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1775-1820 Tension, War & Separation

Like the Boston Massacre, the burning of Falmouth rallied Americans to proclaim independence.

These conflicting social visions – hierarchy versus democracy – exacerbated tensions over land titles, poll taxes, and a deflationary currency policy that favored money-lenders and proprietors over the indebted and land-hungry settlers on the frontier.

After the long struggle with France and its Indian allies ended in 1763, British national debt stood at an all-time high, and its empire now included Canada, parts of the Caribbean, Florida, and a vast territory west of the Appalachians. Faced with these burdens, Britain launched a broad program of imperial reorganization, expecting the American colonies to contribute to the cost of maintaining their own defense.

Between 1765 and 1773 – a time of financial hardship in the colonies – Parliament imposed a series of trade regulations and taxes, and after protesting these new policies, Whig leaders in America adopted a course of action that led to the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

While Maine shared in these protests, its situation was somewhat unique.

First, Maine had an additional grievance stemming from the British trade in ships' masts. White pine from Maine was critical to the British navy, and during a long period of warfare with Spain, France, and the Netherlands beginning in the late 1600s, the British Admiralty progressively tightened regulations on cutting pine for lumber.

To stabilize the supply of masts, the Admiralty gave control over this lucrative trade to politically connected colonial merchants, and this, too, became a source of resentment.

Maine's second special feature was its long exposed coast, which presented almost impossible problems for defense, given Britain's superiority on the seas.

Finally, Maine's status as a "colony of a colony," subject to both Britain and Massachusetts, shaped its experience in the Revolution. Profiting from this dependent relation, Massachusetts merchants carved out frontier empires by renting land, building mills, and providing credit and provisions for the struggling settlers.

The timber, fish, and produce settlers sent to Boston in exchange were inadequate to discharge these expenses, and thus the proprietor-merchants controlled the economy of eastern Maine. By the 1770s, merchant houses in Falmouth, Wells, York, Scarborough, and Kittery maintained smaller fiefdoms in their own back country, and this system of unequal exchange polarized Maine society along geographical lines.

Frustrations with British imperial agents melded with frustrations aimed at these Boston and local merchants.

As grievances with the imperial administration mounted between 1763 and 1775, colonials expressed their opinions through crowd actions, often encouraged by town elites. Over the decade, a delicate relation developed between mob participants and Whig leaders, who well understood the volatile nature of these protests.

During the Stamp Act crisis of 1765-1766, a band of 30 men with blackened faces attacked the Scarborough home of Richard King, a wealthy merchant, shipbuilder, mill owner, land speculator, and moneylender. The mob gutted his elegant two-story home and destroyed his financial records. Patriot John Adams called the Scarborough rioters "rude and insolent Rabbles," even while he incited similar riots against imperial agents in Boston.

Boston's revolutionary Committee of Correspondence had gone so far as proposing a "Solemn League and Covenant" that pledged subscribers to boycott all British goods, in response to Britain closing Boston Harbor in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773.

Falmouth (Portland) greeted these nonimportation agreements with mixed enthusiasm; as middlemen in the lucrative British trade, its merchants had much to lose by the boycott, and they understood that their wharves, warehouses, and ships would take the brunt of any discipline by the British navy. Moreover, they were increasingly uneasy about mob actions.

Led by Samuel Thompson of Brunswick, local militia from towns further inland responded to the boycott by harassing both British agents and hesitant local merchants. Issues of debt, rent, and unequal exchange mingled with protests against the intolerable acts as the inland settlers warned the "effete, luxury-loving port towns" that they would violate the nonimportation agreements at their own peril.

In April 1775, Thompson went to Falmouth to enforce the embargo on British trade because a British merchant vessel had arrived in March with supplies for a vessel being built in the harbor. A British naval vessel, Canceaux, sailed to Portland to protect the merchant vessel.

Thompson and 50 militiamen acted on their threats, capturing the Canceaux's commander, Capt. Henry Mowat, as the ship sought to unload goods, commencing "Thompson's War."

