A Maine Historian On How The State Constitution Was Crafted 200 Years Ago

Oct 14, 2019

Originally published 5:07 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11, 2019.

Two hundred years ago, delegates from 236 Maine cities and towns were in Portland, beginning to craft what would become the state constitution. Historian Herb Adams, speaking with Irwin Gratz, says the delegates came from all walks of life, and grappled with fundamental issues of governance, among other matters.

Adams: Well they represented, that we know, about 236 incorporated towns. That would be just about every incorporated town in what would be Maine.

Probably the most numerous delegates were related to sea trades in some way, sea captains, ship builders, ship chandlers -- William King, who was going to become the chairman of the convention was himself a shipbuilder. There were lawyers, about 37, which is remarkable because there weren't many law schools in America, then, most of these were self-trained lawyers. A number of doctors, about 13. We know there were some civil servants postmaster, sheriffs, about 16 people like that. Three people actually ran sawmills. There are about eight school teachers, two surveyors and one shoemaker. We do know there were about 13 ministers, most of them Baptist and Methodist, and the convention got to a point where they really needed those ministers. But most of the people who attended, over 100, were farmers. They swung the balance. And yet, we don't know much about any of them.

Gratz: Once they gathered, did they have any kind of a template to work from?

Adams: There was an argument: should they use the Massachusetts constitution of the 1780s as their template, or should they scrap that and start entirely from scratch? So it became rather a mix I would say. On the other hand, Maine departed significantly from Massachusetts in a lot of individual matters, and when they departed from the Massachusetts mold, it was on the side of the common man.

For example, the Maine Constitution, right up front, and the first article has 24 rights of the citizens declared and explained. The federal Bill of Rights has only 10. From the beginning, we were people who wanted to fur and fish and farm and be left alone.

In Massachusetts, no matter who you were, you were taxed for the support of what they call the standing order, the Congregational Church. Now here in Maine, we threw that out the window right away. It said that you have absolute freedom of religion. And believe it or not, in the debates here in Maine, they talk about "Mohammeins" which is what they call Muslims then, Hindus spelled with two O's, saying if such people are here, they have absolute freedom to worship as they wish or not worship at all, if they so wish. Now that is a huge departure from Massachusetts.

All men could vote upon reaching the age of 21. Now what I just said meant that Maine enfranchised blacks. If you were a black man 21 years or older, you could vote. Now let me tell you, that got us in trouble with the southerners in the Congress of the United States when our constitution reached the floor there.

Ed note: interview has been edited for length and clarity

Adams says that work on the state constitution was finished in late October. In December, it was ratified by Mainers and arrived in Washington, where it ran into the slave debate consuming the congress. Maine would eventually win its statehood, as part of the Missouri compromise.