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Arts and Culture

Maine's March To Statehood Hit Some Obstacles; How They Were Overcome

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Credit Office of the Senate Curator, United States Senate

Two-hundred years ago tomorrow, a hurdle arose on Maine's path to statehood. It had a name: Alabama.

"Congress admitted the state of Alabama to full-fledged statehood," says Maine historian Herb Adams. "This meant that the United States Senate was absolutely tied: eleven slave states and eleven free states."

Slavery was the fault line running through the young United States. Northerners were increasingly opposed to it on moral grounds, while southerners saw it as a necessary part of their economic foundation.  As Adams explains, demographics were tilting the argument toward the North.

"Now, if you were a southerner, and bound into the institution of slavery, you knew that the North - even then which was industrializing - was going to grow faster, probably always have more money - or might - and that's where the immigrants to the country were largely still going.  The House of Representatives is going to grow. And that's where you're probably going to get - from their point of view - crazy ideas like abolishing slavery to arise. Where do you block it? In the Senate, where every state has two United States senators."

GRATZ:  What does that mean for the Maine legislation? Does it, essentially, look like it's been killed?  Or are there talks, machinations about ways to get the state out of this spot?

ADAMS:  No doubt there was a lot of back-and-forth behind the scenes. But there were always people who were willing, in order to keep the Union together, to make whatever deal might be necessary to keep the slaveholding half of the country, at least, appeased for the moment. Probably the greatest among them was Henry Clay, one of the great figures of that era, who never became president and is somewhat forgotten today. He was known as "the great compromiser."

On December 28th, 1819, Adams says, Clay, then the speaker of the U.S. House, linked Maine's statehood to the creation of the first state west of the Mississippi to allow slavery, Missouri.

"Neither bill, he says, will advance without the other. And that is his compromise: They come in together or they don't come in at all, together. As for Maine, that's a terrible position; it took us 35 years to finally get to the door of Congress. We haven't had a slave in Maine for 40 years. And now, here we are, hostage to a territory beyond the Mississippi, and to the hands of one of the great, master manipulators of American politics. What do we do?"

That proposition - that Maine gets to be a state only if slavery is expanded west of the Mississippi - would freeze the Maine statehood legislation for months. Adams says some would try to break the link.

"United States Sen. Rufus King, of New York, is the half-brother of William King who's going to be our first governor. Born in Scarborough, a Mainer who helped to frame the United States Constitution, and he was very much working the scenes in the Senate to see what could be done. And, of course, John Holmes, William King's right hand in most of these things, seen and unseen, was working what were the possibilities in the House. And another person who's not remembered in history, Mark Langdon Hill, from Phippsburg, Maine, a bit of a mysterious figure, sometimes working in the dark, sometimes working in the light, but right beside John Holmes and seeing what deal might be possible. And it's the two of them, at least on Maine's side of the boundary, that really work the levers in the Congress of the United States against the interests being worked, in a sense, by Rufus King, but all four, making Maine a state. Now, it's amazing that people working from both sides for the same issue, which is statehood for us - fascinating people to watch move, if the movements of sometimes sharks in the water are fascinating."

Those movements had a time limit:  The Maine Separation agreement expired on March 4, 1820, meaning Congress had to enact Maine statehood by that date, or the "district of Maine" would remain a part of Massachusetts. Adams says it would likely have been at least another generation before the stars could align for another attempt at statehood.

Learn more about Maine's path to statehood and the Maine bicentennial here.

 Originally published 8:38 a.m. Dec. 13, 2019.