Historical Michigan (by Bert Klopfer)



The use of and traffic in alcoholic drink in Michigan began with the opening of the first white settlements. By getting the Indians drunk, white traders were about to buy furs cheaper than if the Indians were sober. This arrangement of the white man is thoroughly substantiated by history.

At the Mackinaw post, establishment before the white settlers came to Detroit, brandy and other merchandise were traded the Indians. Cadillac founded Detroit in 1701. Liquor was brought with him. Later, supplies of rum and brandy were secured. At the trial of Cadillac in Quebec in 1705 on the charge of interfering with and injuring the trade of the Colony of Canada, there was testimony that one trader in Detroit had 400 quarts of brandy which he used to corrupt the red man. A brewery was set up in Detroit.

The Jesuit missionaries early realized the baneful effects of intoxicants on the Indians and urged prevention of the traffic. Under English rule, from 1759, liquor among Indians occasioned trouble.  Traders and merchants, however, in justification of their course, urged that if Indians were not supplied by the British with liquor, they will receive it from other and hostile sources.  It was also contended that it was customary to give liquor to Indians at feasts in just sufficient quantities to prevent them from taking their furs to more distant points.  IN 1802 congress authorized the president to take such steps as  might seem necessary or expedient to prevent the sale or giving of spirits to Indians. In 1815 a law was passed fixing a fine of $500 as penalty for anyone setting up a still in the Indian country and six years later seizure of liquor in the possession of traders was authorized.  In 1825 the Detroit common council asked the superintendent of Indian affairs to aid in suppressing Indian troubles incident to liquor. During colonial days before the Revolution license was discussed but regulation only as to the Indians was enforced. License and prohibition became the watchwords of opposing factions seeking minimization or eradication of the evils incident to traffic in liquor.  In 1846 Maine passed the first state prohibition law and Michigan passed a similar law in 1855. In 1850 a no-license constitutional amendment was adopted by temperance folks as well as 'wet' of the time set about at one to repeal it.  In the '80s the high-license movement gained momentum and in a number of Michigan municipalities local license rates for retail distributors of liquor ran as high as $1,000.

The first organized expression of anti-liquor lay in the formation of the Detroit Society for the Suppression of Intemperance, February 19, 1930, with General Charles Lamed, veteran of the Revolution and of the war of 1812, as the first president. In March, 1833, it was enlarged to the Michigan Temperance society. General Lewis Cass, Michigan's foremost citizen at this time, was a leader in the temperance movement in the national capital. ON a call signed by twenty-five members, in the senate chamber February 26, 1833, the Congressional Temperance society was formed and Cass was chosen president. The purpose of the society was to discourage the use of ardent spirits.

 A wide chasm was developed in the early temperance movement between the teetotalers and the 'temperance' folks, the latter not interdicting beer or light wine, and finally the Washingtonian, 'moral suasion' movement formed in Baltimore in 1840 by six reformed inebriates, found its way into Michigan. John B. Gough, one of the greatest orators, was a Washingtonian crusader. Augustus Littlejohn, famed wit orator, inveighed against liquor in Michigan in 1843. His methods were spectacular and took on the form of a court trial with King Alcohol, the defendant, charged with all sorts of heinous crimes.  The 'king' would be found guilty and condemned to born at the stake. Father Theobald Mathew, Catholic total abstinence crusader, also wielded a tremendous influence on the temperance thought of Michigan. He came to the United States in 1849 and was accorded royal honors by the federal government. Father Mathew visited twenty-five states, including Michigan, and administered the temperance pledge to more than 300,000 persons in 300 cities and villages. Branches of Father Mathew's societies were formed throughout the state. ON June 7, 1852, an immense temperance meeting and parade were held in Detroit, addresses being delivered by Neal Dow, of Maine, Jacob M. Howard, later a United States senator, and others.

In the middle seventies, Dr. Henry A. Reynolds and Francis Murphy conducted great crusades in Michigan. The red ribbon was the emblem of the Reynolds pledge, a blue that of the Murphy pledge. IN 1874 the Women's Christian Temperance union was organized in Ohio and carried its campaign well into Michigan. In the eighties, laws were passed making compulsory instruction in the public schools concerning the effect of alcohol and narcotics on the human system.

