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Map of Maine

The pursuit of statehood dominated Maine politics between 1787 and 1820, when it finally achieved statehood separate from Massachusetts. Until 1820, the District of Maine simply comprised the eastern counties of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and thus shared all its political characteristics (see Massachusetts entry). There were significant efforts at statehood in 1788–1789, 1792, 1803, 1816, but the district's populous coastal communities proved unwilling to sever their connections with the Commonwealth.

After 1803 the statehood issue increasingly became identified with Jeffersonianism. Backcountry residents became increasingly restive, in no small part because of antipathy to absentee proprietors who owned vast swathes of Maine's undeveloped hinterland. The situation remained volatile until the issue became politicized by Jeffersonian leaders who saw a chance to land a major blow against the Boston-based Federalist elite. The dominant figure in the struggle for statehood was William King, a wealthy merchant who based his political career on the grievances of squatters and religious dissenters such as himself. In a timely defection, in 1803 he became a Republican, portending the district's conversion; in 1805 the District of Maine voted for a Jeffersonian gubernatorial candidate, and a majority of its voters never supported Federalism thereafter.

The War of 1812 proved a catalyst for statehood. Militarily abandoned by Massachusetts, Mainers increasingly realized that only statehood would endow them with a political voice. Yet an 1816 statehood effort failed. Stung by the defeat, King realized that Maine's coastal communities would not break with old Massachusetts as a consequence of a peculiarity in federal navigation laws. Utilizing his political connections in Washington, King helped refashion national maritime policies in such a way that separation did not threaten the shipping trades so essential to Maine's coastal communities. With this obstacle removed, in July 1819 an election based on separation passed in all nine Maine counties; by October, representatives held a constitutional convention.

Maine's constitution departed significantly from that of Massachusetts and can be seen as a triumph of Jeffersonian principles. It guaranteed freedom of both speech and press; absolute freedom of religion; and universal male suffrage for those over twenty-one, with no property qualifications whatever and no racial restrictions. Maine's legislature was bicameral, featuring a House of Representatives and a Senate, with November elections every two years for both houses. Unlike Massachusetts, which, to ensure the dominance of Suffolk County, based the number of senators on each county’s wealth, Maine apportioned senators on the basis of population.

The new state's executive powers were somewhat altered from those of old Massachusetts, which arguably had the strongest governorship in the nation, but they nonetheless remained strong. Governors were not required to be Christians, and they served a four-year term. There was no lieutenant governor; the president of the Senate was designated the successor to any governor incapacitated. The combined Senate and House elected a seven-member council to assist the governor.

Congress approved Maine's statehood in 1820 as part of the "Missouri Compromise." Given his prominence in the statehood movement, it is appropriate that King became Maine's first governor.


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  • Marini, Stephen A. Radical Sects of Revolutionary New England. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.
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  • Williamson, William D. The History of the State of Maine: From Its First Discovery, A.D. 1602, to the Separation, A.D. 1820, Inclusive. Hallowell, ME: Glazier, Masters and Co., 1832.