In June 1775 a second crisis took place in the eastern town of Machias, when residents captured the officers of the warship HMS Margaretta and then the ship itself in what came to be known as the first naval battle of the Revolution.

As acts of defiance like these escalated into war, American privateers, including those from Maine, launched raids on British ships and ports in British territory. On October 6 Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves, commander of the British North Atlantic fleet, ordered Capt. Henry Mowat, who had been captured in Falmouth, to chastise the colonies by burning towns along the New England coast.

Mowat chose to ignore the Massachusetts North Shore communities, which were located close together and capable of mutual defense, and returned to Falmouth, five months after "Thompson's War." On October 17, he sent a note to town leaders accusing Falmouth of "the most unpardonable Rebellion" and after due warning launched a daylong bombardment of the town, destroying two-thirds of the buildings.

Remarkably, local militia, mostly from the outlying towns, made no effort to defend the town, and in fact stayed to loot the remaining buildings.

Like the Boston Massacre, the burning of Falmouth rallied Americans to proclaim independence. The Continental Congress strengthened its small navy and encouraged privateers, and port towns strung booms across their harbors, built fortifications, and mustered militia.

Given sufficient warning, these troops were sometimes able to defend against superior British forces. Still, as others observed, Maine's long and lightly settled coast was virtually undefendable; only its military insignificance stood between Maine and the powerful British navy.

The burning also highlighted the social tensions developing all through the colonies. In Maine these divisions were geographical as much as social, as interior settlers generally pushed for independence and seacoast merchants, aghast at the conduct of Thompson and his militia, fell in with the Loyalists. Tensions like these lingered after the war as Americans debated the government they fought to create.

The Revolution, as one historian famously said, was not just a question of home rule, but a question of who should rule at home. This query helped launch Maine's bid for separation from Massachusetts, once independence from Britain was won.

Offensives in Maine

Maine contributed many small, armed vessels as part of a privateering fleet that disrupted British supply lines, and it served as the staging area for three invasions of British territory. The first and most famous was Benedict Arnold's ill-fated siege of Quebec. With a thousand well-chosen volunteers, Arnold mustered at Augusta in fall 1775 and traveled by bateau up the Kennebec River, across the swampy western tablelands, and down the Chaudiere River to the St. Lawrence across from Quebec.

Having survived exhaustion and starvation, the army, reduced to 675 men, was swept by smallpox, a condition the troops passed on to reinforcements when they arrived from Montreal. Arnold's assault on the fortress on December 31 cost 100 American lives with another 400 captured, and in May, with the St. Lawrence clear of ice, British reinforcements arrived. The decimated American troops retreated to New York State.

Two expeditions of pro-American refugees from Nova Scotia were similarly unsuccessful.

The Penobscot Expedition

Maine was quiet through the middle years of the war, but in 1779 British vessels renewed their offensive against American privateers, and on June 9 the Admiralty at Halifax sent Brigadier General Francis McLean with troops to occupy Bagaduce – today's Castine – at the mouth of the Penobscot River.

The efforts to defend the area, known as the Penobscot Expedition and sometimes called the worst naval disaster until Pearl Harbor, showed the weakness of colonial coastal defenses as a privateer fleet was badly defeated. For the rest of the war eastern Maine was an occupied territory and a rallying point for Loyalist refugees, who conducted plunder expeditions against coastal towns.

As the war dragged on, a few eastern towns, sensing their abandonment by Massachusetts, circulated proclamations of neutrality. Their frustration was understandable: military drafts had became more demanding, and those left behind on the home front – women, children, and older men – tended farms and businesses as best they could. With taxes high and the British blockading the coast, Maine's situation was desperate.

When peace came in 1783, the Loyalists in Bagaduce moved eastward to Passamaquoddy Bay, but because the Peace of Paris only vaguely drew the border, the small community remained uncertain about which nation controlled its fate.

