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Maine's Road to Statehood

The American Revolution and Early Attempts at Separation

Overwhelmingly dedicated to independence from Britain, Mainers quieted any murmurs of separation during the American Revolution. The question, however, did not die out. The burning of Falmouth in 1775 by the British was a final straw for many of those undecided about separation. In fact, America’s independence ultimately made the question more relevant, and it was not long after the war ended that the issue separation reappeared.

On April 30, 1785, the Falmouth Gazette and Weekly Advertiser, a Maine newspaper founded for the purpose of advocating separation, published a full front-page article submitted by “A Farmer” regarding the separation of the District of Maine from Massachusetts.[4] Separation was not a new proposition, “Farmer” noted: “It was in contemplation before the war, and is an object considered by many as more important since the establishment of our independence.” Immediately following this tract, on the second page, was another submission sent by one “Philanthropos,” again regarding separation.[5] The Falmouth Gazette's printers, Thomas Wait and Benjamin Titcomb, were part of a new epoch of the separationist movement; one that involved newspapers, Euro-American statesmanship, and the people's voice. The movement began in the 1780s and lasted just shy of forty years.

Separationist Call to Meeting, Falmouth
Separationist Call to Meeting, FalmouthPublished in The Falmouth Gazette, Sept 17, 1785.

Within the columns of the Falmouth Gazette, separation was often debated and more commonly defended. The debate was not one of passion, but of erudition and practicality. Did it make sense for Mainers to remain part of the Commonwealth? Some of the District's leading gentlemen—William Gorham and Stephen Longfellow III for example—led the charge for complete separation and organized a meeting to discuss the organization of a future convention regarding independence. Heeding to the call from a newly established committee, delegates from twenty Maine towns met in October 1785, and then again in January 1786 to formally examine the question. Meeting at Falmouth Neck (present-day Portland), the committee drafted a report entitled "The Separation of Maine from Massachusetts."[6]

The committee sent a similar address to the citizens of Maine urging them to support separation.[7] A third meeting was held in September of 1786 to evaluate the response. Unfortunately for separationists, gathering support was difficult for their movement, which some thought unpatriotic and embarrassing, in light of the shockwaves caused by Shays' Rebellion and other rural uprisings throughout New England. The September meeting ended with a decree that Mainers would vote on the question of separation, and then submit their votes to the Massachusetts General Court.

Perhaps in reaction to the "Shaysite" movement, fewer than 1,000 of Maine's nearly 75,000 inhabitants cast an initial vote regarding the state's separation. Accordingly, leaders of the separation movement decided against sending the petition to the General Court before their January 1787 meeting.[8]

Other meetings over the next several years proved unsuccessful, and this first significant push for independence for the District of Maine teetered out. Not all hope was lost, however. The General Assembly responded to some of the grievances published by the assembly, notably alleviating the post-Revolution tax burden for residents; setting up courts in towns in Maine; and providing cheaper property to frustrated squatters living on the lands of wealthy proprietors. Additionally, as the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia completed its rewriting of the U.S. Constitution, local papers dedicated its commentary to national matters and suspended talk of Maine separation.[9]

Despite all of this, the movement did not die out entirely, and Mainers would again begin to question the practicality of their status into the next decade.

[4] Hatch, Louis C. Maine: A History (Somersworth, NH: New Hampshire Publishing Company, 1973), 107.

[5] Falmouth Gazette, 4/30/1785. For more on the different Gazette contributors and their pseudonyms see Hatch, Maine: A History, 181.

[6] Banks, Ronald F., Maine Becomes a State: The Movement to Separate Maine from Massachusetts, (Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press), 13. Maine only had three incorporated counties before 1790—York, Cumberland and Lincoln. Summarized list of grievances (in sidebar): Hatch, Maine, 108-109. An original list of grievances can be found printed in the The Falmouth Gazette and Weekly Advertiser, Jan 7, 1786 (no. 54 vol. 2).

[7] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 16.

[8] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 22-23.

[9] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 24-25.