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The Maine liquor law (1865) or, the laws of the Commonwealth-shall they be enforced?

Address before the Legislative Committee, February 28, 1865.

Gentlemen of the committee: The question you have to consider at this time grows out of the question of Temperance,--the interference with the sale, the public sale, of intoxicating drinks. It is not a new question. What we call the Temperance cause in this Commonwealth is half a century old; and on the other side of the water, if you analyze strictly the legislation of the old countries, the attempt to limit and prohibit, to a certain extent, in the cause of public protection, the free use and sale of intoxicating liquor, is many centuries old. The new point in the discussion is, that any man should assume that a government trespasses on the rights of individuals when it attempts, at last, to legislate on this subject. I think I may safely say, that there is no statute-book in the world, no matter how old its first page is,--no statute-book since the discovery of alcohol,--which has not in it a law in regard to this subject; and if you go behind the Christian era, and into the legislation of the older countries, the same attempt is visible, I think, there. We are not, therefore, trying to gain or clutch any new ground; we are only [179] examining the method by which an old and constantly acknowledged power shall be used.

Again, some men say the Temperance cause is a very narrow, petty, sentimental enterprise, fit for half-witted men, weak-minded women, theorists, but utterly repudiated by the manly and practical intellect and commonsense of the public. On the contrary, to my mind, the Temperance cause is one of the weightiest, broadest, most momentous, that a citizen, under democratic institutions, can contemplate,--especially under democratic institutions here, and leading a race like ours.

Every race, every blood, every climate, has its own special temptation. The tropics have one, the colder climates have another. Some races are distinguished from others by peculiar temptation and weakness. Our climate, our blood, is peculiarly open to the necessity of material stimulus, something that shall wake up and hurry the currents of the blood. The old idea of heaven, to the fathers of our race, was a drunken revel, overflowing with mead and every intoxicating drink. The race craves these stimulants naturally, and still more incidentally,--from the fast life, from the incessant activity, from the hurried and excited nature which modern life gives us,--from some special need of the body itself.

That is our temptation. Again, science, in modern times, has elaborated the processes of manufacturing intoxicating liquor to such a cheap and lavish extent, that a man with one hour's work may be drunk a day; with one-half day's toil may spread his drunkenness over a week. And yet, with this blood, and with science holding out this temptation, and wages holding out these means, and the heavy working of republican institutions resting on the basis of the people themselves, with no breakwater of bayonet or of despotism,--the sense, virtue, purpose of the masses, the pedestal upon which [180] the great, heavy machine of government must be built, --with these yawning gulfs on each side our national progress, there are men who set their faces against the Temperance agitation, and bid us beware of taking up too much time with the narrow and petty interest which we assume to champion! A drunken people were never the safe depositaries of the power of self-government. Hurried on, the mere victims of demagogues, uncontrollable passion their temptation and their guide, who can safely trust his future and the institutions secured by such toil and such blood, to a race making or groping its way amid such evils and such weakness? I contend that every man who desires the security of democratic institutions is to see to it, first of all, that every possible means be exhausted to secure, so far as human means can, a sober people. To my mind, that is the significance of the Temperance enterprise. I know its other phases, alluded to by my friend, Rev. A. A. Miner, who has just stood here,--the domestic desolation, the individual ruin, the spiritual wreck, the pecuniary loss, the family destruction. I know all that; and to the right mind, there lies the real strength of the Temperance agitation. But if any man is of too low a level, too sordid a logic to appreciate or acknowledge that argument, at least citizenship and patriotism, at least selfishness may be brought, for one moment, to reflect, when the very ground around him rests secure only so long as the statute-book is upborne, and the rights of life and property secured by a sober people.

The. question which we meet to discuss to-night is one of this nature,--whether this great principle is to have a fair trial? Mark me! That is my text,--Whether this great principle is to have in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts a fair trial? That is all we ask. Boston is a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The [181] law that prevails in Boston is made in yonder statehouse and recorded in the statute-book of the Commonwealth. The question to be asked in regard to such law is, whether the public opinion of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts demands it? If that opinion does, then Boston has one duty, and but one,--to obey it. Is there anything undemocratic in that? Is there any breach of municipal or individual liberty in that? Has Boston seceded from Berkshire? I contend that Boston is a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and bound to obey her law. Now, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, after thirty years of discussion, after the most exhaustive debate, after statistics piled mountain high on both sides, after every other method has been tried and has failed, has decided that what is called the Maine Liquor Law shall be the law of the Commonwealth.

That is not sentiment, that is a fact. If you doubt it, go to the Secretary of State's office and get a certified copy. That is an indisputable fact, that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has deliberately chosen this method of carrying out her Temperance purpose.