Peace and Beginning of Prosperity

In 1778 the Continental Congress divided Massachusetts into three maritime districts, including the District of Maine, and the original counties of York, Cumberland, and Lincoln carved off Hancock and Washington (1789), Kennebec (1799), Oxford (1805), Somerset (1809), and Penobscot (1816). Between 1784 and 1800 Maine's population swelled from 56,000 to over 151,000.

Falmouth – Portland after l786 – recovered quickly from the disaster of 1775 and grew to become Maine's major seaport. The mainstay of its economy was a thriving trade in wood products, livestock, fish, house frames, and produce with the West Indies in return for molasses, sugar, and rum. Portland also built small brigs, sloops, and schooners for the West Indies trade and shipped produce coming down from the interior highlands of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.

Prosperity fostered a complex society, with merchants, doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, and clergy at the apex; artisans and small shop owners in the middle; and sailors, laborers, servants, and slaves at the bottom. The classical motif in the new federal-style mansions back from the waterfront reflected the aristocratic aspirations of the rising merchant class, as well as their celebration of America's emerging democratic ideals.

Back-country society was much more leveled, although growing resentment toward land speculators, merchants, and money-lenders kept the frontier restive. The interior towns offered cheap land – a magnet for poor farm families from central New England – and the small vessels that plied the coastal waters carrying country goods to Boston provided cheap transport for the aspiring pioneers.

But isolation kept many farms at subsistence levels, since wood, grains, and orchard crops were too bulky to transport over rough roads, and the thin soils, unpredictable winters, predators, droughts, and pest infestations kept even the most modest goals in doubt.

Farmers spent summers in "watchful anxiety," aware that any of a number of misfortunes could mean near starvation over winter for family or livestock. Even in good times they lived on a monotonous diet of rye-and-corn bread, beans, fish, game, milk, rum, pudding, barley cake, pork, beef, and potatoes.

Inland towns were scattered broadly along a river or road, since arable land was unevenly distributed and mills were anchored to dispersed waterpower sites. Gradually, town activities were drawn to a central waterpower site, and as millwrights gained economic footing, they added to their enterprise some combination of general store, public house, warehouse, distillery, foundry, blacksmith shop, carding and fulling mill, spinning factory, or gristmill.

Given these vital functions, the nascent town centers became gathering-places for neighbors, who drank, debated, and socialized while they conducted business.

Commercial exchanges quickened, and these small nodes of activity attracted shoemakers, tailors, blacksmiths, doctors, lawyers, and ministers. Through these town centers, farmers funneled a trade in staves, shingles, clapboards, and produce. Farmwomen spun yarn or wove cloth from wool, flax, or imported cotton, also in connection with centrally located merchants.

Taking advantage of this massive migration to the interior, proprietors holding the old colonial Pejepscot, Waldo, Clarke and Lake, and Plymouth patents reasserted their claims to these lands. Being desperately in debt after the Revolution, Massachusetts sold other lands to well-connected merchants to pay off its obligations.

The most conspicuous beneficiary of this policy was former Revolutionary War general Henry Knox, who between 1791 and 1794 gained control of 3.5 million acres in the Kennebec and Penobscot valleys, including some lands already settled. An obsessive speculator, Knox launched a dizzying array of business ventures from his palatial mansion in Thomaston, including farms, barrelworks, brickworks, sawmills, gristmills, lime kilns, and shipping and fishing facilities.

Proprietors like Knox assumed that the frontier was a place of chaos, where men escaped the discipline of hard work and lived by poaching timber, fish, furs, and game.

As on all frontiers, Maine farmers were coarse and independent-minded, and proprietors hoped to guide these restless inhabitants by limiting freehold farms to the deserving: those who could pay for them. To encourage this well maintained society, Kennebeck Proprietor Charles Vaughan supervised the construction of an academy, an agricultural society, a model farm, a Congregational church, a courthouse, and a jail, while James Bowdoin III bestowed 1,000 acres to endow Bowdoin College.

