December 03, 2019
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Why Thomas Jefferson wasn’t happy with the original Maine Constitution

Courtesy of Collections of the Maine Historical Society
Courtesy of Collections of the Maine Historical Society
A letter Thomas Jefferson sent to the chairman of the Maine Constitutional Convention in 1819.

There were some key moments that led to Maine becoming a state nearly 200 years ago. It was in November 1819 that former President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to William King, the chairman of the Maine Constitutional Convention, detailing his displeasure with elements of Maine’s draft Constitution.

When Jefferson sent the letter to King, he had received a draft copy of Maine’s Constitution that had been hammered out just the month before.

“Thomas Jefferson returns thanks to General King for his kind communication of the Constitution of Maine,” the letter reads, “which he finds marked with wisdom at every point, except that of representation.”

Representation, as in how to apportion seats in a new state legislature, had been a source of controversy during the Constitutional Convention in Portland.

“In those days, every incorporated town — incorporated by the state of Massachusetts and recognized — would have one legislator,” historian Herb Adams said, “and larger towns would have more.”

Adams said Portland had about 8,500 people in 1820, and so was apportioned seven seats in the Legislature. But those were vastly outnumbered by the representatives guaranteed to each of the much smaller towns.

“The argument was how much more representation bigger places should have, because they hadn’t the fundamental ideal we do — that districts have to contain an equal number of people. That’s way off, in the 20th century,” Adams said. “So that is what’s being talked about here. And if you’re inventing a new place from scratch, these are the things you argue about — how to be fair, where Massachusetts never was.”

And Jefferson, apparently, didn’t approve of Maine’s proposed system. In his Nov. 19 letter to King, Jefferson warned that in a true republic, the principal of equal representation must never be violated.

“The claims of the corporate towns in this case, like those of the barons in England, have forced the body of the nation to accept a government by capitulation, where the equal rights of the people at large are forced to yield to the privileges of a few,” Jefferson wrote. “However, you will amend it by and by. In the meantime, I welcome the new state into our union and salute General King with the most friendly recollections and assurances of esteem and respect. Monticello, November 19th, 1819. Thomas Jefferson.”

And Jefferson was right — Maine eventually did move to a system of equal representation in legislative districts, so that each member of the legislature represents roughly the same number of people. But the original Maine Constitution, and its controversial plan for legislative apportionment, would go before Maine voters on Dec. 6, 1819.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.

 



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