Does any man say it is not a good method? My friend, that is not admissible. We have floated beyond that level of argument. The liquor dealers say it is not a good method. You are out of order! Sit down! You do not belong to this stage of discussion! Mark you! We have funded thirty years of labor in that statute which the Governor has signed and the Secretary of State has sealed. When it was first enacted, the liquor dealers of the State did not like it. They went to the legislature, but the legislature stood unmoved. Having failed there, they went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court, after thorough investigation, said, “It is law!” How far, then, have the Temperance people travelled? Let us stop, and take an inventory. We have a law on [182] the statute-book. We have a reiterated decision of the legislature, that that is their sober, second purpose. We have further the decision of the Supreme Court that it is constitutional. So far we have got. Now, what comes next? The various elements that go to make up the State are to obey it, are they not? Here is our claim; if you do not like it, go back into the arena, and agitate against it. Get up your tracts, your circulars, your lectures, your public conventions, and assail the Gibraltar of the legislature; and when you have carried it, we will sit down and put our hands on our lips. There is where we demand that the liquor interest shall meet us,--in the convention, in the lecture-room, anywhere,--to agitate against the law. We are ready to meet them. We went through thirty years of such agitation. We tried license, we tried the fifteen-gallon law,--every method,--and we failed.

Let me turn aside to say one word here. The chief of police said, in 1863, that he thought it would be a good thing to have a license system. Well, our argument is, “Gentlemen, we tried it for two hundred years, and it failed. Do let us try this fifty years. Is that an unfair demand?”

From the method in which gentlemen address us, one would suppose that there never was a State that tried licensing; that it was a new thought, just struck out from some happy intellect, elevated by a glass of champagne [laughter and applause]; whereas license is as old as Plymouth Rock. The Commonwealth began with it, and they came up to the year 1855; and every philanthropist, every lover of his country and his city, was pale and aghast at the gigantic strides which this vice was making,--at the tremendous yawning gulf in which all public virtue seemed about to be swallowed up. Pulpit, forum, legislatures counting-house,--every walk of [183] life, public and private, was rotten to the very core. Now, therefore, what we have gained is a law reiterated. We have got the court and the legislature on our side; what further do we ask? Well, in tie various counties of the State, more or less direct and honest effort has been made to carry out the law. We do not stop to say how honest or how direct; that is not our business tonight. Our business is with the fact, that in this city no effort has ever been made to carry it out; and in saying that I am not throwing any particular blame on any individual officer. Tie mayor and the aldermen are as good as the average; our police agents and subordinates are not open to exception. It is not the machine, it is the creator of the machine with whom we quarrel. It is not the police nor the mayor, but it is the elements that make both.

The reasons why no effort has been made, are plain enough on the very surface of affairs. They were alluded to by my friend, Rev. Dr. Miner, just now. Nineteen hundred and fifty-one places in this city, where, illegally, liquor is sold, in open defiance of the law; eight or ten millions of dollars on this peninsula invested in the manufacture and sale of liquor; two or three million dollars' worth sold and consumed annually in the city itself. Every man familiar with the machinery of democratic institutions knows that two thousand men, with ten millions of dollars behind them, commanding from three to seven thousand votes, as they readily may, can hold the balance in any election, and make it beyond question that no candidate can ever be ventured by either party, who is not pledged, publicly or privately, not to execute this law of the State. Every man knows that that power, thus massed up, can control the municipal government of the city of Boston. But we are not now finding fault with this state of things. We only [184] say that in consequence of that, or of something else, the city of Boston says to us by the voice of her attorneys, her aldermen, her mayor, “We cannot execute your law.” We take her at her word. Year after year she comes to the legislature and says, “We cannot execute your law.” Well, there are two paths open,--one path is, Repeal the law; the other path is, Try somebody else to execute it. Suppose the engineer of the Fitchburg road should report to the directors, “I can't run your engine beyond Groton.” Two courses would be open for the directors. One would be to take up the rails west of Groton, the other to get a new engineer. Which do you suppose they would adopt? [Applause.] The city of Boston says to the Commonwealth,--a Commonwealth that after thirty years of discussion, after two hundred years of patient experiment, announces a new plan, a plan successful to a marvellous extent elsewhere,--the city of Boston says, “We cannot execute your law.” We take her at her word, and we proceed to do,--what? Why, to go back to the armory of democratic weapons to find whether democracy has any other means of carrying out a law.

