Bicentennial reflections: Maine’s 1820 struggles for statehood still define us

By Allen Workman

The state’s 200th anniversary gives us much to appreciate, partly because some basic questions that moved early Mainers to independence then, in 1820, are some of the same that seem to preoccupy us now. The story of Maine’s striving for statehood involves at least three questions that continue to reflect key characteristics of our state and the Downeast region.

The “two Maines.” In early Hancock County, coastal towns took a strong partisan position over separation from Massachusetts. Then as now, differences arose between districts strongly linked to commercial centers, and those more distant from a metropolis. The young coastal towns, long completely dependent on selling timber and fish to Boston, resisted any separation from its markets to the west, especially because of early interstate tariff laws. As part of Massachusetts, Maine’s trade remained open duty-free all the way to New York, yet if separated, limited to New Hampshire; so coastal towns consistently rejected separation.

But pressure for separation persisted, fueled by rural, mostly up-country farming districts seeking independence in resentment at exorbitant land prices of Boston landowners, and at Boston’s abandonment of British-occupied Downeast Maine in the War of 1812. A statehood campaign narrowly failed in 1816, but by spring of 1819 Maine’s U.S. representatives helped repeal those old interstate tariff laws in Congress. Alert to this, many coastal voters reacted. In a July 1819 vote on separation and new statehood, the reversal was complete, swinging heavily for statehood.

Such regional tensions form a continuing pattern, though with different mixes in Maine’s local interests. Today the “two Maines” differences between the first and second congressional districts may still involve links with urban influences. But our differences are no longer a two-way split: conflicts still arise between coastal and inland interests, but also others. Maine continues negotiating our regional differences now, much as then in 1820.

Maine’s striving for influence in national affairs. The consuming national debate in 1820 was slavery, with Maine playing its major part as a new free state in the famous Missouri Compromise. Five of Maine’s seven congressmen refused voting for slavery in Missouri, which might have killed statehood. But the Compromise, with help from two pragmatic Mainers’ votes, went through. So in 1819 it seems Maine’s key congressmen could avoid political partisanship to vote their state’s basic interests.

That tendency hopefully persists, though Maine now has only a small percent of Congress and must rely on votes in the Senate for national influence. Despite political differences our representatives vote reliably in support of our basic interests, and we still seem to have shrewd outliers in Congress who seek to sway the balance of affairs, as with the Missouri Compromise and Maine’s statehood in 1820.

Maine citizens’ voting and civil rights. Under the old Massachusetts Constitution, householding male citizens were the voters, who might get a 70 percent turnout for town meetings, as in Gouldsboro. But only 45 percent appeared there for separation votes, while forming a new state constitution aroused even less interest. At the constitutional convention, their delegate likely joined the 85 percent adopting most of what was inherited from Massachusetts, but a mere 15 percent of town voters ratified it. Along with 96 percent of Maine’s towns, Gouldsboro found this basic document uncontroversial.

The proposed Maine Constitution got more attention in the Missouri Compromise debate, granting voting rights to all male citizens including African-Americans — an anathema for the South. But on civil rights for others we remained long indifferent. In the 1820 constitutional convention, despite pleas made for them, women were made citizens but not voters, and Native Americans were not even citizens. A 1917 referendum for women’s suffrage lost in Maine 2-1, with many male voters distracted by war issues and some opponents claiming the vote was just a hobby for rich ladies. The 1919 State Legislature ratified the 19th Amendment, but by a close vote — 72-68. In 1939, Maine did make a leap forward when Margaret Chase Smith, elected to Congress to replace her ailing husband, served 17 terms, finally being the first woman elected both to House and Senate, and later the first female candidate in a major party contest.

It took even longer for Maine to recognize Native Americans’ rights. Despite their contribution to the Revolution, our Native people lost land and were confined to reservations in the 1790s, becoming wards of the state. Citizenship was not granted until the 1920s, voting rights not until the 1950s and ’60s, and remaining land and water rights, still under dispute, not until the lawsuits of the 1970s.

If it has been a long process for Maine to overcome early indifference to minority rights, we are now perhaps one of the more prominent states in recognizing the civil rights that our Constitution was unable to develop in 1820. Here, as in so in many ways, our strivings for independence have defined our destiny.

Allen Workman is a retired editor and student of Maine history. He has authored a book and done talks about the history of the Schoodic region.

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