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An Era of Reform

By 1820, changes in religious attitudes in New England led to a widespread era of reform. As the harsh views of the Puritans gave way, Protestants came to believe that it was possible for anyone to achieve perfection in their lives and reach heaven. They set to work reforming themselves and their communities. Abolition of slavery, the fight for women's suffrage, and efforts to care for those less fortunate are all rooted in this era. Women like Maine's own Dorothea Dix took an active role leading these movements.

By the second decade of the 19th Century, New England's great secret was increasingly seen as America's growing problem with alcohol. Current estimations show that per capita consumption of alcohol in America reached its peak in 1830. Its abuse led to violence, spousal and child abuse, loss of work, and sometimes, a night in jail. Drunkenness among children was not uncommon, either. Recognizing these problems, physicians and religious leaders joined with recovering alcoholics in creating a loosely organized, grass roots temperance movement. Groups like the Temperance Watchman of Durham, Maine, one of the first formed in1848, strove to set a moral example and achieve social control through the moderation of drinking.

The Napoleon of Temperance

By mid-century, Portland's Neal Dow (1804-1897) changed the tactics of the battle against alcohol by adopting a legislative approach. Rather than changing people's attitudes, Dow's new reformers would change laws. Rather than preaching moderation, they branded all drinkers as rum dealers. Indeed, Dow left the moderates behind, including wine drinker Governor William King, who founded the first statewide temperance association. In 1851 Dow guided his Maine Law through the legislature and Maine became the first "dry" state. Neighboring states, including Massachusetts, took the law as a model and passed similar anti-liquor reforms. The nation's eastern-most state seemed to be living up to its motto, "Dirigo" (I lead) and, on paper at least, it stayed dry through National Prohibition. Celebrated as the Napoleon of Temperance, Dow promoted his approach nationally and internationally. In spite of endless adjustments, however, the Maine Law never succeeded in destroying the liquor traffic or public thirst. Dow's own reputation was severely threatened in 1855 when he ordered the militia to fire on civilians as they descended upon Portland's City Hall, looking for a stash of liquor they had heard was kept there. One man was killed by Dow's forces. Portland's Rum Riot demonstrated the passionate, sometimes irrational, zeal of both factions.

Maine's immigrant communities were also noticeably absent from the Maine Law ranks. Irish-Americans, whose younger men tended to embrace the stereotype of public drinking, often seemingly to spite Yankees such as Dow, were now given the brunt of the blame for outbreaks of violence. Portland had a remarkable number of riots in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, often related to alcohol. Ironically, some of the first non-Yankee fortunes came from brewing or the hundreds of kitchen bars that appeared after 1851. The growing middle class, still largely Yankee, enjoyed an occasional drink but came to view excessive drinking as a lower class, foreign, or youth problem.

Though Dow's legal attempt to completely abolish drinking was never fully successful, the attention he brought the issues helped change people's attitudes toward drink. Children and adults came to view temperance as a virtue and drinking declined rapidly.


A Call to Temperance

Temperance Membership

Neal Dow

Drinking: Elegance and Debauchery