Now, mark you, what is a city? It is a body of inhabitants selected from the rest of the State, which assembles together and goes to the legislature and says, “Grant us a city government.” Why do they want it? They say, “We have large masses of criminal inhabitants, large, massed — up quantities of wealth; we need a more stringent machinery than a country town.” The State says, “Yes; take that city charter, and with it take certain conditions and privileges and rights peculiar to a city.” Now, the tendency of the last hundred years has been to what you may call no government,--that is, toward making the government light as possible; filing down all its powers, restricting all its old despotic qualities. [185] That is the tendency of our day. You see it everywhere. We give to wards, to towns, and to small districts unlimited control of their own affairs. In the well-educated, sparsely-populated, comparatively poor districts of Massachusetts, it succeeds. Education and virtue supply the place of force and compulsion. We have tried the-same policy with the city. We have given to it the exclusive execution of the State laws. It was not so forty years ago; the city was then a town in the county of Suffolk; the State sent its own sheriff and its own deputy sheriffs, appointed by itself, not by vote, to execute its laws. You know the city has two codes,--its own by-laws, and also the laws of the State. Its own by-laws were always executed by itself. Half a century ago, the State laws were executed by State officials.

We have gradually tended toward giving to the city the whole control of the State laws also; and to-day (a fact, probably, of which not one in ten in this audience is aware), the police of Boston are engaged three quarters of their time, and more, in the execution, not of city laws, but of State laws, of laws which, half a century ago, would have largely been in the hands of the sheriff and his deputies, appointed by the State. We have gone thus far.

Now, like all other grants, the State may resume this.

The reason why she should resume it is, because the city goes to the state-house, year by year, and says:

We cannot execute your laws.

If you incorporate a company to build a railroad, after the assigned time, if the road is not finished, the State resumes the franchise. The State granted to the city of Boston the right to execute her laws; they are not executed, and the city proclaims, by the lips of her own officers, that she cannot execute them. Therefore, the Temperance [186] men, who have funded thirty years of work in that statute, and who claim of the community this, that, at least, the plan shall have a trial,--as I said at the beginning, a trial, and nothing more,--ask that some other means be substituted. Suppose this plan is tried twenty years, and fails; we will give it up. Suppose you try it, and it does not work even the miracles that we hope; we will surrender it. But long argument, patient debate, constant experiment, have lifted it into the statute-book, and now, certainly, we may rightfully claim, that the State shall provide the machinery to try it before it is taken off that statute-book. Is there anything hard, anything unfair, anything undemocratic in that claim?

But the city says, “You cannot execute a law that has not public opinion behind it.” Granted, I have no wish to execute a law that has not public opinion behind it. I have no wish to execute a law that has not a preponderating public opinion behind it. But the opinion of what public? Is it the opinion of the City Hall? Is it the opinion of the grog-shops of Boston? Is it the opinion of Beacon Street and the clubs? Is it the opinion of Ann Street and North Street? Is it the opinion of the criminals in the dock? No; the law rests on the public opinion of the Commonwealth; and if the liquor interests of Boston wish to appear before that tribunal, we are ready, always ready. We welcome them to that great debate. All we claim is, that* when they are beaten in that court, they shall submit. [Applause.] Is that too much to ask? If they conquer us, we will submit. But we have not been at boys' play for thirty years. We have converted the Commonwealth; it has accepted this idea, and made it into a statute; and if there be a law in Massachusetts, we mean it shall have a fair trial. [Applause.] [187]

How is it to be done? We have a court; we have a legislature; what we want is an executive.

Now, friends, before I begin to speak on that point, let me say one thing. If the metropolitan police does not succeed, we shall ask something more. You need not think you will get rid of us with that. This is our solemn conviction of duty. We have converted the public opinion of the Commonwealth; we mean now to exhaust Yankee ingenuity in the invention of machinery to execute the law; and when Universal Yankeedom confesses that it is bankrupt, we will give up, and not till then. [Applause.] If the metropolitan police is not enough, then we will devise something stronger and better, before we sit down and say that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, in General Court assembled, does not rule this Commonwealth, but that the liquor dealers of Boston do,--for that is the issue. The question is, where is the law to be made? In the gilded saloons of Boston, or in the state-house on yonder hill? If the million of people who inhabit this Commonwealth make the law, this is law, and Boston has no right to complain — having abdicated by her own confession — that we go now to the State, and claim other and better machinery to carry it out.