Newly arriving farmers saw the frontier in different terms. They frequently took up farms wherever the land appealed to them, convinced that they had fought the Revolution to secure just such rights. Their experiences were similar to those of people who moved to frontiers across the country.

Despite miserable prospects, the Maine frontier was their best hope of achieving liberty and security through land ownership. They survived by "changing works" – sharing labor or swapping produce with neighbors – and this neighborly support reinforced the republican notion that one man was as good as another.

These conflicting social visions – hierarchy versus democracy – exacerbated tensions over land titles, poll taxes, and a deflationary currency policy that favored money-lenders and proprietors over the indebted and land-hungry settlers on the frontier.

Religion further separated frontier people from coastal elites. Seacoast towns remained largely Congregational, guided by Harvard educated ministers trained in Puritan theocracy and transmitting a vision of society as a well ordered hierarchy predicated on deference to God and the social elite.

On the frontier in Maine and across the new country, revivals and religious awakenings, often spearheaded by young women or radical itinerant preachers, moved like wildfire, clearing the way for evangelical Methodist or Baptist ministers, particularly in areas cut off from the established church by poverty and isolation. Religious controversy helped forge a new democratic constituency that disposed the inland towns to separation in the years after the Revolution.

Maine Bids for Separation

Once the military confrontation with the Abenaki, French, and English had passed, Maine's subjugation to Massachusetts might have seemed unnecessary, since it shared no common border with the Commonwealth.

But for the next 40 years two obstacles stood in the path to independence. First, separationists were distracted by national events like Shays's Rebellion, the debate over the federal Constitution, and the politics of sectionalism and slavery. Second, separationists failed to agree on a common vision of Maine as a separate state.

As in the Revolution, the idea of independence spawned a debate over what the new government would look like. Seacoast elites aspired to conservative social, economic, and religious principles, while backwoods settlements, chafing under an onerous tax and monetary policy and frustrated by official bias toward land speculators, looked forward to a more radical form of democracy.

The question of separation first arose during the Revolution. When Massachusetts appeared unable or unwilling to protect the eastern frontier from British occupation, towns petitioned for aid, pointing out that all governments existed to secure life, liberty, and property, and if Massachusetts failed to achieve this, eastern Maine was within its rights to secede.

After the war, a new separationist movement developed in Portland among merchants, wealthy farmers, ministers, and speculators hoping to lead a new independent state. Thomas Wait, editor of the Falmouth Gazette, argued that Maine's distance from Massachusetts complicated its legal proceedings; that Maine would receive greater representation in Washington as a separate state, and Maine's government would be smaller and therefore less expensive. A September 1786 convention outlined similar arguments for separation.

Given Portland's close commercial connection to Massachusetts, separationists mustered little support locally. Interior towns appeared ready to raise banner of separation, but for very different reasons. Tensions over land claims and debts were beginning to escalate into violence, as when the General Court sent militia eastward to enforce proprietors' claims or when settlers resorted to mob action.

Reluctant to join hands with delegates from these restive frontier towns, Portland's leaders were also taken aback by the reaction from Massachusetts. Although they had worded their petition in deferential tones, Governor James Bowdoin condemned it as a "design against the Commonwealth of very evil tendency," a rebuff that suggested separation might prove commercially damaging to the eastern ports. But instead of punitive action, the Commonwealth took steps to address the grievances outlined in the petition.

In 1789 Governor John Hancock and the General Court promised to expand the judicial system in Maine, establish a college in the District, and provide better roads. In addition, the Court offered to suspend taxes for 10 years for towns under certain conditions, to extend clear title to land for squatters who had established their claims prior to 1784, and to pressure private land companies to do the same. These moves dampened enthusiasm for separation throughout Maine.

