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Maine History Online
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To Separate or Not to Separate, That Is the Question

Text by Candace Kanes

Images from Maine Historical Society

On the first Monday in September of 1816, men across the state went to town offices to cast their votes on whether Maine should separate from Massachusetts.

Maine residents had voted a number of other times since 1786 and as recently as March 1816, and always the result was the same. For economic and political reasons, resident of coastal towns, primarily, voted to stay the course.

In every election, turnout was low. Voters inland were more radical and little to gain from remaining attached.

The War of 1812, in which Massachusetts failed to protect the Maine coast from the British, who occupied the coast from Penobscot Bay east, had given new impetus to the separation movement.

In March 1816, with about a 50 percent turnout, for every three people in favor of statehood, two were opposed. It was a simple majority, but not enough to push separation forward.

Each time that advocates of separation sought to push the issue to a vote, the General Court of Massachusetts had to give permission for the election. Now, permission was given again. In order for separation to happen, Maine residents had to vote "aye" by a five-to-four majority.

The total vote was 11,969 in favor of separation and 10,347 opposed, a majority, but not a five-four majority.

At the convention held Sept. 30, 1816 in Brunswick, advocates of separation took charge, intending to convince the General Court of Massachusetts that they had enough support.

The "Proceedings of the convention of delegates held in Brunswick, Maine, 1816" reported, referring to the five-to-four majority required, "The meaning of the word majority is doubtful. This word is sometimes understood to mean the excess of one number over another; and sometimes the excess of half the whole number."

It went on to explain, "In the Report of the Committee, prefixed to the act, it appears to have been the intention, that the expediency of separation, should have been decided by an assembly of men charged with the most solemn duties; meaning, no doubt, a Convention of Delegates, chosen by towns.

"Here the Delegates would have been in proportion to the number of majorities in each Corporation, and not in proportion to the aggregate majority of all the votes returned."

In other words, the committee that was counting the votes and reporting on the outcome wanted to tally the "aye" votes of the towns that voted "aye" and compare that total to the number of "nay" votes cast in towns that voted "nay." That total, 6,031 to 4,825, met the five-to-four requirement.

"It is expedient therefore, that this Convention should give such a construction to the act as shall best effectuate the hopes, and gratify the expectations of the people of Maine," the proceedings reported.

A protest to the logic followed. The General Court ignored the recommendation and no further action was taken until 1819.

On October 11, 1819, a constitutional convention convened in Portland. Maine had to wait, however, for the Missouri Compromise to achieve statehood.

In June 1819, yet another vote was taken. This time, without mathematical manipulation, Mainers voted to separate from Massachusetts.