AUGUSTA — Two hundred years ago, Maine was a divided would-be state.

Nearly two generations had passed since men from the District of Maine joined other Massachusetts residents to fight for independence from a distant government accused of overtaxation, underrepresentation and failing to defend its far-flung citizens.

By the summer of 1819, those same grievances fueled cries for “SEPARATION!” from Boston, among fishermen from Kittery to Machias and among the farmers, loggers and other settlers of rugged interior Maine.

The vote on July 26, 1819, was as decisive as the debate was divisive: 17,091 in support of full Maine statehood versus 7,132 for remaining a province of Massachusetts.

“This was a microcosm of what occurred that led to the Revolutionary War,” said David Cheever, Maine state archivist and a historian helping to organize Maine’s bicentennial events. “The people of Maine felt underrepresented in Boston, and that they were not going to be able to do what they wanted to do because they were outnumbered in the Massachusetts (legislature).”

The 71 percent rout – the culmination of years of work by future Gov. William King – surprised even the most ardent separationists. Editors of Portland’s Eastern Argus newspaper declared the victory “gratifying beyond our most sanguine expectations.”

“After this vote no one can doubt that the people of Maine are determined on independence,” read the Aug. 3 edition of the weekly paper, which chronicled events in Maine for more than a century. “We have never entertained a doubt that the requisite majority would be obtained, but we have always felt extremely desirous of seeing a majority large enough to silence the calumnies of the opposition.”

Gov. Janet Mills will join historians and members of the Maine Bicentennial Commission on Tuesday to commemorate that July 1819 vote as they launch the next phase of Maine’s bicentennial celebrations. Events will culminate next March when the state marks the 200th anniversary of Congress granting Maine official recognition as a state, albeit as part of a political compromise that enraged some die-hard abolitionists in the new state.

The opening paragraph in an article in The Eastern Argus titled “An Address to the people of Maine on the question of Separation” reads: “A review of the transactions in this district for thirty years past, will show that the independence of Maine was early conceived and has never been abandoned. At every succeeding time when the question has been agitated, the public mind appears to have been more deeply impressed, by the great advantages and even necessity of the measure, until it seems to have settled down in this decisive result, that Maine must at some time not far distant be separated from Massachusetts, and assume on herself the rights and duties, the dignity and responsibility, of an independent state. We have never heard an individual doubt but that this must of necessity, and ought to take place.”

Despite that lopsided vote 200 years ago this week, statehood was never a sure thing.

In fact, the July 1819 vote is the anomaly in the decadeslong push for an independent state of Maine. And formal statehood still almost didn’t happen right away, despite overwhelming majority support from Maine voters and acceptance by Massachusetts leaders.

“The movement for the independence of Maine took 35 years, seven state conventions, six statewide votes and a complete change in the cast of characters,” said Herb Adams, a historian, author and former state lawmaker from Portland. “Even at that, the victory on July 26, 1819, was only the first rung up a steep ladder leading, of course, to the Missouri Compromise and an almost complete disaster for Maine.”

‘WE CAN ONLY LOOK FORWARD!’

In five separate votes between 1786 and 1816, statehood advocates failed to muster enough support among the Maine populace to convince the powers-that-be in Boston to allow a split. In 1816, for instance, a narrow majority favored statehood but Massachusetts lawmakers dismissed the result because of low turnout and because it fell short of the roughly 55 percent majority they demanded.

By July 1819, however, the tide had shifted.

Many of the economic arguments against separation evaporated when Congress repealed a 1789 federal law that would have made it much more costly for merchant ships from an independent Maine to sail the Eastern Seaboard. With coastal resistance softening, all nine counties supported separation, fueled by interior Maine’s growing population of fiercely independent settlers and lingering anger over Boston’s abdication of Maine to the British during the War of 1812.

“The new inland towns were filling up with farmers and veterans and husbands and wives, with their first homes and their first 40 acres,” Adams said. “They had the most to gain from a new country, and they were the ones that flooded into Maine from 1785 to 1819.”

Less than 10 percent of Maine’s nearly 300,000 residents cast votes in the election. While the number of eligible voters is not known, it was far less than the total population because Massachusetts law only granted the right to vote to white, adult, property-owning men who earned a certain amount of money.