In 1789 the new federal government enacted a Coasting Law that required trading vessels to enter and clear customs in every state they passed between their port of departure and their destination. Vessels were exempted, however, in states contiguous to the state where they were registered, which for Maine and Massachusetts included New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New York. This enormous advantage set the coastal towns against the separation.

Thus when the General Court authorized a test vote on separation in 1792, the outcome was disappointing to separationists: only 4,598 citizens bothered to vote, and of these, only a small majority favored separation. In light of this, secessionist conventions held in 1793 and 1794 drew only a handful of delegates.

Other developments, however, favored the growth of separation sentiment. Maine's population increased dramatically between 1790 and 1810, and this new prosperity suggested Maine might be ready for statehood. Interior towns grew particularly fast, strengthening Maine's Democratic Republican party.

Among those drawn to the rising political organization was William King, a politically ambitious merchant who left the Federalist camp after Jefferson's Democratic-Republican victory in 1800 and quickly became the District's preeminent political leader.

Federalists remained strong in Massachusetts, but Maine's growing population and its Democratic Republican majority threatened to overwhelm the Commonwealth. Realizing this, Federalists in Massachusetts warmed to the idea of separation, even while those in Maine backed further away from the statehood idea.

Maine in the War of 1812

Separation was again delayed when America entered a second war with Great Britain in 1812. The conflict was precipitated by British interference with American shipping, its impressment of American sailors – sometimes entire crews – into the navy, and by British support for Indian resistance in the Northwest Territories.

Britain and France were at war in Europe, and both nations hoped to stop American trade with the enemy, a harassment that disrupted America's profitable "neutral trade" with the Caribbean islands. After numerous protests, President Thomas Jefferson declared an embargo in December 1807, banning all U.S. trade with belligerent ports. When Britain continued to interfere with American shipping, the two nations drifted to war.

The declaration of war was a severe blow to New England, since its merchants had grown prosperous on commercial ties with Great Britain and its Canadian and Caribbean colonies. With seaports experiencing unemployment rates upward of 60 percent, Massachusetts Federalists protested the embargo, and when America entered the war, they continued trading with the British.

Governor Caleb Strong refused to allow Massachusetts militia to leave the state, despite federal pleas for support, and opposition to the war emboldened some to call for New England's secession from the United States.

Democratic Republicans remained in control in Maine, but opposition to the war was widespread. Belfast refused to prepare a militia, Castine declared itself against enlistment, and Eastport voted unanimously to preserve a "good understanding" with New Brunswick and carried on an extensive trade in smuggled goods.

On the other hand, Maine provided a fair share of America's maritime defense in form of privateers. One of the better known was the Dash, an armed schooner turned hermaphrodite brig built as a blockade runner in Freeport. After two voyages through the British blockade to Port-au-Prince, the Dash became a privateer, taking nine prizes before it was lost in a gale off the Gorges Bank with its 60-man crew in 1815.

The most famous incident of the war in Maine involved the HMS Boxer, under Samuel Blyth, and the American Enterprise, commanded by William Burrows. In September 1813, the Enterprise encountered the Boxer off the Kennebec River.

Although it appeared that the Boxer was harassing an American merchant vessel, in reality it had agreed to convoy the ship past American and British privateers from St. John, New Brunswick, to Bath, where it was to deliver woolen goods. The arrangement was part of a broader British policy of exempting New England merchants from the naval blockade, since their goods were critical to the British military campaigns on the continent.

In the ensuing battle, both captains were killed, and the Boxer's rigging was shot away. The captains were taken ashore and buried side-by-side with full military honors in the Portland cemetery. The incident demonstrated the confusion of loyalties in Maine and New England during the War of 1812.

The defeat of Napoleon in March 1814 changed Britain's military fortunes, and the nation turned its attention to America, including New England. In April 1814 British forces attacked Eastport, garrisoned by 80 militia, with a force of 3,500 regulars, and in August they occupied Castine and Belfast and sailed upriver for Bangor with an invasion force of 10 ships and 3,000 troops.

