Today, Maine marks its 190th anniversary as a state. If Rep. Henry Joy, R-Crystal, has his way, the state won’t reach its 200th — at least not in its current configuration. Rep. Joy wants to divide the state into Northern Massachusetts (the southern and coastal portions) and Maine (that would be the “real” Maine, north of Augusta). As ludicrous as that sounds, that way of thinking dates back centuries. And it continues to curse Maine as it struggles to become prosperous.
Before 1820, the District of Maine was part of Massachusetts. After the War of 1812, which devastated Maine more than any other part of New England (the British occupied the coast from Castine to Machias), residents concluded Massachusetts could not provide protection, and so they united in their desire for statehood. Maine became the 23th state on March 15, 1820, entering the Union as part of the Missouri Compromise, a complex deal that sought to balance slave and nonslave states.
Speaking in Rockport in 2006, Maine historian and writer Colin Woodard noted that the region’s early settlers hailed from two very different segments of English society. The first Maine settlements were established by Sir Ferdinando Gorges, whom Mr. Woodard says was a throwback to medieval England. His goal was “to re-create the high Middle Ages in this land,” forming counties that would function the way feudal lands under the management of lords functioned in England.
But during the 17th century, that economic and social model in England was under attack, resulting in the English Civil War. Massachusetts, Mr. Woodard noted, was settled by the other side of that civil struggle, those who were interested in a religious order. That group favored the selectmen form of government, similar to church congregation democracy. And when the monarchy lost its hold on England in the 1640s, the colony of Maine no longer was tied to a nation.
When King Charles I was beheaded, “Maine became an orphan state,” Mr. Woodard said. Maine settlements reported to no one, he said, and became like “village states,” to which he traces the independence and resistance to regionalization that still rules today.
In the 1650s, Massachusetts began to forcibly annex Maine. Maine land was traded and sold in huge tracts by wealthy Massachusetts-based aristocrats. Periodically, owners would send surveyors and rent collectors to Maine, but “They would tar and feather anyone who came in to try to survey,” Mr. Woodard said. The distrust of those from Massachusetts is “encoded in our culture,” he said.
When Maine became a state in 1820, it was at its peak of prosperity, with the rest of the U.S. relying on its timber, granite, ice and salt cod. After the Civil War, all those industries collapsed, leaving Maine in a “150-year depression,” Mr. Woodard said.
Today, the disdain for Massachusetts remains, but it’s hard to see what Maine gains by sustaining it. Maine’s economic destiny is linked to the rest of New England and the Maritime Provinces. An orphan might harbor a stubborn pride in his outsider status. But interdependence and connections are the keys to a brighter future.