Two-hundred years ago Monday, delegates from 236 Maine cities and towns were in Portland, beginning to craft what would become the the state constitution.
Historian Herb Adams says the delegates came from all walks of life. He told Maine Public’s Irwin Gratz they grappled with fundamental issues of governance and other matters.
Gratz: So among the issues of course that comes up in the context of the Constitution, a very simple but perhaps profound one. What are we going to call this new state?
Adams: Absolutely. And Mainers being Mainers, we argued about even that. We’d been known as the District of Maine, sometimes spelled Mayne, since the 1620s and ’30s, probably because we were the main land when you arrive by sea. On the Constitutional Convention on Oct. 14, 1819, which was a Thursday, the committee on style, that is the wording of the Constitution, reported back that they wanted us to be known as the Commonwealth of Maine. And that ran into trouble right away. It’s very clear they felt that Boston never shared much of their common wealth with us when we were part of Massachusetts. So we’re not about to use their title for us.
Then they immediately turned to serious discussion about whether we should call this new state Columbus. Or maybe Ligonia — there still is a Ligonia land patent very much in their minds at the time. Or even Ai — that is a place, it’s in the Bible, the men of Ai are mighty warriors. And so we’d be, as they pointed out, first on every list, Ai, nothing wrong with that. But finally, the next day, Oct. 15, 1819, they settled on calling ourselves the state of Maine. And you think about it, it’s a good solid, simple and plain title, like a good pine plank.
Gratz: The Constitution of Maine has been amended over the years. Does much of this original Constitution still survive?
Adams: The basic framework and boards of the Maine Constitution of 1819, 1820, still survives. It is among the shorter constitutions of the early states. It has been edited and amended over 195 times since then, but often only in a sentence or two, the same spirit of opportunity — you know, a hardworking person should have the same opportunity as one born rich, that’s very much burned into our psyche. It’s our Maine DNA, as you’d state today, and that has remained fairly constant.
There’s only one article of the 10 in the original Maine Constitution that has really never been amended. And that’s Article 8, which is about education. William King always claimed that he visited Monticello. He did know Thomas Jefferson. He may have been at Monticello, as near as I can place, in June or July 1819. And he always claimed in the after years that Jefferson pulled a piece of paper toward him, and with his own pen, wrote out a statement about the importance of education, which he called literature. And that went into the Maine Constitution, though that piece of paper has never been found. It says that it is the duty of all the towns to see to it that education is provided and paid for. And that single sentence, which is how Jefferson would think, of course, you know, a localist and states’ rightist, is the reason why you can’t sue the state of Maine for unequal compensation to towns on the basis of education. And so school funding lawsuits for 200 years have run up on the rocks of Thomas Jefferson’s pen in Maine.
Work on the state constitution was finished in late Oct. 1819. In December, it was ratified by Mainers and arrived in Washington, D.C, where it ran into the slave debate consuming the Congress. Maine would eventually win its statehood as part of the Missouri compromise.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Originally published Oct. 14, 2019 at 8:25 a.m. ET.