Opponents of separation, such as the publisher of the Portland Gazette weekly paper, were to forced to accept the resounding defeat.

“At such a season as the present we cease to look back. We can only look forward!” reads an Aug. 3, 1819, piece titled “Reflections on Separation, No. 1.” in the Portland Gazette. “The wide, unbounded prospect lies before us – and though shadows to be sure appear to rest upon it, and a few clouds seem to hover in the horizon, we trust that the prospect has none of that darkness with which it has been coated by the imaginations or palled by gloomy apprehensions of those of our fellow citizens” who opposed separation.

TOWN VOTES VARIED ON SEPARATION

While the overwhelming majority of Maine voters favored separation on that July day in 1819, opinion varied widely by town depending on location and the economic interests of the residents.

Not surprisingly, separation was less popular among southern York County residents with the strongest economic or political ties to Boston.

In Wells, for instance, 408 voters wanted to stay in Massachusetts compared to only 49 residents favoring separation. Likewise, the vote in Eliot was 122 to remain a province and 20 to become a new state.

Move a few dozen miles inland, however, and the atmosphere shifted dramatically.

In Buxton, 97 percent of the 375 voters to cast ballots that day wanted independence from Massachusetts. Hollis was even more extreme, with official records showing 175 votes for separation but only one to stick with Massachusetts.

Cheever said inland areas as well as western Maine were drawing newer settlers “who were being shooed away from Massachusetts” because they weren’t part of the Protestant, Congregationalist elite that dominated the state’s social and economic ladder.

The biggest pocket of anti-separationists lived in Hancock County, particularly in the area of the Blue Hill peninsula and Mount Desert Island – two areas with strong shipping and economic ties to Boston. All 61 voters in Mount Desert and Orland wanted to stay a part of Massachusetts, with zero favoring separation.

PAYBACK FOR BOSTON ABANDONING MAINE

Just up the coast in Washington County, however, lingering bitterness toward Boston over events during the recent War of 1812 are clearly evident in the pro-separation vote tallies.

Five years earlier, in July 1814, a flotilla of British warships carrying nearly 1,000 troops sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay and captured Fort Sullivan in Eastport. The British would soon control the entire coastline east of Penobscot Bay. They looted Hampden and Bangor, burned private ships all along the Penobscot River and even declared Castine the capital of a new Canadian province, dubbed New Ireland.

Massachusetts officials were accused of barely lifting a finger to defend its own District of Maine, despite pleas from Maine residents and expectations from federal officials in Washington. It wasn’t until June 1818 – three years after the war ended – that the British officially withdrew from Eastport.

A year later, Eastport residents voted 147-5 for Maine to separate from Massachusetts. Not a single resident of the nearby villages of Perry and Robbinston supported staying in Massachusetts, while the votes in Calais and Machias were 57-2 and 103-24, respectively.

The young men who fought in the War of 1812 “were pissed off and they stayed angry,” Cheever said.

“The reneging of the promise to protect Maine and the Maine coast, and to devastate and not stand up to the Jeffersonian trade embargo … killed Maine businesses,” Cheever said. “Where was Massachusetts in this?”

SEPARATION VOTE FOLLOWED MANY FAILED ATTEMPTS

The first official vote on Maine separating from Massachusetts occurred in 1786, just three years after the Treaty of Paris officially ended the Revolutionary War.

The 1786 vote was sparked, at least in part, by lingering anger over the perceived failure of Massachusetts to defend Falmouth (today’s Portland) prior to the British burning the port town to the ground in 1775. But few Maine voters (white, property-owning men) participated in the referendum and it failed to pass.

The 1790s saw several more unsuccessful attempts at separation, driven by population growth in the district combined with frustrations over taxation and many Mainers’ inadequate access to courts, schools, churches and policymakers.

“But we are now at a great distance from the seat of government – we are now as totally separated from Massachusetts, with respect to local situation, as we are from Newyork or South-carolina,” Daniel Davis wrote in April 1791 in a 54-page booklet on separation, a copy of which has been preserved by the Maine Historical Society. “And we are now embarrassed with many of the same troubles and inconveniences that we should be, were our seat of government in either of the last mentioned States.”

But according to at least one account, the idea of separating Maine from Massachusetts predates America’s independence itself by nearly a century.

