Maine Law: First State Prohibition in U.S.

In 1846, Maine passed the first state-wide law in the U.S. prohibiting the sale of alcoholic beverages. Only alcohol made for industrial or medicinal use could legally be sold. But it was not the famous Maine Law.

I. Maine Law

In 1851, the Maine Law went into effect.. It was officially titled  ‘An Act for the Suppression of Drinking Houses and Tippling-Shops.’ That was somewhat misleading. It prohibited both the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. The law made exceptions for industrial and medicinal alcohol.

Surprisingly, the law did not prohibit imported alcoholic beverages. That’s because of the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. Congress alone has the power to regulate trade with other nations and between the states. It had asserted that it was legal to import goods from foreign nations. Thus Maine could not prohibit the importation of alcohol.

II. Neal Dow

Maine law

Neal Dow

Governor John Hubbard signed the legislation into law. He was then called the Father of Prohibition. However, it was Neal Dow who energetically promoted the Act and pushed it through the legislature. It is Neal Dow whose name we associate with the Maine Law today. Hubbard is now only a footnote in history.

Widespread bootlegging and other problems led to its repeal in 1858.  The state replaced it with a law that simply limited sale of alcoholic beverages. Yet bootleggers continued to be a problem. But in 1885, Maine included prohibition in the state constitution. Of course, bootlegging continued.

The Maine Law marked a basic change in thought and action. It was that drinking was not a personal or moral matter. It was that drinking was a political and legal matter. That view became increasingly popular.

Many other states passed various versions of the pioneering law. By  855, twelve states had laws mandating total prohibition. States repealed many of them. In other cases courts held them to be in violation of state constitutions.

But prohibition activists persisted. Eventually, the 18th Amendment was ratified and National Prohibition became the law of the land.

Even today, almost one of every five American adults favors outlawing drinking alcohol. For everyone. However, not even Prohibition outlawed alcohol consumption! And many more support neo-prohibition views.

III. Resources

Bouchard, K.  When Maine went Dry. Portland Press Herald,  Oct 2, 2011.

Day, H. Does Prohibition Pay? Maine, after Fifty-seven Years of Prohibition. NY: Appleton, 1908.

Dow, N. A History of Prohibition in Maine, 1893.

Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits. The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. NY: Putnam’s, 1973.