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Leaders & Causes

The political connexion, which had so long subsisted between Massachusetts and Maine being dissolved. … These citizens peaceably and quietly forming themselves into a new and independent State, framing and adopting with unexampled harmony and unanimity a constitution embracing all the essential principles of liberty and good government. – William King (1820)

I think that it is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching — for us to weigh our consciences — on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America — on the manner in which we are using or abusing our individual powers and privileges. — Margaret Chase Smith (1950)

American history provides abundant examples of reform efforts, social and political agitations, charismatic leaders, and causes, both lost and won; indeed, it is possible to tell the American experience through these examples alone.

National reform movements included abolitionism, anti-prostitution, prohibition, and anti-poverty efforts, public education, immigration and tenement reform, health and safety improvements, utopianism, suffrage and civil rights, peace and environmental movements, and multiple other endeavors, each with American men and women championing their positions.

Maine has had no shortage of leaders – within the state and on the national scene – of these and other issues. From Maine native Dorothea Dix's work to transform prisons, mental institutions, and other asylums into humane institutions, to Portland resident Neal Dow's endeavors to eliminate the temptations of alcohol; from William Ladd's leadership of the American peace movement in the early decades of the 19th century to 11-year-old Samantha Smith questioning Russian leaders in the 1980s; from Hannibal Hamlin serving as Vice President of the U.S. during Lincoln's first term, to Congressional leaders like Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed (1839-1902); Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1995), the "conscience of the Senate;" Edmund S. Muskie (1914-1996), an environmental leader in the Senate from 1959-1990 and Secretary of State from 1980-1981; George J. Mitchell (1933- ), majority leader of the Senate and later peace ambassador to Ireland and the Middle East; and William S. Cohen (1940- ), a Senator from 1979-1997 and U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1997-2001 – Maine men and women have been in the foreground and fellowship of causes larger than themselves.

The work of anonymous thousands through civic organizations, church groups and women's clubs supported the labors of the famous few to create the kind of society — free of slaves, free of alcohol, filled with health, full of choice — that specific organizations and movements desired.

Causes sometimes go beyond a desire for change, however, and a number of Maine leaders and groups have fought against reform. Choosing sides in any contest was not always clear-cut. Maine housed Loyalists and conscientious objectors as well as Patriots during the Revolution.

Abolitionism brought with it not just the desire of some to eliminate slavery, but that of others to protect and expand the institution, not to mention the competing ideas of what to do with the approximately four million slaves should freedom be achieved. Both women and men supported giving women the right to vote – and opposed it.

In all these causes, and more, Maine men and women applied themselves with zeal, some with distinction. The long-standing movement for statehood, and its long-delayed success, for example, occupied the interests and commanded the attention of more than one generation of coastal and backwoods families alike.


To some in Maine, it seemed that the state had substituted Massachusetts rule for British rule following American victory in the Revolution. Others believed remaining part of Massachusetts would protect their interests and, hence, the interests of Maine. Economic interests played a large role in these debates. It took nearly 40 years of applications, petitions, compromise and debate before Maine finally achieved statehood.

William King of Bath was the most ardent spokesman for independence. King's father was a Scarborough merchant and ship owner, positions that provided his son an education derived from familiarity and connections. Progressing from sawmill laborer to owner, from ship builder to ship owner, from merchant to banker, King eventually became one of Maine's wealthiest shipping merchants.

King's political accomplishments were similarly prodigious. A Democratic-Republican, he served in both the Massachusetts House of Representatives and the Senate. He was a Major General of the Massachusetts militia and a Colonel in the U.S. Army during the War of 1812. His experiences in the war — reckoning Maine's coastal vulnerabilities, and Massachusetts' seeming indifference to the district's welfare — combined with King's own economic and political interests and led him to become a leading proponent of statehood for Maine.

The question of statehood was bound up in commercial interests, fears about newly migrated residents of the interior of Maine, and concerns about the ability of Massachusetts to protect an area with which it shared no common border.

Federalists sparred with Democratic-Republicans nationally and locally, but it was even more complicated regarding the statehood issue: Massachusetts Federalists desired separation and Maine Federalists opposed it.

