Jan. 15, 1877: Ether Shepley, who served from 1848 to 1855 as the fourth chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, dies in Portland at age 87. Shepley also was a delegate to Maine’s constitutional convention, a U.S. attorney for the District of Maine, and a U.S. senator for three years.

His most enduring contribution to the Maine Constitution was a subtle but important one – the Shepley amendment to Article VIII, which describes state government’s role in public education.

Ether Shepley Photo courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office

State political leaders who advocated separation from Massachusetts and statehood for Maine had many motives. One of the lesser known reasons was a desire to secure more influence over Bowdoin College, a bastion of Congregational orthodoxy that held political and cultural sway in a state that had become predominantly Baptist. Bowdoin also was accused of discriminating against non-Congregationalist students who applied for admission to the school.

The constitutional convention received the first draft of Article VIII in October 1819, less than five months before Maine achieved statehood. The draft would have given the governor and his council veto power over any decision made by Bowdoin’s governing boards.

Shepley recognized that the wording might jeopardize the article’s adoption and the goal of state control. He offered an amendment removing the provision about the governor and his council and instead giving the Legislature authority to regulate colleges. Legislators could exercise that power only if the state provides funds to the college.

Judah Dana, one of the original draft’s authors, threw his support to the new text, satisfied that educational institutions must be controlled by some public authority. The amendment passed, 151-18.

Since the constitution’s adoption by statewide referendum on Dec. 6, 1819, by a 9,040-797 vote, Article VIII is the only one of its 10 articles that never has been amended.

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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