Neal Dow played a major role in promoting prohibition. Under his leadership, the Main Law was passed in 1851. It prohibited making or selling any form of alcoholic beverage. Alcohol could only be legally made and sold for industrial or medicinal purposes.
I. Neal Dow
II. Portland Rum Riot
III. Neal Dow House
Before that time, temperance activists focused on moral suasion. They attempted to persuade individuals to abstain from alcohol. They typically used either logic or religion to do so. Instead, Dow advocated using the police power of government to prohibit anyone from drinking.
Dow did not originate the idea of using the state to impose prohibition. The first attempt to use prohibition in the New World occurred in 1630. In that year Governor John Winthrop of Massachusetts attempted to prohibit all alcoholic beverages in Boston. Neither it nor any of the other attempts by anyone else proved successful.
I. Neal Dow
But society had changed. Temperance sentiment was popular by the mid-1800s. Dow was the right person at the right time.
In 1837, a prohibition bill in Maine had made it out of legislative committee but was tabled. Then in 1846 a prohibition law was enacted, but was weak. In 1849, a stronger bill passed the legislature. The governor, however, refused to sign it into law.
In 1851, Dow was elected mayor of Portland. He drafted what is now called the Maine Law. He gathered thousands of signatures on a petition supporting the bill. This helped him successfully lobby for its passage. After that occurred, he persuaded the new governor, John Hubbard, to sign it. Hubbard was sometimes called the ‘father of prohibition.’ Yet it was Neal Dow who drafted the Main Law. He also lobbied for its passage and persuaded the governor to sign it. For that reason, he was called the “Napoleon of Temperance.’ Two months later he was the main speaker at a national temperance convention. He was soon known nationally.
There was much opposition to the Main Law. Portland’s Irish immigrants were especially hostile to prohibition. Dow lost reelection as Portland’s mayor. He then traveled across the U.S. and Canada calling for prohibition laws. Another run for mayor in 1854 failed. But the next year he was reelected mayor.
II. Portland Rum Riot
The law he wrote provided that cities could appoint someone to sell alcohol for ‘medicinal and mechanical’ purposes. Dow authorized the city to buy $1,600 worth of alcohol and stored it in the city hall’s basement. It was to be sold to legal purchasers from a city-operated store on the first floor of the building. But Dow failed to receive the required appointment or authorization from the city to do. Thus, he was in violation of the law.
Word of the alcohol spread. A rumor began that Dow was going to sell it for his own profit. State law provided that if three citizens thought a crime had been committed, they could obtain a search warrant from a judge. The judge was required to issue it to them. Three citizens obtained a warrant to search the city hall basement.
A group of about 200 marched to the city hall. The men presented the warrant at the city hall door but were refused admittance to carry but the search. Moreover, the police said they would not execute the warrant. Nor would they conduct a search.
A crowd grew as the news spread. Many joined it after they left work. By early evening a large, angry crowd had gathered. Rocks were thrown.
Dow called out the militia. He gave one order to the crowd to disperse. Because of the number of people assembled, many may not have heard it. Then, under Dow’s order, the militia opened fire on the crowd. They killed a young immigrant who was to be married the next day. At least seven more were injured. Apparently some were simply bystanders.
Dow showed no remorse. He described the members of the mob, most of whom were Irish, as savage and uncivilized. Then he ignored the families of the dead and wounded. He never expressed condolences. Surprisingly, he actually bragged about his actions in writing to other temperance leaders.
The next year, the Maine Law was repealed. In 1857 he took a prohibition lecture trip to England. He later took two more such trips there.
III. Neal Dow House
The Portland Rum Riot ended his political career. He never won another election although he ran for governor and for president of the U.S. The latter was on the ticket of the Prohibition Party in 1880.
Dow died in Portland on October 2, 1897 at the age of 93. He didn’t live to see National Prohibition (1920-1933). His home now houses the Maine Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. In 1974 it was designated a National Historic Landmark.
Neal Dow is remembered as a pioneering leader of the drive for prohibition.
IV. Resources on Neal Dow
Byrne, F. Prophet of Prohibition. Neal Dow and His Crusade. Gloucester, MA: Smith, 1969.
Clubb, H. The Maine Liquor Law. NY: Fowler & Wells, 1856. (Reprint, 2010)
Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 5. Johnson, A. (Ed.) NY: Scribners’ Sons, 1929.
Dow, N. Reminiscences of Neal Dow. Portland: Evening Express, 1898.
Krout, J. The Origins of Prohibition. NY: Putnam, 1973.