Stymied repeatedly, the statehood issue rebounded following the War of 1812, fueled by shock over the dismal efforts of Massachusetts to defend its eastern district from British incursions.

King seized this neglect as evidence for his cause. He carefully shepherded the issue through a convention in Brunswick in 1816, successfully maneuvered Congress to support a new coasting law that eliminated one commercial objection to separation, and gathered growing support in Maine for the issue.

Despite King's best efforts, however, it was not until the issue of slavery, and federal desires to balance slave and free states, combined growing interest for separation in Maine with a national mandate for compromise. Maine was granted statehood and free status only when Missouri entered the Union as a slave state in 1820.

In King's words, "These are events, which constitute a memorable era in the history of our state, -- events for which you no doubt, as well as our fellow citizens in general, will acknowledge with gratitude that divine goodness, which directs and controls the concerns of men."

It took longer than expected, but proponents were satisfied, and Maine thanked William King for his work. As a skilled politician and born leader, King was the obvious choice for Maine's first governor, a position he held for only one term.

President James Monroe quickly tapped him to negotiate a treaty with Spain during Mexico's independence movement, which allowed the United States to avert, at least for a time, involvement with that issue –– ironic given King's own work toward Maine independence.

A failed second run for governor in 1834 did little to disrupt his other pursuits, including trustee positions at Bowdoin and Waterville (later Colby) Colleges. King died a wealthy and well-regarded citizen in 1852, just as the nation became irrevocably embroiled in a crisis that no amount of compromising could forestall.


Economic, political, social, and religious reasons contributed to the decision of individuals and groups to support or oppose slavery.

Slavery conferred great wealth on some, unmitigated misery on others, and affected many not at all. Mainers fell into all three groups. Slavery existed in Maine, as it existed in all of the original colonies, but was sparsely spread and quickly eliminated following the Revolution. Even so, Maine continued to gain economically from slave-made commodities, and from the slave trade itself.

Men and women, black and white were involved in the abolition movement in Maine.

The Rev. Austin Willey (1806-1896) was editor of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society newspaper the Advocate of Freedom from 1839-1841, the Liberty Standard from 1842-1845, and the Portland Inquirer from 1851-1854. He later wrote The History of the Anti-Slavery Cause in the State and Nation (1886).

His newspapers helped rouse anti-slavery sentiment in the state.

In his book, Willey described the situation in Maine writing that it "was bound to the South by political and commercial bands of steel. let any ship-owner or master, or commercial parties be suspected of any sympathy with antislavery, and their chance for southern freight was at an end.

"The Whigs, being out of power, could wear a little fairer dress at home, but it is believed there was no harder free state to be revolutionized and placed morally and politically on the antislavery basis. Such was the condition of Maine when the spirit of Liberty began to kindle in the hearts of some of its noblest and best men and women in all parts of the state."

The anti-slavery movement began in Maine in 1833. State and local organizations formed and faded away, with new ones arising until the Civil War. The Rev. Thomas Robinson was a founding member of the Maine Anti-Slavery Society in 1834 and active in promoting abolition among Maine Baptists, who, like some other Protestant denominations believed spreading their Christian beliefs was adequate and that getting involved directly was not their duty.

Others who were notable in the movement in Maine were Samuel Fessenden (1784-1869) of Portland, a lawyer, legislator, and major general of the Massachusetts militia; and Reuben Ruby (1798-1878), a leader of Portland's black community and supporter of Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper in the county.

The anti-slavery groups brought many noted speakers to Maine, raised money for the cause, and generally worked to convince Mainers of the moral imperative to end slavery in America.

Although New England shipbuilders and owners benefited from the trade in slaves and traded in the products made from slave labor, as Willey pointed out, the region's religious heritage and individualistic traditions aided anti-slavery sentiment.

Maine's north Atlantic location was well positioned to facilitate escaped slaves, and its privateering past lent a certain cachet to pirating human contraband out of the country.

The Fugitive Slave Act, part of the Compromise of 1850, requiring ordinary citizens to participate in the recapture of runaways, offended Maine's libertarian ways and provided its peoples with an opportunity to lead in a regional cause.

