Forging Maine's Constitution: 'All Our Hopes For Statehood Were Bound Up In It'

Oct 29, 2019

Two hundred years ago today, Maine took an important step down the road to statehood. The 274 delegates who had gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Portland finished drafting a document. Its very first article is a "Declaration of Rights."

"Let's see, quartering of soldiers, standing armies, titles of nobility prohibited," reads Maine historian Herb Adams.

Adams is seated in the second floor reading room of the Maine Historical Society headquarters, just down Congress Street from where the Constitution was drafted. 

He’s poring over the 23 "rights" the document grants to the people of Maine, including Number 17, which sets limits on the power of the state to quarter its soldiers on private property.

"In other words," Adams explains, "today the Maine National Guard could not park on your 'back 40' unless you gave them permission."

It's a provision that's not found in the U.S. Bill of Rights, though the issue is cited as a grievance against England in the Declaration of Independence.

Maine's Declaration of Rights also bans corporal punishment - except in the time of actual war; prohibits taxation without approval of the legislature; and - like the U.S. Bill of Rights - includes language protecting free speech.

"Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish sentiments on any subject, being responsible for the abuse of the liberty," Adams reads, "but no laws shall be passed regulating, or restraining the freedom of the press."

In some ways, Adams says, the Maine Constitution is ahead of its time. He points to one provision that the U.S. Constitution would not contain until after the Civil War.

"And it says, 'No person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property, without due process of law, nor be denied the equal protection of the laws, nor be denied the enjoyments of that person's civil rights, or be discriminated against in the exercise thereof.' "

And Maine's Declaration of Rights ends with Number 24, titled "Other Rights Not Impaired,” which Adams says the framers used to assure that their document would serve into a future they could not imagine.

"And that's very far-sighted," Adams says. "I mean, to put that into the DNA of the Constitution - now there's an example: Your right to the private information encoded in your own DNA was not thought of until the end of the 20th century. But, it can be argued - and it has been - that that is a right you have; no one else has a right to the encoded information about you as a person. It's fascinating that they would touch upon something so far in the future."

Beyond the listing of rights, the Constitution goes on to frame the outlines of state government. As the work was finished, 200 years ago today, the delegates signed the draft.

"We do not know if it was done with much ceremony," Adams says. "Certainly it must have been done with solemnity, because all the delegates knew what they had done - that it was worthy, and that it was weighty, that all our hopes for statehood were bound up in it."

At least 236 of 274 delegates formally threw their support behind the document. According to Adams, the delegates who refused to sign it agreed with the Constitution, but quibbled over the particulars of local representation. Delegates debated at length how to represent counties and towns, and for some, the issue was never adequately resolved.

"That's Maine for you - they object on principal, they're independent on the first day," Adams says. "And we're just as independent 200 years later."

The draft Constitution was sent to the cities and towns for a ratification vote on Dec. 6.