March 14, 2021
By the time most of you will read this it will be March 15, which is too important a day to ignore. As the man who taught me to use a chainsaw said, it is immortalized by Shakespeare’s famous warning: “Cedar! Beware the adze of March!”
He put it that way because the importance of March 15 is, of course, that it is the day in 1820 that Maine, the Pine Tree State, joined the Union.
Maine statehood had national repercussions. The inhabitants of this northern part of Massachusetts had asked for statehood in 1819, but their petition was stopped dead by southerners who refused to permit a free state—one that did not permit slavery—to enter the Union without a corresponding “slave state.” The explosive growth of the northern states had already given free states control of the House of Representatives, but the South held its own in the Senate, where each state got two votes. The admission of Maine would give the North the advantage, and southerners insisted that Maine’s admission be balanced with the admission of a southern slave state, lest those opposed to slavery use their power in the federal government to restrict enslavement in the South.
They demanded the admission of Missouri to counteract Maine’s two “free” Senate votes.
But this “Missouri Compromise” infuriated northerners, especially those who lived in Maine. They swamped Congress with petitions against admitting Missouri as a slave state, resenting that slave owners in the Senate could hold the state of Maine hostage until they got their way. Tempers rose high enough that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Massachusetts—and later Maine—Senator John Holmes that he had for a long time been content with the direction of the country, but that the Missouri question “like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union It is hushed indeed for the moment, but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence.”
Congress passed the Missouri Compromise, but Jefferson was right to see it as nothing more than a reprieve.
The petition drive that had begun as an effort to keep the admission of Maine from being tied to the admission of Missouri continued as a movement to get Congress to whittle away at slavery where it could—by, for example, outlawing slave sales in the nation’s capital—and would become a key point of friction between the North and the South.
There was also another powerful way in which the conditions of the state’s entry into the Union would affect American history. Mainers were angry that their statehood had been tied to the demands of far distant slave owners, and that anger worked its way into the state’s popular culture. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 meant that Maine men, who grew up steeped in that anger, could spread west.
And so they did.
In 1837, Elijah P. Lovejoy, who had moved to Alton, Illinois, from Albion, Maine, to begin a newspaper dedicated to the abolition of human enslavement, was murdered by a pro-slavery mob, who threw his printing press into the Mississippi River.
Elijah Lovejoy’s younger brother, Owen, had also moved west from Maine. Owen saw Elijah shot and swore his allegiance to the cause of abolition. "I shall never forsake the cause that has been sprinkled with my brother's blood," he declared. He turned to politics, and in 1854, he was elected to the Illinois state legislature. His increasing prominence brought him political friends, including an up-and-coming lawyer who had arrived in Illinois from Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln.
Lovejoy and Lincoln were also friends with another Maine man gone to Illinois. Elihu Washburne had been born in Livermore, Maine, in 1816, when Maine was still part of Massachusetts. He was one of seven brothers, and one by one, his brothers had all left home, most of them to move west. Israel Washburn, Jr., the oldest, stayed in Maine, but Cadwallader moved to Wisconsin, and William Drew would follow, going to Minnesota. (Elihu was the only brother who spelled his last name with an e).
Israel and Elihu were both serving in Congress in 1854 when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act overturning the Missouri Compromise and permitting the spread of slavery to the West. Furious, Israel called a meeting of 30 congressmen in May to figure out how they could come together to stand against the Slave Power that had commandeered the government to spread the South’s system of human enslavement. They met in the rooms of Representative Edward Dickinson, of Massachusetts-- whose talented daughter Emily was already writing poems-- and while they came to the meeting from all different political parties, they left with one sole principle: to stop the Slave Power that was turning the government into an oligarchy.
The men scattered for the summer back to their homes across the North, sharing their conviction that a new party must rise to stand against the Slave Power. In the fall, those calling themselves “anti-Nebraska” candidates were sweeping into office—Cadwallader Washburn would be elected from Wisconsin in 1854 and Owen Lovejoy from Illinois in 1856—and they would, indeed, create a new political party: the Republicans. The new party took deep root in Maine, flipping the state from Democratic to Republican in 1856, the first time it fielded a presidential candidate.
In 1859, Abraham Lincoln would articulate an ideology for the party, defining it as the party of ordinary Americans standing together against the oligarchs of slavery, and when he ran for president in 1860, he knew it was imperative that he get the momentum of Maine men on his side. In those days Maine voted for state and local offices in September, rather than November, so a party’s win in Maine could start a wave. “As Maine goes, so goes the nation,” the saying went.
So Lincoln turned to Hannibal Hamlin, who represented Maine in the Senate (and whose father had built the house in which the Washburns grew up). Lincoln won 62% of the vote in Maine in 1860, taking all 8 of the state’s electoral votes, and went on to win the election. When he arrived in Washington quietly in late February to take office the following March, Elihu Washburne was at the railroad station to greet him.
I was not a great student in college. I liked learning, but not on someone else’s timetable. It was this story that woke me up and made me a scholar. I found it fascinating that a group of ordinary people from country towns who shared a fear that they were losing their democracy could figure out how to work together to reclaim it.
Happy Birthday, Maine.
What a great story...I love how you tell them and how applicable they are to current events. Now may we figure out how to reclaim democracy again.
Well written and powerful as usual! But I do hope you'll spill some ink (or illuminate some pixels?) regarding how tied to slavery and its economy the entire North, and indeed the whole of the United States, so thoroughly was.