One other point. You must not expect that this law will convert the whole Commonwealth in a moment. Look at the history of all law. The time was, six or eight centuries ago, when it was a disputed point whether a man owned a separate lot of land. That was settled by public opinion. Then remained a second question; whether, owning it at his death, he could bequeath it. Public opinion nibbled at that question for a hundred years, and then settled it. Doubtless, when the first statute-book to that extent was enrolled among the parchments, many men relucted; but it [188] gradually settled down from the food into the blood, from the blood into the bones, from the bones into the character of the Saxon race; and to-day, every drop of Anglo-Saxon blood acknowledges the sacredness of property derived from a hundred ancestors. Law, once placed on the statute-book, educates the moral sense of the community. Many a man has no higher level than the statute-book; what is legal he respects; if he trespasses against it, he feels himself a sinner; what is illegal he shrinks from. Now, this law, if you leave it on the statute-book, is to be the most powerful moral suasion that was ever employed to the conviction of the universal conscience of the Commonwealth. Leave it there a century, let it rest on the public opinion of the Commonwealth, and a man will walk these streets as much ashamed of being descended from an illegal liquor dealer as from an African slave-trader. [Applause.]

To-day you regard that statement as fanaticism; but you forget, that the masses of mankind may get their ethics, in the first instance, from the statute-book, and only secondly from the Bible; so that, if you will only let this statute stand, we shall have, not merely public opinion, but public virtue, to sanction it, all over the Commonwealth.

But you say to me, it is a single statute. It is not this single statute alone. The liquor dealers of the city of Boston permit — that is the proper word — the execution of the State laws only so far as they do not interfere with their interest. Take the Sunday law. If there be anything anchored in the very superstition as well as in the religious principles of Massachusetts, it is the sacredness of the seventh day; and yet that law, two centuries old,--perhaps the most largely supported by public opinion of anything this side the law of murder,--is not executed on this peninsula, and never will be when [189] it comes in contact with the interests of the liquor dealers of the streets. You talk to me about this statute not being capable of execution. There is no statute capable of execution which comes athwart the selfishness of the liquor trade of the city. Gambling is illegal; the brothel is illegal. They could neither of them be sustained without that substratum and corner-stone, the nineteen hundred and fifty open places for the sale of intoxicating drinks; and do you suppose that either of those laws, held superstitiously, conventionally, religiously sacred as they are in the heart of every Massachusetts man, is executed, or can be executed to-day, when the liquor dealers of this city to a certain extent cover these places with the shelter of their common interest? No; I am not standing here to-night to plead merely that the Maine Liquor Law cannot be executed; I am saying that ten millions of dollars, standing behind what are in fact the criminal classes of the city (and I use the word “criminal” in its broad, legal sense,--everything which evades the laws, bylaws, State laws, all laws),--I say ten millions of dollars, two thousand places for the sale of drink, standing behind the criminal classes, sustaining them, massing them together by the attraction of a common interest, always have, always will, always must, control the municipal government of the peninsula. If you want any law executed faithfully, efficiently, it must be done by the old democratic authority,--the sovereignty of the State.

Why does the city ask for peculiar privileges for her police? You meet a policeman in the street, and he has powers over you a hundred fold greater than the constable of a country town. Why does the city want it? Because she acknowledges that the government wages an unequal war with the criminal classes. Remember, that in ten years, forty-five men out of every hundred on this peninsula are arrested for crime. Forty-five men [190] out of every hundred,--nearly one half of the population of the peninsula, in ten years pass through the station-house or jail. Now go with me to Berkshire, less than two men out of a hundred are subject to the same imprisonment in that county. Do you suppose that a county like this can rule itself with the same facility and earnestness that Berkshire does? Of course not.

The criminal classes, banded together, rich, massed up, are too strong for democratic institutions. I avow my belief, derived from the experience of San Francisco, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Boston, that it will be found in the next hundred years, that great cities cannot be ruled by municipal governments based on democratic foundations. The votes of the streets cannot execute the laws. You may be astonished, indignant, incredulous; but the history of all great cities proves it. San Francisco flung herself out of a government into the hands of private citizens to save herself from anarchy. Baltimore did the same, New Orleans did the same. New York, wise by experience, saved herself from the same lot by going to Albany, and invoking the shelter of the State. London, the capital of the civilized world, in the time of Sir Robert Peel, found herself unable to deal with the criminal classes of the city, and she invoked the aid of Parliament and the whole realm to govern her territory.