On September 3, militia from the Penobscot River towns gathered at Hampden and reached a reluctant decision to defend Bangor, despite being outnumbered and improperly armed. After waiting through a cold, foggy night, the Americans encountered the advancing British regulars, fired a few volleys, and broke ranks.

British troops plundered Bangor's stores and post office, burned its shipping, and bonded town officials to deliver the remaining vessels to the British fort at Castine. Once again, eastern Maine was an occupied territory.

The Battle of Hampden was a shock to those who assumed – since New England bankers had lent the British funds to pursue the war – that the region would be spared. Governor Strong called a special session of the General Court, but Federalist legislators refused to liberate Maine, leaving this undertaking to the federal government.

Preoccupied with military events elsewhere, Secretary of War James Monroe sent Major-General Henry Dearborn to Boston to negotiate a loan and to request troops. While the nation looked on with astonishment, the governor and the banks of Boston refused to aid the nation in defense of the Commonwealth's own territory.

While Monroe and Strong argued about the troops, British peace proposals appeared in the New England newspapers, among them a plan calling for the annexation of eastern Maine to Canada. Some Massachusetts Federalists seemed ready to agree to these terms. The Federalists' willingness to sacrifice Maine became a major rallying cry as separationists reorganized at the end of the war.

Separation and Statehood

Separationists continued to argue that statehood would bring more equitable taxation and lower government expenses, but the seacoast-inland split continued. Massachusetts agreed to grant separation if a majority of voters chose it. There were two unsuccessful votes in 1816 and the General Court refused to discuss separation for three more years.

William King, statehood's greatest voice, worked to revise the coasting law, hoping to gain support for statehood from coastal mariners and merchants. Finally, on July 26, 1819, voters overwhelmingly supported separation. Delegates wrote a Constitution, far more democratic and egalitarian than any other in New England, which was overwhelmingly approved.

Under ordinary conditions, Maine would have been admitted to the Union immediately, but statehood was complicated by the national debate over extending slavery into the western territories as they became states. By 1818 the Senate was evenly divided between slave-holding and free states, and the admission of Maine, obviously as a free state, would upset this critical balance.

Missouri had petitioned for statehood in 1818, and could have entered as Maine's pro-slave "twin," but northern congressmen, even those from Maine, were unwilling to admit more states with slavery imbedded in their constitutions, and Missouri lay north of the line accepted as the division between free and slave soil.

Congressman James Tallmadge of New York offered an amendment to the Missouri statehood bill requiring the state to halt further introduction of slaves and to emancipate those in the state at age 25, but the Senate struck the amendment as unconstitutional.

Southern senators held Maine's petition for statehood hostage to the question of slavery in Missouri. John W. Taylor, also from New York, offered a motion to fix by law a line between free and slave territory at parallel 36 degrees, 30 minutes – the southern boundary of Missouri – and pro-southern Senator Jesse B. Thomas of Illinois added that slavery would be banned in territories lying north of this line, except for Missouri. To this he added a provision for the re-enslavement of fugitives fleeing into territory where slavery was banned.

Maine's Congressional delegation was in a moral bind, since statehood would require a vote to allow slavery in Missouri. All seven Maine representatives declined the compromise, and the House passed its own bill restricting slavery. Still, a conference committee of House and Senate supporters crafted an amended version – the so-called Missouri Compromise – and this won approval in Congress. Maine became the nation's 23rd state on March 15, 1820.

Despite the elation in Maine, the Missouri Compromise was a bitter victory. Rufus King mused that if Missouri were admitted as a slave state, the balance between North and South would tip and all future presidents would hail from the South.

Others pointed out that if slavery were allowed in Missouri, it would spread the same number of slaves over a wider area, increasing their value and ameliorating their harsh treatment. The speciousness of this argument demonstrated the agonizing dilemma Maine separation leaders faced, and this indignity fueled the anti-slavery movement, which became a central issue in Maine politics between 1820 and 1861.