My dad's family's story on this continent begins in Boston in 1652, when unwilling Scots on the wrong side of Oliver Cromwell were exiled here. I live just a few kilometers (#GoMetric) from where their ship, the John & Sarah, docked that year after a trecherous winter crossing of the Atlantic. My mother's history in Boston begins with her folks starting in the 1920s (she passed of Covid back in May at the age of 86 by the way - I'm just 44 myself, she had me late). Her dad, my grandfather, had a stint co-running the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (now Brigham & Women's) back when it was a small outfit just finding its sea legs after he graduated Harvard Med School.
And it was my mother's brother, a well-connected jazz artist who played and produced records until he passed about 8 years ago now, has childhood memories of very old Civil War soldiers marching in the streets of Boston on July 4th (he actually played his way through the Army years later) and he always said the Civil War was America's "long shadow," a rift that we've never truly recovered from.
Let's take Faneuil Hall, for example, dubbed the "Cradle of Liberty" since the American Revolution -- it was absolutely financed with money from Peter Faneuil's slave trading business. More and more are we (re)discovering these truths. I want to be honest with you, Professor - sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes I find some (not all) aspects of your narrative concerning these United States of America a little too tidy. A little too attached to this narrative habit we've had in Boston for quite some time - that we've been the enlightened home of abolitionists, and the South has been source of racist rot in our country.
One of my ancestors was legal witness in the 17th century to one of the, shall we say, "shady real estate deals" that was vehicle for the colonization of this continent, the violent cultural and physical genocide our nation is entirely predicated on.
I'd really appreciate it if you chose to delve a little more unflinchingly into America - the full story. For example, we all should learn the horrible history of Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln, whom you venerate reasonably on some counts, proclaimed a day of Thanksgiving in 1863, right? And the federal government declared the last Thursday in November as the legal Thanksgiving holiday in 1898.
However, the meaning of Thanksgiving is whitewashed with the happy feasting Pilgrims & Indians story. And yes, that did happen. Once. In 1614 when a band of English explorers sailed home to England with a ship full of Patuxet Indians bound for slavery. (As you know, they left behind smallpox which almost entirely wiped out those who'd escaped.) By the time the Pilgrims got to Mass Bay, they found only one living Patuxet Indian, a man named Squanto who'd survived slavery in England and knew English. He taught them to grow corn and fish and negotiated a peace treaty between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Nation. At the end of their first year, the Pilgrims held a great feast honoring Squanto and the Wampanoags.
BUT, as word spread in England about this new world paradise, religious zealots (you guessed it, the Puritans) began arriving by the boatload (no, they were not all fleeing religious persecution - they actually had a great deal of religious freedom - most were pursuing an economic opportunity). In any event, finding no fences around the land, they considered it to be public domain. Joined by other British settlers (whom my highland ancestors would later fight in the Battles of Dunbar and Worcester), they seized land, capturing strong young Natives for slaves and killing the rest.
The Pequot Nation, however, hadn't agreed to this peace treaty that Squanto negotiated and dared to fight back.
The Pequot War was one of the bloodiest Indian wars ever fought. In 1637 near today's Groton CT, over 700 men, women and kids of the Pequot Tribe were having an annual "Green Corn Festival." In the predawn hours the slumbering tribe members were surrounded by English and Dutch mercenaries who ordered them to come outside. Those who came out were shot or clubbed to death while the terrified women and children who huddled inside the longhouse were then literally burned alive inside (yup, pretty horrid - if any tried to come out, they were of course shot).
The NEXT day, Mass Bay Colony governor John Winthrop declared “A Day Of Thanksgiving” because 700 unarmed men, women and children had been murdered. Elated by the “victory” God granted them, the "brave" colonists attacked village after village. Women and children over 14 were sold into slavery while the rest were murdered. Boats loaded with as many as 500 slaves regularly left New England ports.
Following an especially successful raid against the Pequot in what is now Stamford CT, the churches announced a 2nd day of Thanksgiving to celebrate victory over the heathen savages. During the feasting, the hacked-off heads of Natives were kicked through the streets like soccer balls. Even the friendly Wampanoag did not escape the madness. Their chief, Metacom (son of the original welcoming Massasoit, whose statue you can find in Plymouth) was beheaded, and his head impaled on a pole in Plymouth, Massachusetts where it remained on display for ~25 years after King Phillip's War (which was arguably this continent's first battle for independence, or cultural survival, however you look at it).
Anyway, the killings became more and more frenzied, with days of thanksgiving feasts being held after each successful massacre. Eventually we get to George Washington himself, who finally suggested that only one day of Thanksgiving per year be set aside instead of celebrating each and every massacre. Later still, our beloved Abraham Lincoln decreed Thanksgiving Day to be a legal national holiday during the Civil War (on the same day he ordered troops to march against the starving Sioux in Minnesota).
So, professor Richardson, that version of the story doesn’t have quite the same fuzzy feelings associated with it as the one where the Indians and Pilgrims are all sitting down together at a big feast, and I've been kind of hoping you'd write more about the things we need to unflinchingly reckon with as a nation. I think you'd agree we need to look at history square in the face, so I truly hope you continue to work in service of the truth of our mutually conjoined stories.
Sincerely from Somerville (once Charlestown, which was later annexed anyway and is now Boston),
P.S. Connected with James Monroe, yes - I actually share his birthday. By the way, he owned enslaved people. None of us are of noble blood, and I really think we, as white people, need to talk about it A LOT more.