In 1680, 118 residents of York, Kittery and Wells petitioned to separate from Massachusetts and make Maine its own Colonial government under the British system. According to Charles Clark’s 1970 book, “The Eastern Frontier: The Settlement of Northern New England,” the petitioners argued that Massachusetts authorities were violating their rights to free religious expression.

Tensions over religion persisted and were one factor for some voters in approving separation nearly 150 years later in 1819.

Massachusetts was still solidly controlled spiritually, politically and economically by Congregationalists, the church that sprang from the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s original Puritan settlers. Maine, on the other hand, was filling with Baptists, Methodists, Catholics and other Christians.

By the time of the separation vote in 1819, Baptists were “obviously the largest religious denomination in the state,” William D. Williamson wrote in his authoritative “History of the State of Maine,” published in 1832.

HAMILTON OR JEFFERSON?

Political allegiances also were different in the District of Maine than in its parent state.

The Massachusetts’ political scene had been ruled for decades by Federalists, who believed in a strong federal government, a centralized bank, close ties with Britain and other fiscal policies espoused by Alexander Hamilton. But the Federalist influence in Maine was shrinking as many new settlers ascribed to Thomas Jefferson’s ideals of stronger state governments, separation of church and state and a distrust of both a powerful federal government and the British.

Between 1790 and 1820, the population of the District of Maine tripled from just shy of 100,000 to nearly 300,000. And that population growth threatened the power system in Boston as Jeffersonians and non-Federalists in Maine and other rural areas of the state exerted more influence.

Sen. Angus King walks through the Capitol past the statue of William King of Maine on April 11, 2013. Press Herald staff photo by Gregory Rec

Faced with that political reality and the strong statehood push led by William King, Massachusetts lawmakers agreed again in 1819 to allow Maine to break away as long as pro-statehood votes outnumbered those opposed to separation  by at least 1,500.

The official margin was 9,968.

SLAVERY AND THE MISSOURI COMPROMISE

Following the decisive vote, King and other pro-separation leaders wasted no time beginning the process of establishing statehood.

By October, King and delegates had created a state constitution that borrowed heavily from Massachusetts’ own document but with key differences reflecting Mainers’ streak of fierce independence. In addition to outlawing slavery, Maine’s Constitution grants the right to vote to all white men age 21 or older, not just property owners.

Slavery would, nonetheless, soon cast a pall over the prospects of Maine statehood.

Abolitionist fervor was rampant in Maine and its admittance to the union as a “free state” would tip the national balance in favor of anti-slavery states. In response, Southern senators sought to link Maine joining the union to the admission of Missouri, where slavery was legal.

The resulting “Missouri Compromise,” which also divided the Louisiana Territory into free and slavery areas, presented a moral dilemma to many fiercely abolitionist Mainers who now realized that Maine statehood also meant a geographic expansion of slavery.

William Preble, a York lawyer then serving as U.S. attorney for Maine, wrote to King in March 1820 that members of the state’s delegation to Congress were “disgusted and indignant” by the turn of events.

“The chagrin manifested here is beyond anything I have ever seen,” Preble wrote to King. “But thank Heaven – all is well. And as to those of our representatives who have done so much to embarrass and so little to aid us, may they not be forgotten.”

In the end, five of Maine’s seven representatives to Congress opposed the compromise that granted Maine statehood despite their work to achieve separation. But the bill narrowly passed Congress on March 3, 1820, thanks in no small part to the efforts of King, a vocal abolitionist initially horrified by the compromise but who ultimately supported it.

King issued an official “proclamation” on statehood on March 16 as the president of Maine’s constitutional convention. And months later, he was rewarded for his yearslong leadership on the separation issue by being elected the first governor of Maine.

“If Maine had become a state in the first days of the movement in 1785, we would have been a state much like Massachusetts: run by higher-ups, the well-to-do, and the accomplished and the aristocrats,” Adams said.

King had seized the unique circumstances of the time as he courted veterans, farmers and common settlers ahead of that July 1819 vote. In so doing, he achieved a victory at the ballot box that had eluded earlier separation advocates such as Revolutionary War generals Henry Knox and Peleg Wadsworth, the grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

“King was right on top of his moment – and that moment didn’t exist before 1816 or 1819,” Adams said.


Comments are not available on this story.

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.