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1790s: A Growing Movement

The first attempt at separation in the 1780s could be understood as a grassroots movement spearheaded by established Mainers—meant more to raise the question and assess the people's perspective. In 1791, another push for Maine's independence was already underway, and this time it was more organized. Daniel Davis, one of the movement's literary leaders, published An Address to the Inhabitants of the District of Maine Upon the Subject of their Separation from the Present Government of Massachusetts by One of Their Fellow Citizens in 1791, which detailed "the presumed advantages to be gained by separation" and was widely distributed.[11] On the other side, anti-separationists argued that separation from Massachusetts would be too costly to be affective.[12] Believing there was enough support, however, backers of the separation movement sought to garner approval. Although unsuccessful, attempts for separation made during the 1790s engendered organized and lasting support for the movement.

After a year of debates and assessments of the past failure, advocates of separation were able to put a referendum on the ballot in January 1792. Although selectmen publicized the upcoming referendum to eligible Maine voters, fewer than 4,600 inhabitants actually voted—a mere fraction of the District's population. Despite this, many more turned in ballots than during the previous attempt in 1787. While the exact numbers vary, William Willis, noted Maine historian, tallied 2,074 yeas to 2,524 nays.[13] Furthermore, the acclaimed historian commented that although the result was "so unexpected to the sanguine advocates of separation," it would soon become the catalyst for another attempt at self-sovereignty.[14]

The 1792 vote also revealed a sectional divide in the District of Maine regarding its desire for separation. Inland towns and communities favored separation, while those on the coast opposed it. This, of course, was due to the Coasting Law, which would "result in irreparable damage" to the commercial interests of the mercantile coastal communities. Additionally, many in York County opposed separation because the current capital in Boston would likely be closer than a new capital in Maine.[15]

In October 1793, Peleg Wadsworth, grandfather of the noted poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, put forth an effort to place a separation bill in front of the General Court in Massachusetts. In haste, only a small delegation showed up at a convention at the courthouse in Portland. With no delegates from Washington or Hancock counties, little interest from York County and objections due to the Coasting Law, the effort soon died out.[16]

District of Maine map, 1795
District of Maine map, 1795
Drawn in 1795, this map promoted the separation of Maine from Massachusetts. Depicting an independent and politically distinct Maine, it places Maine's borders along the Magaguadavic River to the east (and a non-existent range of hills to the north).Maine Historical Society

Still, separationists schemed new ways to rally supporters for their cause. Delegates from Cumberland, Lincoln and York counties attempted to move forward with separation, leaving Washington and Hancock counties as part of Massachusetts. With this plan, shipping complications from the Coasting Law would be sidestepped because Maine would still boarder all of the same states as before its independence. While almost unanimously supported at the 1793 convention, a meeting the following year concluded that total separation was requisite for the economic prosperity and safety of the state. During the gubernatorial elections in the spring of 1795, Lincoln, Cumberland, and York counties voted upon an additional ballot measure regarding separation. But once again, the number of votes casted was too negligible to serve as legitimate.

After the two unsuccessful attempts in the early 1790s, one last push for separation was made at the end of the century. During the winter of 1797, residents from across Maine sent petitions to the General Court in Massachusetts demanding a vote on separation. Somewhat surprisingly, the legislature authorized the vote, which was approved by Massachusetts Governor Samuel Adams. The referendum read: "Shall application be made to the Legislature for their consent to a separation of the District of Maine from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and that the same maybe erected into a State?" A vote in all five Maine counties was held in May of that year to decide on the matter.[17]

Again, interior towns overwhelmingly favored separation while coastal ones did not. Moreover, York County remained the largest dissenter against independence because of its close proximately to Boston. Support for separation was strongest in places where squatters and proprietors argued over land rights, and even in coastal towns like Portland, newly arrived squatters offset some of anti-separation sentiment. Statewide, the separationists won 373 more votes than their opposition in the 1797 referendum. Despite this, however, the General Court ignored the result, likely because just 5,000 votes were cast from of a population now nearing 100,000.[18]

[11] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 28-29

[12] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 26.

[13] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 32.

[14] Willis, William, History of Portland vol. II (Portland: Charles Day & Co., 1833), 258.

[15] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 33.

[16] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 33-35.

[17] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 36-37. In Portland, for example, fewer than 30 votes were cast in total (19 yeas to 10 nays).

[18] Banks, Maine Becomes a State, 37-40.