Boston has grown within ten years so much into the resemblance of a crowded capital that the same result is reached here. Why, ladies and gentlemen, we relieve every year the poverty of fifty thousand persons on this peninsula, forty thousand of them, according to the testimony of benevolent societies and the overseers of the poor, reduced to claim our assistance by the habits of intoxication of the head of the family. Forty thousand persons kneel to your overseers of the poor every year, in [191] person or by representatives. What makes them? The drinking saloons of the city. And to us who pay that taxation, the drinking saloons say, “You shall not execute that plan which the wisdom of the State has devised to prevent the evil.” Every year twenty-five thousand persons are arrested for crime; nine tenths caused by drunkenness, increasing every year. You spent $700,000 on this peninsula, the last twelve months, to educate twenty-five thousand children, to lift them to morals, intelligence, and virtue, All the time two thousand drinking places are open, and they drag down thirty thousand inhabitants,--adults, the grown up, perfect, developed fruit of your schools, drag them down to the pit. You might as well take that $700,000 spent for schools, and fling it over the end of Long Wharf, when with one hand you build, and with the other tear down your building.

These are the serious considerations. Every man who knows his fellows well enough to judge on this question, knows that streets, planted with every fifteenth house a place for the public sale of drink, are not safe streets for a weak man to walk in. Every man of you knows that the mother in the country follows her son into this city with trembling prayers, not knowing whether the virtue she has carefully watched and nurtured will stand the temptation of Boston streets,--the great cancer of the Commonwealth, the source of daily and hourly corruption; and this is the means which the State has devised to stop the otherwise immedicable wound. Now, what do we claim? We have the legislature by argument, the court by enactments. We are ready to meet our opponents any time to reverse the verdict; but, until it is reversed, we claim police officer and jury to carry out the law. If that machinery succeeds, well. If it does not succeed, something more shall [192] be devised; all the while holding ourselves open to be answered, to be disputed, to be gainsaid, before that great tribunal, the public. I wish I could impress on every man's mind to-night, this one thing. The Temperance body ask nothing of the liquor dealer, nothing of the city, nothing of the State, which it has not already granted in essence. We are not on trial; we have gained the battle; we only ask to reap the fruits. If anybody disputes us, if anybody says the Maine Liquor Law is not good, that a license system would be better, we are willing to go with him into the argument; but that is argument. We demand now that, having got the statute, we have a trial. I challenge the press of the city, the journals of the liquor dealers, to answer that claim, a trial of the statute we have richly earned.

Some say that this law cannot be executed. No law is perfectly executed. Our jails and houses of correction are the evidence that no law is thoroughly executed; but what we claim is, that with fair materials, this law may be as well executed as any law as young as this. Evidence is ready at hand that in the large cities of-Maine, when there was as much wealth in proportion to numbers as here, four fifths of the drinking was killed by the execution of the Maine Liquor Law; and I challenge the history of all legislation to show that any other law, one year old on the statute-book, was ever able to kill four fifths of the evil against which it was directed. I claim as much, if not more, for the Maine Liquor Law as any law has ever achieved. When thoroughly executed, it killed four fifths of the sin which it attacked. You know well that the stranger in the streets of New York, if he is disposed to indulge in the vices that are hidden, must seek out counsel and assistance in order to enable himself to indulge. The main who has any purpose stands firm against the temptation, but many a man who has [193] no purpose is unable to sin from lack of opportunity. But when you open every fifteenth door in the streets, it must be a Hercules who is able to stand against that temptation. Shut up these tempting entrances, and seven out of ten who enter the city for the purpose of getting a livelihood are saved from temptation. Hide it from the investigation of the law, compel it to retreat into private cellars, and a man must seek it,--seek it with advice, seek it with assistance,--before he can fall through that sieve of deficient opportunity into shameful indulgence. There will be only a tenth or a fifth who will contrive the way to pass. Every man acquainted with the history of city indulgence, in this and similar crimes, knows well this principle. Hide the sale of liquors, and we save our sons and brothers. Execute this law, and the streets of Boston, if not entirely clean, are yet as safe as a country town. The mother can trust her boy, the wife her husband, the brother his brother, in these streets of the capital, for education, for trade, for pleasure, without following him with a pang.

I contend that no man needs argument, no man needs evidence on such a subject as this; and no man has lived forty years who has not seen his pathway of life marked by the graves of some that he loved most, from whose promise he augured most, whose career was to be the brightest, who have not fallen at his side, victims to this sin. I should not dare to uncover one single roof in this city, no matter how guarded by wealth, education, or any other fence; for I should be sure to find, even in the narrowest family circle, one vacant seat which this gigantic tempter had emptied. I have only such a tale to: tell as every one of your hearts bears witness to. Lawyer, merchant, divine,--no matter where you take your testimony, every man's heart is full, every man's memory is the most accusing witness against this great social [194] evil. I am no sentimentalist. The keen arrows of dreadful experience, which every year makes more intense and more emphatic, are my inspiration. I believe in it as a great national security, but I argue it as a great individual duty resting upon every man who judges his own past, or who has any pity for his neighbor.

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