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How Maine Became A State 200 Years Ago, And What That Had To Do With Slavery

Julie Pike
Maine Public
School kids from Portland Parks and Recreation Tuesday display a "Happy Birthday Maine" banner they made to celebrate Maine's bicentennial.

Maine is officially celebrating its bicentennial. Maine Public’s Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz spent some time with Herb Adams, a former state representative from Portland who is also known for being steeped in the state's history.  Adams sheds light on how the state came to be nearly 200 years ago, and the event's connection to the battle over slavery.

Gratz: Welcome sir.

Adams: Well, good morning, Irwin.

Now, most people know Maine became a state officially on March 15, 1820. So, what's the significance of kicking off the bicentennial celebration in July?

Adams: Our birthday is actually in 2020, so you can't light a candle today. But this is the day that they lit the fuse, you might say, because in July 1819, Mainers finally voted decisively to separate permanently from Massachusetts, and did so in a public referendum. And that is what we're taking notice of now.

What were the for and against arguments regarding separation from Massachusetts?

The for and against arguments would be much the same ones that might have arisen had it taken place today. What's your commercial connection to the mother state? How well have they treated you politically, and, in that case, militarily, throughout the years of conflict when it was trying to be decided whether this is going to be New France or New England? Well, we were the very much northern sort of second cousin 12 times removed - a place where they could sell the lands of Maine to pay the debts of Boston, but in no other respect really take much care of us.

However, there was a federal law, and that was called the Coasting law. It is a federal law passed by the early Congresses so that 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. Well, that's pretty important for a place like Maine.

So what finally impelled the state's voters to make that break?

Finally, one of the things done was the repeal of the Coasting Act. So now it's down to brass tacks. What's Massachusetts offered us? The state is flooded with Revolutionary War veterans, young people looking to make a new start. We're moving beyond just the coastal communities and the river towns - now people are going far up into the interior. The state's population has changed completely. And those are the people who have a lot to gain by independence.

So the state votes to separate in July of 1819. What happens between then and March 15, 1820, when the state of Maine officially comes into being?

The vote in July 1819 was truly lopsided - about 17,000 voted to separate, about 7,000 voted not to. But the process next required that a state Constitution be written. That Constitution then has to go to the Congress of the United States, and statehood ratified. There is the roadblock.  Admitting a new state into the union hadn't been all that complicated - we'd done it five times since the revolution. But Maine's card being played on the table meant for the first time that the union of states would be unbalanced. In the Senate of the United States, there were 11 slave states, there were 11 free states where slavery was prohibited. To put Maine into the mix would mean that, all of a sudden, instead of being 22 pro-slavery senators and 22 anti, you'd have two more free state senators.

And so we had to achieve statehood by a vote of the Congress by March 4, 1820, or else we fell back into the legal possession of Massachusetts. So we're racing a clock and we're racing uphill against political prejudice that has frozen the United States in this position for the generation since the Revolution. What happens in the House of Representatives is known as the infamous Missouri Compromise. The speaker of the United States House, a slave owner, manages to engineer a compromise that lets Maine and Missouri territory into the union at the same moment. And we accepted - with huge reservations - the deal.

It actually almost derailed Maine's statehood attempt from the standpoint of Mainers who didn't want to be involved in perpetuating slavery.

Absolutely. It's a terrible cradle to be born in. As it was, of Maine's seven United States congressmen at the time, five vote against the Missouri compromise - vote against statehood for their own state of Maine.

Does any of this history still resonate with modern day Maine?

I think it's wise for us to look back at it, because, in general, you'll find if it's mentioned at all in the United States history books, the Missouri Compromise is a single sentence - you know, Missouri, slave state, Maine, free state. That's nice balance - it's one sentence and looks OK on paper, but of course was typical of the huge argument in the country about what kind of people were we, what kind of a country would we be facing our original sin, which is slavery.

You know, the Civil War determined that, legally, you cannot leave the union, and the constitutional amendments following the words outlawed slavery and presented citizenship to the African-Americans in the country. But it took a second revolution, that of the Civil Rights revolution 100 years later, to begin to place it in the center of American justice and life. We're still in the middle of that, really. We haven't answered it all. So Maine’s part in the story is sometimes put in a footnote, where I think it should be in the in the chapter headings. I think our remembrance of our origins on our bicentennial in 200 years is part, I think, of our self-study that should go on.

Herb Adams, thank you very much for the time. We appreciate it.

Thank you, Irwin.


Originally published 9:39 a.m. July 31, 2019