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How The 'Great Seal Of The State Of Maine' Came To Be

Courtesy Maine Department of Secretary of State

The year 2020 is likely to be remembered for the pandemic and the protests against police brutality. But it is still Maine's bicentennial year. And historian Herb Adams is joining us again to talk about some of the origins of our state.

Gratz: Herb, welcome.

Adams: Good to see you again.

So we want to talk a little bit today about the State Seal. And first, how about a little bit of history? Why do states have seals?

How you presented yourself to the world, in a day before mass communication, had a lot to do with symbols. And so states were very careful about what they chose. And that's why there was actually a subcommittee of the Maine Legislature, the very first Maine Legislature, that decided on the 9th of June, 1820, what would be the symbols on the Maine State Seal.

Who decided what was going to be on the State Seal and what considerations went into that?

Dr. Benjamin Vaughan, who was actually a Brit, who became an American, who became a Mainer, been a member of Parliament, favored the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Things got a little hot for him in Parliament. For that reason, he came to America in about 1799. He defended slavery in the British Parliament most decisively. He made his fortune out of Jamaican coffee and sugar plantations, setting up in Hallowell a huge tract of family lands that he had inherited from his mother, Sarah Hallowell - hence the town - and was a well-known antiquarian, a well-known scholar, a correspondent of Jefferson and Adams and John Jay. But it was to him that the Legislature turned to design the shield.

All right. So what do we see when we look at the Maine State Seal? What is it trying to convey to us?

There are six major features on the Seal. There is, of course, beginning at the top, the North Star surrounded by a fan of a beautiful light burst. That's supposed to represent the aurora borealis - Northern Lights. Then, of course, the white pine tree, which had been one of the major causes of the British interest in Maine at all before the revolution. British ships were masted with pines cut in Maine. And that is, of course, part of our heritage and part of why the British burned us in the revolution when we finally were getting contrary. Then lying under the tree, he put what is called a "moose deer" in his day. Then, of course, the two people - a farmer, indicating husbandry and the working of the land, and the sailor, leaning upon his large anchor, which Vaughan made sure we understood meant an anchor of hope for the future.

And then, of course, also the water is represented as well.

Well it is on some copies of the shield, and on others it is not. Nor is the treeline in the back always represented. It depends on where you buy your Maine state flags today. In some cases, I've seen pink trees in the background, which I'm not aware of, then or now, ever existed.

Have there been any movements over the years to make changes to the state seal?

There have been movements to make some changes to the State Seal. None of them went very far in the Legislature, just like recent movements to re-adopt Maine's first unofficial flag as our official flag - the large tan banner with one tree and one star.

Are there any changes you would like to see made to the State Seal?
Well, I've often thought in modern times there were changes to be made to the Maine state seal that reflect current reality. Then, recumbent under the pine tree, would not be a moose. Spread out there would be a tourist.

Herb Adams, historian, talking about the Maine State Seal and motto during this, the 200th year of Maine statehood. Herb, thank you very much.

Always. Thank you very much, Irwin.