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The Perils of "Pure Democracy": Minority Rights, Liquor Politics, and Popular Sovereignty in Antebellum America

From: Journal of the Early Republic
Volume 29, Number 4, Winter 2009
pp. 641-679 | 10.1353/jer.0.0113



Examining conflict over local option liquor license laws passed in numerous states during the mid-1840s, this article exposes a pioneering moment in the history of direct democracy. Spurred by the temperance movement's crusade against alcohol and liquor licensing, local option laws empowered local voting majorities, in a referendum-like manner, to decide annually at the ballot box whether or not licenses would be issued. Based on investigation of reform literature, legislative reports, newspapers, and court opinions, this article illustrates how reformers' enlistment of the ideas of majority rule and popular political empowerment to legitimate local option prompted debates that moved beyond the propriety of restrictive liquor regulation and resulted in a widespread reassessment of fundamental tenets of American popular sovereignty. Turning to the activities of liquor dealers and others who resisted local option, this article uncovers a groundbreaking strain of dissent that coalesced in Delaware. By suggesting limits to popular political empowerment and majority rule and stressing the ability of representative democracies to protect minority rights, attorneys representing pro-liquor forces convinced Delaware's highest court to declare local option unconstitutional. Not only did their ideas reverberate in other court decisions and policy debates of the period, but they established a lasting practice of questioning ballot box legislation grounded in the ideas of James Madison and other elite thinkers concerned about the threat of majority tyranny. In the process, pro-liquor groups helped democratize the tradition of questioning majority rule for future use by other nonelite minorities.