Two hundred years doesn’t seem to be a very long time in a place like Maine.

Statehood came in 1820, but the people who lived here were self-governing long before that. Many of the towns we know today, like Kittery, Hollis and Buxton, were long-established units in 1820, democratically setting budgets and levying taxes to pay for roads, schools and assistance for the poor.

The land that became Maine may have been part of Massachusetts in 1819, but long before the American Revolution gave birth to any state, York and Cumberland counties had been convening courts, jailing convicts and recording wills.

And even those political units were newcomers compared to the indigenous people, who arrived early enough to hunt woolly mammoths and mastodons in the Maine woods. Native villages supported by agriculture and subsistence hunting and fishing were well established before the arrival of Europeans.

So what exactly will we be celebrating in Maine’s bicentennial year?

Plenty. As we can see from the bicentennial events that began last week, this is going to be a chance to tell Maine’s story again, from a present-day vantage point, and it will be surprising how much of it will seem relevant to our world.

For instance, as the country still fumbles to square its ideal of a multiracial democracy where everyone is equal against evident race-based disparities in health, wealth and access to justice, it’s a good time to remember how we got here. The Maine statehood movement had existed since the War of 1812, but it did not gain traction in Washington until members of Congress were looking for a way to admit Missouri into the Union as a slave state without giving slaveholders more power in the national government.

Maine’s chief advocates for statehood were also abolitionists and didn’t want to expand slavery even if it meant that they would achieve their goals.

But even though the Missouri Compromise did expand slavery, the new Northern state became a bastion of the anti-slavery movement.

It produced some of the founders of the anti-slavery Republican Party, including Hannibal Hamlin, Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president. And no Northern state sent a greater percentage of its population to fight in the Civil War than Maine.

Today we can be proud that the people who came before us were on the right side of the most significant moral issue of their day, and their story should be an example for us as we approach issues that are just as weighty.

Some of Maine’s history offers warnings instead of examples, like the rise of the anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. None of these stories should be ignored because they all combine to make our state the place it is today.

And thinking about where you’ve been can easily turn into a conversation about where you want to go next. Discussions like that are something to look forward to in Maine’s bicentennial year.

 


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