Monday, June 02, 2008

June 2

Today is the anniversary of the 1855 Rum Riots that shook Portland, Maine, on June 2, 1855. The uprisings were inspired by rumors that the city’s prohibitionist Mayor Neal S. Dow -- the so-called “Napoleon of Temperance” – had permitted enormous stores of liquor to enter the city in apparent violation of the law. By the night’s end, one man was dead and a handful of others wounded, shot by the state militia by order of the mayor, whose political career was irreparably harmed as a result.

Dow had been an advocate of temperance since the 1830s, and he had devoted years to the project of urging his home state to criminalize the sale and consumption of wicked spirits. Where temperance reformers had traditionally relied on techniques of persuasion and conversion, Dow represented a newer wing of the movement that insisted on total prohibition as the only means sufficient to thwart civilizational collapse. And so in 1851, the Maine legislature passed a landmark bill to accomplish precisely those ends; the “Maine Law” provided that alcohol could only be used legally for “medicinal, mechanical or manufacturing” purposes.

Predictably, the traffic in rum descended underground, as smugglers devised ingenious ways of delivering the desired nectar to whomever was willing to pay for the pleasure and accept the risk. For those who could afford neither the cost nor the risk of violating it, the Maine Law was immensely unpopular – even more so among the state’s Irish immigrants, who correctly understood that public supporters of prohibition often drank as well from the nativist cup. Maine’s protestant majority despised the Irish workers whose numbers had grown in recent decades, regarding them as sotted, Gaelic brutes who would do the nation well by leaving it as quickly as they’d come. Meantime, however, the prohibition law was partly intended to arrest their bad behavior or – it was widely hoped – persuade them to leave the state for more permissive surroundings. Other laws placed new burdens on foreign-born voters, restricting them from the polls at a crucial

When Dow won the mayor’s election in 1855 – benefiting from the efforts to restrict “Irish cattle” from voting – he authorized the city to create an agency to regulate the sale of liquor to those few whe entitled to receive it. He initiated the purchase of $1600 worth of booze in his own name and arranged to pass it along to the new agency once it arrived. Unfortunately for Dow, this qualified as an illegal transfer under the state’s prohibition law, and his opponents pounced. They successfully petitioned a judge to issue a search warrant for city hall, where the contraband was supposed to be residing, and on June 2 a furious crowd descended upon City Hall.

After three hours of taunting and jeering the mayor, throwing rocks and other missiles at the police, the crowd – which had by this point swelled to well over a thousand – charged the building and were repelled by a volley of gunfire. John Robbins, a sailor from Boston, died in the attack. Mayor Dow was allegedly disappointed to learn that Robbins was not Irish.

In the aftermath of the Rum Riot, Dow himself was brought up on charges of violating the liquor law. Though he was acquitted, the incident destroyed his political career and soiled the reputation of the new Republican Party during the next election cycle. Democrats – looking for an issue to draw attention away from the nation’s mounting crisis over slavery – found the temperance controversy to be well suited to the purpose. Rallying voters against “Dowism,” they swept into power in 1856 and quickly repealed the nation’s first prohibition law.

By this point, several other states had followed Maine's lead. Among temperance advocates, the 1855 Rum Riots provided further confirmation that prohibition was a reasonable solution to the problem of alcohol.