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200 Years Ago Today, A Crucial Vote Was About To Determine Whether Maine Would Become A State

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We continue our ongoing series of reports that tell the story of Maine's bicentennial by going back 200 years to this day, March 3. It was a critical date in Maine's decades-long effort to separate from Massachusetts.

Voters had already approved separation, a Constitution had been written and agreed to, and the U.S. Senate had voted for what we now call the "Missouri Compromise," a measure that would allow both Maine and Missouri to become states.

But historian Herb Adams says when the Massachusetts Legislature voted to give up its territorial rights to Maine, it imposed a 90-day deadline, ending March 4, for congressional approval of statehood.  

"As it comes out, finally, the House debate, the do-or-die day, the D-Day of the whole thing is March 3rd, 1820," Adams says.

A day before the deadline, Congress is still debating the measures.  Most of Maine's own House delegation is actually opposed, because while it would grant Maine statehood, it would also legalize slavery in Missouri.

At the 11th hour, a final version that prohibits slavery north of 36.5 degrees latitude - except for Missouri - goes before the House.

"The vote comes out in favor of what we call the Missouri Compromise," Adams says. "Of a vote of 90 for, 87 against, Maine has seven congressman. Five of Maine's seven congressman vote against.  If all seven of Maine's congressmen had voted against, meaning against slavery - but that means against Maine statehood - putting principle before politics, the Missouri Compromise would have lost by one vote."

"Maine congressman John Holmes, one of the two who voted for the Missouri Compromise, sends a note off to William King, who's about to become acting governor of the new state. 'Dear sir, I have the pleasure to inform you that, at this moment, the bill for the independence of Maine is just passed, and will be signed this day, God Be Praised.  John Holmes.'  It's written at almost a 45-degree angle across the sheet of paper, he's in such haste; and that is dispatched northward."

President James Monroe actually signs the final legislation on March 6, and just nine days later, Maine becomes a state.  The national reckoning over slavery is put on hold.

"It could be argued that the Missouri Compromise lets the young United States pause and take a deep breath," Adams says. "But you can't hold your breath forever."

And the division over slavery would intensify over the next three decades, until April 1861, the breakout of the Civil War.

To learn more about Maine's bicentennial click here.