Thursday, January 16, 2020

A matter of historical record: Maine’s fight for statehood, 1785 – 1820

How Windham and Raymond voted

By Walter Lunt

Part one of a two-part series

Maine achieved statehood on March 15, 1820. Historical accounts explain the significant role of the Missouri Compromise in making that happen, but a lesser known part of the story is the 35-year struggle that led up to that historic day.

Map of Maine, 1790
Maine became the District of Massachusetts with the adoption of its state constitution in 1780. Rumblings in the district about Maine becoming a state in its own right began as early as 1785.
Between 1792 and 1819, residents in the district voted six times on the question of separation. It was not always a popular idea, even with District Mainers, including the town of Windham.

Certain features and characteristics clearly distinguished the district from Massachusetts proper. 

Climate was one often mentioned. Another was the geographical separation caused by New Hampshire’s inconvenient appendage to the sea. Also, following the Revolutionary War, the District of Maine was filling up with immigrants from other New England states and from Europe seeking large tracts of unspoiled land (often on property owned by land speculators).

A unique diversity of population emerged: One people, forged by frugal habits and independent attitudes and values, not unlike that described later by the Frenchman Alexis De Tocqueville.

By 1785 there were clear signs of discontent within the district. Many were convinced that Boston little understood the unique nature and economic problems of Maine people.

Long established seacoast towns from the Piscataqua to the Kennebec Rivers, including Kittery, Falmouth (Portland) and Bath were engaged in shipping and shipbuilding. As described by Ronald Banks in his 1970 book “Maine Becomes A State,” “…Maine (had a) nearly one-crop economy… Lumber was king!” And as a result of trade policies set by the Massachusetts aristocracy, profits were “…channeled to Boston and surrounding towns.”

Inland, meanwhile, subsistence farmers were happy to supplement their meager existence by supplying seacoast merchants with timber.

From this symbiotic arrangement, coastal towns further developed a modest prosperity by adding insurance firms, bankers and lawyers to their growing mercantile communities.

A clear and separate identity from the mother state was emerging.

The first serious attempt at separation emanated from community leaders in Cumberland County, including Judge of Probate William Gorham and gentleman farmer Stephen Longfellow, both of Gorham and General Peleg Wadsworth and minister Thomas Smith (father of Windham’s Parson Peter Smith), both of Falmouth. This group kick-started the movement by promoting the establishment of the Falmouth Gazette, a newspaper created for the expressed purpose of advocating separation. Oddly, some Federalists, the political party of the elite, or “blue-bloods,” who favored a strong government, favored the notion of separation.

The 23 star U.S. flag adopted July 4, 1820 following Maine's
admission to the union
Push-back to the idea was immediate. Opposition came from the General Court of Massachusetts (the legislative body) and from the coastal mercantile communities of Maine who feared a disruption of commerce.

Undaunted, proponents called for a convention of separatists where a list of grievances was drawn up and presented to the general court. Among the complaints: access to the courts and to public records required long, costly trips to Boston; trade regulations favored the Boston port; lack of representation in the state’s House of Representatives; a tax system that was inequitable to Maine people.

The court thwarted the separatists’ arguments by passing legislation that corrected most of the district’s complaints.

The fledgling movement held several more conventions in the late 1780s, only to adjourn due to lack of interest and from distractions caused by other significant national events. The Falmouth Gazette, for example, devoted considerable space to the creation of a new Constitution of the United States.
By 1791, renewed political pressure was such that the general court voted to authorize a public vote in the district on the question of separation. As described by author Banks, “…the stage was set for the first state-authorized test of separation in the district… petty Federalists,” he continued, “(were) anxious to emulate their brethren in Massachusetts, not to be their servants.”

Proponents sprang into action, pushing hard their arguments in favor of the division: 1) the “noncontiguousness” of Massachusetts and Maine, 2) Maine would gain two senators in Congress, 3) government would be placed in the “midst” of the people, 4) increased frequency of a sitting Supreme Judicial Court (the accused might sit in jail for up to 10 months awaiting justice), 5) establishment of a Maine-based system of taxation, 6) the incorporation of sparsely settled plantations, now denied the right to vote (Raymond was one).

Detractors countered that Maine had too little money and too little education and sophistication to self-govern. Portland’s Daniel Davis responded with “…men of common understanding and sound judgment (are found in the district) as there are in any part of the Commonwealth.”

The referendum was held on May 7, 1792. The vote: 2,074 in favor of separation, 2,524 against. But the results, by region, were noteworthy. Coastal communities tended to oppose self-governance. Inland towns supported it. The probable reason: the Federal Coastal Law, which greatly benefited Maine’s shipping interests.

Interviewed last July on Maine Public Radio’s Morning Edition, Portland historian Herb Adams explained the Coastal Law this way: “…if you were exporting goods by sea you were not taxed for import duties by any state that bordered yours, and this is so states beside each other wouldn’t tax the yahoo out of each other. Well, that was very advantageous for Mainers. All of that meant that you could get more than halfway down the eastern seaboard of the United States and not pay a penny in import tax.”

Even if the ship wasn’t delivering to a noncontiguous state, it had to stop and pay the fee at each state, just to sail by. Shippers were as concerned with the time-consuming stops as they were with the customs fees.

As stated by author Banks, “After ten years and more than a dozen conventions, separation was no nearer than when the movement first began.”

Convinced that the future prosperity of the district depended on separation, supporters plotted on. For reasons unclear, interest revived again in 1797. Petitions from numerous towns requested yet another popular vote on the matter.

The Federalists were now opposed to the idea as it became clear they would be unable to advance politically under separation. Most regions had subscribed to the more conservative Democratic-Republican Party policies which firmly supported separation. York County also could not be counted on for support – it had recently proposed a union with New Hampshire.

Fresh and sizable numbers of inland squatters, however, assumed, probably correctly, that they would be more likely to retain their land claims under statehood.

Amid the changing political times, the General Court granted the District yet another popular vote on the separation issue.

In May of 1797, 5,201 votes were cast. The “yeas” netted 2,785, the “nays” were 2,412 (four votes were deemed invalid).

Despite the York County opposition, the Coastal Law influence and nonsupport of Federalists, separation, at last, had won the day. Windham voted no, 16-6 (Raymond was not yet incorporated).
But not so fast! The general court proceeded to void the results of the election, reasoning that the slight majority was won with a mere 5000 votes cast out of a population exceeding 100,000.

Next time, we learn how it would take four more popular votes before winning statehood. The separatists would have to negotiate land treaties with the Native Americans, settle a border dispute with Great Britain and overcome voter apathy. And which way would the vote go in Windham and Raymond? 

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