The second in a two-part series
Although sometimes linked solely with the Missouri Compromise, Maine statehood was actually 35 years in the making, the result of politics, persuasion, persistence, perspiration and, yes, scandal.
Early on, settlers knew that Maine was geographically and culturally different from Massachusetts proper. As early as 1785, it was manifest that the northern district of Massachusetts, Maine, would someday break away and become a state.
|A prosperous world-wide
industry enjoyed certain protections
under the controversial Coasting Law.
Drawing by Jerry Black.
First, there was that pesky political boundary of New Hampshire that separated the two regions. Access to the courts and public records in Boston was a major inconvenience for Mainers.
Also, land speculators from Massachusetts touched a raw nerve with the settlers trying to build inland farms and communities. Federalist politicos in Boston granted huge tracts of land to speculators (often as payment for Revolutionary War debts) who would either resell parcels at inflated prices or eject established settlers who could not pay, in some cases without paying for the improvements made to property. At one point, the situation devolved into armed conflict between the squatters and proprietors.
Particularly irksome to district inhabitants was the patronizing attitudes of the Boston “blue blood elite” leveled toward their northern neighbors, often referring to them as “obscure and ignorant men…lacking the education and talent to govern themselves.”
There was also a notion that the district had become somewhat of a ‘cash cow’ for the mother state. Inflated land valuations and the increased prosperity of shipping from Maine ports bloated coffers in Boston.
Also, before becoming a state, Maine needed clear-cut and definite borders. The eastern boundary with Canada was settled following negotiations with Great Britain. Inland, settlers wanted to expand camps and lumber mills onto lands owned by Native Americans. As a result of agreements with Massachusetts’ officials, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot tribes sold (or surrendered) tens of thousands of acres that would become farms and logging mills.
By 1797, as described in part one of this series (The Windham Eagle – Jan. 17, 2020) disgruntled Mainers were asking a question: “How could the leaders in Boston know what’s best for people up here?”
Popular votes in Maine on the question of separation had already occurred – one in 1792, and again in 1797. Both had failed.
The opening years of the nineteenth century saw significant increases in both population and prosperity in the vast district of Maine. Led by the popular and politically savvy William King, a merchant capitalist and leader of the Democratic-Republican Party from Bath, a new separatist movement was gaining strength. In 1807 the reinvigorated movement convinced the Massachusetts’ legislative body, the General Court, to allow another popular vote on the matter, the third in 15 years.
While the inland squatter regions favored separation, the rest of Maine did not, losing 9,404 to 3,370.
Reasons for the failure were hard to pinpoint, but historical hindsight indicates there was lingering concern about the economic loss for Maine shippers that would result from statehood. The nation’s so-called Coasting Law shielded Maine ports from paying certain fees due to the extended coastline with Massachusetts (as detailed in part one). Statehood would have nullified the benefits. Also, Maine was experiencing unfettered prosperity at the time of the separation referendum, and as we might say in modern times, “If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Neither Windham nor Raymond submitted votes in the 1807 election.
Conventional thinking was that three losses in 15 years should kill the notion of statehood for Maine.
But then came the War of 1812. British forces invaded portions of Maine’s Down East coastline, including Eastport and Castine. Mainers were powerless to defend themselves and looked to Boston to send help. But, as described by Mary Stockwell in her book, “A Journey Through Maine,” “...government leaders in Massachusetts ignored the British attacks…and refused to send help even when President James Madison ordered them to do so…(leading) many people in Maine to question their ties to Massachusetts.”
When 'Lumber was King.'
Loggers supply the raw material
for the District of Maine's chief export.
Drawing by Jerry Black.
In his 1973 book “Maine Becomes A State”, Ronald Banks observed, “No event in all the previous history of the union of Massachusetts and Maine so blatantly revealed the extent to which the interests of Maine could be sacrificed to those of Massachusetts proper…The question was no longer should Maine be separated? But when…”
Leaders of the General Court in Boston found it increasingly difficult to ignore District cries for yet another referendum on separation. By the spring of 1816, one was granted. And although the separationists were victorious by nearly 4000 votes, their greatest fear also was realized: out of 38,000 eligible voters, only 17,000 bothered to vote. Would that influence the General Courts recognition of the referendum results?
The vote also revealed that Maine was now clearly divided between the Federalist coastal towns and the Republican (formerly Democratic-Republican) hinterland – the struggle had become deeply political and party driven. The towns of Windham and Raymond were divided: Windham voted 15 to 25 against separation while Raymond inhabitants overwhelmingly supported the measure 56 to six.