The state constitution of 1850 carried a provision providing that 'the legislature shall not pass any act authorizing the grant of license for the sale of ardent spirits or other intoxicating liquor' and the section was ratified by a vote of 36, 169 to 9.433.  Three years later the legislature passed what was known as the first Maine prohibition law, which forbade the traffic of liquor except for medicinal mechanical, scientific or sacramental purposes and in June, 1853, it, too, was ratified. One court declared it unconstitutional and in 1855 an iron-clad prohibition law was passed and remained on the statute books twenty years and nine months, flagrantly defied in Detroit and indifferently enforced in other parts of the state. During the Civil war the liquor question was entirely subordinated to preparations for winning the war. In April 1867, the voters again ratified a constitutional amendment forbidding licensing of liquor sales and ordering the legislature to pass a strict prohibition law. A state convention of Germans held in Detroit in August, 1871, pledged defense of saloonkeepers arrested for violation of the prohibition laws.  Three years later a state conclave of liquor dealers proposed a license law with heavy tax and the tax law of May 3, 1875, was the result.  A graded system of taxes was provided and several amendments were made to the law. A group of Detroit liquor dealers, opposed to payment of the tax, opposed the law, contending that a tax on the traffic was equivalent to a license on the traffic and therefore in conflict with the anti-liquor section of the state constitution. This contention was rejected by the supreme court and the following year the prohibition amendment of the constitution was eliminated. Between 1850 and 1875 no Michigan laws were so brazenly defied as the anti-saloon laws, says John Fitzgibbon in Michigan History Magazine, Vol. II. Some judges brazenly refused to hear liquor cases or to receiver complaints against violators. Acts of violence and of recrimination were frequent.  Sunday closing was hotly debated. In 1864 Detroit had 523 saloons and 28 breweries and 83 lawyers. The tax law of 1875 swept away the last vestige of prohibition legislation but not without the protest of the radical temperance element. In the meantime political maneuvering was well under way, the Republican party having taken a firm stand for the submission of prohibition constitutional amendments. The Prohibition party grew in influence under the leadership of Dr. Samuel Dickie. In 1887 an amendment was defeated following a bitter campaign. Fraud was charged in a number of counties, an investigation was set about but nothing was disclosed, at least officially. Dr. Dickie was made national chairman of the Prohibition party in October, 1887, succeeding John B. Finch, and directed the national campaign of 1888 with great vigor. The high water mark of the party was reached in 1892 when John Bidwell, its candidate for president, received 264, 133 votes.

A number of local option measures were tried in Michigan, originating in legislative action in 1845, and the first to try these powers was Detroit, when on March 2, 1846, that city voted to banish barrooms, the vote being 230 for licenses to 1,070 against. In 1850 the city restored saloons by popular vote.

In 1887, Michigan passed a law for county local option but the supreme court nullified it and two years later a corrected measure was passed. Quite a number of counties went dry and when statewide prohibition came May 1, 1918, forty-tree of the eighty-three counties of the state were already dry. More than 1200 saloons and twelve breweries were closed by local option from 1912 to 1916. From 1896 on all local option drives in the state were directed by the Michigan Anti-Saloon league, organized that year with W. R. Fox, of Grand Rapids, as president. The tax act of 1875 was amended, increasing liquor taxes and in 1882 and 1887 teh rates were still further advanced and in 1895 the tax was again boosted.

A brief chronological record relating to the regulation of liquor, or its abolition, in Michigan, may be of interest.


1774 Detroit merchants agree to put their liquor in one general store and sell only one drink at a time to Indians
1795 System of licenses was authorized
1805 Territorial license fees to be determined by justices of the peace
1814 Licenses in the Detroit district fixed.
1829 No liquor can be drunk on licensed premeises.
1836 State license law enacted and rates fixed at $15 to $20
1850 Constitutional prohibition amendment passed
1853 Legislature passed the Maine prohibition act.
1855 New prohibition law passed and debts for liquor held to be uncollectible.
1859 Law passed creating county inspectors of liquor to guard against adulteration.
1861 Distilling of alcohol and the selling of wine and cider in quantities of one gallon or more and of malt beverages in quantities of more than five gallons was legalized.
1876 Constitutional prohibition repealed. the year before a law providing for taxing the manufacture and sale of liquor having been passed.
1887 Prohibition constitutional amendment defeated by popular vote
1889 County law option law enacted
1897 Law forbidding giving or selling intoxicants to 'posted persons' made more stringent
1909 Warner-Cramton law limiting number of saloons to one for each 500 population passed; also forbidding free lunch, except crackers and pretzels.
1913 Pray law enacted which prohibited shipment of liquor into dry counties except under rigid regulations
1916 Constitutional prohibition adopted by voters, November 7. The vote was 353,378 for the amendment and 284,754 against it.
1917 Law enacted providing machinery and methods for enforcing statewide prohibition.


Attention must be directed to the fact that in 1832 the federal government forbade the sale of liquor to Indians or its introduction into Indian country. In 1883 the government declared the excessive use of liquor to be a bar to civil service appointment. In 1890 liquor was forbidden in posts, canteens or other military premises. In 1890 congress declared intoxicating liquors non-mailable; in 1913 the Webb-Kenyon act forbidding the importation of liquor into a state to be received, used or possessed contrary to the laws of such state, was passed and in 1917 congress submitted to the states for ratification the federal, or 18th, amendment to the constitution forbidding the manufacture or sale of intoxicating liquors and the amendment was ratified. Next came the Volstead act carrying the amendment into effect, congress  providing the machinery of enforcement and declaring all beverages containing in excess of one-half of one percent of alcohol to be intoxicating.




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