prohibition – both in Maine and throughout the nation – were Portlanders Neal Dow and Lillian M.N. Stevens.

Dow – one of the city’s leading manufacturers – developed an interest in regulating liquor due to his observations of the effects it had on his employees. A compelling public speaker, Dow by the 1840s became the recognized leader of Maine’s temperance movement.

By March 1851, Dow ran for mayor, running on a platform to give Maine an authentic prohibition law – one put on the books in 1846 being devoid of an enforcement mechanism. Soon after his landslide election, Dow was off to the state Capitol.

There, he tirelessly advocated the passage of legislation he and his attorney had drafted to make Prohibition a reality for the first time in any state in America. In terms that foreshadowed the profile of some contemporary marijuana laws, the bill was cloaked with an exemption allowing the sale of liquor for medicinal purposes.

By the end of May, the Legislature, by a near 2-to-1 majority, had enacted the measure. Voting crossed party lines among the two major parties of the day, while the nine members of an anti-slavery third party, known as Free Soilers, voted unanimously for the bill.

Gov. John Hubbard, himself a practicing physician, signed the bill into law Monday, June 2. (It would also be a historic week for another reason: Just three days later, the first installment of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in National Era magazine.)

The “Maine Law” quickly became an international synonym for Prohibition, and at the same time Neal Dow soon became a worldwide celebrity in movements elsewhere to push for its enactment. Joining Dow’s Prohibition crusade outside Maine, for example, was the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, brother to the author Stowe and himself also a recognized leader in the anti-slavery movement.

At the time of the Civil War, Dow, though now nearly 60, but with a zeal for the anti-slavery movement that nearly matched his ardor for temperance, volunteered for the Union cause. After being wounded twice in battle in Louisiana, he then spent eight months in Confederate prisons before being released in an exchange with another general, Robert E. Lee’s nephew

After the war, Dow spoke extensively about Prohibition both in America and in Europe. Back in Maine, he lent his support to the successful effort to solidify the Maine Law by incorporating it into a constitutional mandate in 1884, one that voters would not repeal until 1934. Dow’s Maine Law still has not completely lost its grip, however, as even today several Maine communities continue to remain dry under the local option system.

Dow died at age 93 in 1897. The Congress Street home where he, his son Frederick – who became a longtime owner of two of the state’s largest newspapers, the Sunday Telegram and Portland Evening Express – once resided is now preserved as a museum.

The year after Dow’s death, another well-known Portlander assumed the mantle of national temperance leadership. This was in 1898 when Lillian Stevens became the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, the largest organization of American women up to that time, one that would grow to more than a half-million members under Stevens’ leadership over the next 16 years.

A major figure in the Prohibition movement and a frequent collaborator with Dow long before Dow’s death, Stevens had, for example, been the state WCTU president since 1878, and joined forces with Dow in the successful campaign to elevate the state’s existing Prohibition law to constitutional status.

Like Dow, however, Stevens merged her passion for temperance with an advocacy for other issues. Among them: crusades against domestic violence and for giving women the right to vote. (The latter was not an easy sell in Maine, where even by 1917 a statewide referendum repudiated such an overture.)

Stevens also pursued Dow’s interest in the plight of the country‘s minorities, supporting roles in the organization for African-Americans, despite the risk this posed to winning the support of Southern whites.

Under Stevens, the WCTU helped bring about passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906.

Prison reform was another focus of Stevens. Stevens’ campaign to make sure that the administration of such facilities be entrusted to more women and to seek a separate prison for them finally came to fruition in Maine in 1919, five years after her death. The reformatory’s main cottage was named for her as a tribute to such efforts.

The esteem in which Stevens was held is further signified by the statue in her honor in the front courtyard of the Portland Public Library, one of the few in Maine to celebrate a female leader. (Those commemorating Samantha Smith, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Joan Benoit are among the few others.)

It’s perhaps problematic to presume that if Dow and Stevens were alive today, they would support the recently passed marijuana ordinance of their home city even though assailing alcohol was a theme of those backing the ordinance. Their interest in civil and women’s rights, prison reform and other causes that were companions of the early Prohibitionist movement, however, would suggest that Dow, Stevens and today’s reformers might find more than a few things in common.

— Special to the Telegram

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Additional Photos

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Neal S. Dow of Portland led the temperance movement.

Courtesy photo

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Illegal liquor is removed from a ship docked in Portland in the 1920s.

Portland Press Herald file photo

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David Boyer, Maine political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, speaks at a Yes on 1 gathering in Portland on Nov. 5.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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