Because the vote was in favor of separation by a slim majority, yet possibly underrepresented by eligible voters, the General Court decided that a “run-off,” of sorts, would be an appropriate way to settle the matter. Mainers, it was decreed, would conduct another vote with the proviso that separation would be granted only if there was a 55.5% vote in support. In addition, the vote (if in favor of separation) would be followed by a convention comprised of elected delegates that would examine the vote tally, deliberate, and report back to the General Court.
The referendum, the second one held in the year 1816, again favored separation, but failed to acquire the 55.5% majority (here again, Raymond voted in favor, Windham against).
Desperate, and believing that the subsequent convention, to be held in Brunswick, would be the last chance for victory, separationist delegates considered cheating and chicanery. An underhanded plan to withhold or destroy anti-separatist ballots was considered but was either abandoned or not proven. Instead, supporters crafted a creative counting procedure that would misrepresent the true number of yea votes. Employing the services of former Harvard mathematician William Preble, the Committee to Examine Returns (dominated by statehood supporters) utilized a curious counting strategy: rather than using the total number of votes returned, the committee devised a system that recognized the aggregate majorities of the towns . Under the inventive strategy, the yea votes surpassed the 55.5% margin needed for victory.
Opponents were incensed. Dissenters protested the results as “…the work of ambitious and scheming men bent on obtaining their objective by any means.” William Ladd of Minot, said the assembly reminded him of philosophers of the dark ages “who decreed there was no motion, while their tongues incessantly moved to prove it.”
In Massachusetts, the General Court agreed, denying acceptance of Maine’s separation vote.
It would be three years before the separationists regained honor and respectability. By 1819, it became clear that the hearts and minds of Mainers were leaning heavily toward statehood. Petitions from numerous Maine towns poured into the General Court requesting yet another popular vote on statehood. Leader William King, meanwhile, working with officials in Washington had secured changes in the nation’s Coasting Law. The law, adverse to Maine’s shipping industry, had for decades prompted coastal towns to oppose statehood. Under terms of the law, the extended coastline with Massachusetts favored Maine mercantile interests by limiting the payment of fees at mandatory stops along the eastern seaboard.
A vote in the District of Maine, the sixth in 27 years, was scheduled for July 1819. The measure would be considered successful if the vote in favor exceeded the vote against by 1500 votes.
The results were no less than astonishing. It was the largest turnout ever; all nine counties supported separation; and the margin of victory was over 10,000 votes. As expressed by author Ron Banks, “The long-sought and illusive goal was finally achieved.”
In this final and deciding referendum on statehood, Windham would again vote against it 54 to 83. Raymond continued its support by a formidable 77 to 0.
In his final analysis, Banks reflected on the outcome and its meaning: …”this was a struggle between old and new…With roots firmly entrenched, many people (had) grown accustomed to time-honored religious, economic, social and political connections with…Massachusetts proper (and) were unwilling to pull up those roots at the insistence of the brash, impatient newcomers.”
There were still two more steps before Maine could join the ranks of the United States. The soon-to-be 23rd state required a constitution, to be followed by formal acceptance into the union by the U.S. Congress.
In the fall of 1819, 274 delegates from nearly all of Maine’s 236 towns met at the First Parish Church in Portland. Their charge was to write a state constitution; they would create a new state government similar to that of Massachusetts. In her book, Stockwell observed there were at least three important differences: 1) There were no property qualifications for voting. 2) People of any faith could participate in government (traditionally, Congregationalists assumed positions of privilege and power). 3) There would be no established religion (an early version of the separation of church and state). Later, voters would overwhelmingly approve their new state constitution.
With all the hurdles cleared, Mainer’s were optimistic when their petition for statehood was submitted to Congress. Many were surprised to learn it wouldn’t be that easy. There were an equal number of free states and slave states in the union in 1819. An imbalance would mean the loss of representation in Congress. At the time, Missouri, a slave state, also appealed for statehood.
Volumes could be written about the politics and the deliberations that followed, but it was Henry Clay (a slaveholder) who proposed the so-called Missouri Compromise: Maine would enter the union as a free state. Missouri would enter as a slave state. The agreement also established clear boundaries for the future admission of slave and free states.
Maine statehood was officially realized on March 15, 1820 and despite all the pomp and celebration throughout the new state, not all residents were happy. Wrote the Portland Gazette, a long-time anti-slavery publication, “…as much as we wish success to the Maine Bill, we confess we had rather it would sink, than bear up so wicked a freight as the slavery of Missouri.”
Notwithstanding the disgust of abolitionists, the excitement and festivities were prevalent throughout the state. And according to author Stockwell, “For many years, people celebrated (Statehood Day – March 15) with as much excitement as the Fourth of July.”
Next time, how Windham, Raymond and the state of Maine plan to commemorate the state’s ‘birthday’ on March 15, and throughout 2020.