Neal Dow was a man on a mission. Stubborn, fiery, and dedicated, with a drive to do good rarely matched in American history, Dow left an indelible mark on 19th century America—some of it, in hindsight, good, some of it not so good. He was an advocate for abolition and, to a lesser extent, women’s suffrage, all of which is certainly good. His chief passion, however, was banning alcohol, which he pursued with a puritanical and paternalistic obsession. He was just about single-handedly responsible for the first statewide prohibition law in the country. He was also pretty responsible for its quick demise.
Dow was born into a Quaker family in 1804, in what would become the City of Portland, Maine. From an early age he was an advocate of Quaker political and moral positions, if not the quiet and pacifist means by which they advocated for them.[i] Interacting with the working-class men who did business with his family’s tannery, he quickly focused on one moral position in particular, seeing alcohol as the root of poverty, lawbreaking, and the other moral problems of his day. He wasn’t interested in mere temperance—half measures never did it for him—and dove fully into the fledgling Prohibition movement.
New England states, keeping with their Puritan origins, were already beginning to experiment with radical alcohol regulation when Dow hit the public scene in the 1830s. He toured the state, speaking up to ten times a week in support of city- and statewide Prohibition laws. In 1939 he convinced Portland’s city council to put to a referendum a proposal to outlaw liquor licenses, and barely lost it. The tide of public opinion kept turning, and four years later the city held a far stricter referendum banning all liquor sales. This time Dow won in a landslide.
The city may have been officially dry, but with sales still allowed in neighboring towns the ban was hardly effective. Dow spent the next few years petitioning the state to ban booze across Maine. He continued his public lobbying spree as well, and turned alcohol into a defining issue of Maine politics in the Antebellum era. Over a few election cycles he stacked the legislature with enough allies to get a Prohibition law passed in 1846. The law wasn’t exactly what Dow had in mind—it had light penalties and little in the way of enforcement mechanism—and while he accepted it as a good step, he kept advocating for more. In 1849 a slightly better version was passed, and in 1851 he put forth his own version of the law that was stricter still. That same year he was elected mayor of Portland, moving him from a pure advocate role to a state official. His election would be the final straw that would get his dream law passed, but it would also complicate his position in ways that would lead to the law’s failure.
The Maine Liquor Law passed in June of 1851, by a heavy majority. Dow went to work enforcing it, making public shows of smashing bottles in the street. Prohibition advocates claimed that his stringent enforcement worked and the city was dry, but other sources claimed that plenty of working class and immigrant saloons were still operating, and had just gone underground. Dow’s ardor in enforcing the law split his party, and he lost his election in 1852, losing again in 1854 before being reelected in 1855.[ii]
A few months after his second term started, Dow made a major blunder. He ordered $1,600 worth of alcohol that was to be distributed to pharmacies (just like during national Prohibition, the Maine Law had an exception for medicinal uses) and stored it in the City Hall basement. Word got out, rumors flew, and the optics were not good. On June 2nd a crowd of anti-prohibition advocates gathered, as did a crowd of indignant prohibition supporters who didn’t understand why he had the booze. When the crowd got unruly, Dow called out the militia, who fired on the protesters, killing a sailor. Tried for violating his own act (and later, for the murder of the sailor), Dow was acquitted, but his career as mayor was over. A year later, with the bill’s architect on the sidelines, the state repealed the Maine Law.
Temperance, and its fringe cousin prohibition, was a local game in the 19th century. At a time when an immense government project like national Prohibition would have been unthinkable (the Federal government was tiny at this point) and alcohol remained normal and popular in much of the country, it was the only way advocates could make change. It also meant, though, that efforts were often aligned with one group or even one person, and their success was tied to them. If they went down, the law did too. As the movement grew and became national, it never really got away from that. In the late 19th century it was Frances Willard of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union; in the early 20th and into Prohibition it was the Anti-Saloon League’s Wayne Wheeler. Wheeler’s death in 1927 stripped the law of its most powerful advocate and helped open the door to repeal. Movements built around charismatic leaders rarely survive them.
[i] Apparently known to brawl in his youth, Dow would serve as an officer in the Civil War later in life.
[ii] Apparently Portland had municipal elections every year at this point, which seems… excessive.
Dow and the Maine Law were hot topics at the time of its enactment. Sources I read from that time include Henry Clubb’s very pro-Dow “The Maine Liquor Law, Including a Life of Hon. Neal Dow” (1856) and B.F. Clark’s anti-Prohibition “The Maine Law a Failure” (1864). After that, the subject mostly just appears in introductory chapters to books about national Prohibition. One exception is Frank Byrne’s “Prophet of Prohibition: Neal Dow and his Crusade” (1961). Dow also published an autobiography, “The Reminiscences of Neal Dow.”