Typically resentful of being told what to do, a cross section of Mainers seemed to participate with satisfaction in ferrying runaway slaves northward and eastward away from federally sanctioned capture. Located near the city's docks, the Abyssinian Meetinghouse in Portland played a crucial role in receiving escaped slaves and channeling them outward at no small risk to the congregation and its pastor.

Amos Freeman, the church's minister, managed to maintain the operation's secrecy and success in the decades before the Civil War.

The 1997 discovery of a tunnel linking the Holyoke House in Brewer to the Penobscot River nearby underscores legends about its use as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Similar stories and tantalizing bits of evidence exist for dozens of other stops in cities and small towns across the state, and the evidence that does exist lends credence to Maine's history of evading inconvenient or unpopular laws being applied to anti-slavery efforts.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, wife of Bowdoin College professor Calvin Stowe, wrote the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly while the couple lived in Brunswick. The book was influential, spawning several imitators in the north and harsh rebuttals from affronted readers in the south.

Church and town abolitionist groups often worked in relative obscurity, and leaders like Joshua L. Chamberlain and Hannibal Hamlin collectively helped eliminate the institution itself. Most famous for his military leadership in the pivotal Little Round Top battle at Gettysburg, Chamberlain's role is well known; Hamlin's perhaps less so.

A physician's son, Hannibal Hamlin grew up in comfortable circumstances in Paris Hill. He attended a private academy and later studied law with an abolitionist attorney, which both grounded him in a quasi-political profession and exposed him early to the most critical moral issue of his time. Hamlin practiced law in Hamden, and entered politics early as a state legislator.

His service in the United States House of Representatives during the Mexican War in the 1840s allowed him to combine his moderate but growing abolitionist sensibilities and his political ambitions to author and support a provision limiting the westward expansion of slavery into the new territories. "I have no doubt," he maintained, "that the whole North will come to the position that I have taken." It did, but legislation could not forestall the conflict even he knew was coming.

Moving on to the Senate, Hamlin and other Democrats split from their party over the issue of slavery. Hamlin ultimately became a Republican and was added to the fledgling Republican ticket in 1860 to balance Lincoln's western background and Whiggish inclinations.

Writing of the nomination to his wife, Hamlin confessed, "I neither expected or desired it. But is has been made and as a faithful man to the cause, it leaves me no alternative but to accept it."

Never a radical, the popular temperance man offered a measured tone and moderate position that helped elect Lincoln president, and provide counsel during the resulting war. He supported Lincoln, approved of the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, but grew bored with the limits his office imposed and missed the power and significance of the Senate, which had offered him a far greater sense of accomplishment.

Dropped from the 1864 ticket, he nonetheless campaigned for Lincoln's re-election, and later resumed his much missed Senate seat, this time as a Republican. The anti-slavery efforts of Lincoln, Hamlin and others helped secure African-American political allegiance for the Republican Party. Not until Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal did African-American voters realign with the Democratic Party.


Slavery was a moral abstraction for many Maine residents but the consumption of alcohol and related temperance efforts affected Mainers more directly.

Alcohol had long been consumed on a grand scale in the colonies and in the United States leading one scholar to refer to the young nation as "the alcoholic republic." Maine manufactured rum from West Indies molasses, brewed beer in local communities, shipped spirits in locally produced casks, and consumed a variety of intoxicating beverages, as did their peers in other colonies and states. Not everyone was pleased.

After burbling along at a low threshold for decades, temperance became a national moral reform effort early in the 19th century as the tenets of the Second Great Awakening took hold. The reform movement linked family stability and civic welfare to temperance. Men, as heads of families, wage earners, and citizen voters, were the target of both local and national temperance campaigns.

Because alcohol was seen as pernicious, the temperance cure was both urgent and pervasive amounting to a religious crusade against a known evil. Banners, parades, speeches, rallies, publications, organizations, and the ever-present pledge permeated Maine communities. Some periodicals, such as The Youth's Temperance Visitor published in Rockland, directed their lessons and concerns at the next generation. There were even warnings printed in native languages targeting Maine's Indians.

The most prevalent of the temperance efforts were organized by local societies. Founded in 1829, the Bath Temperance Society issued its first annual report the following year. They claimed membership of 286 in a town of 3773, which they saw as "small, compared to the whole population," but to which they also attributed a "powerful and happy influence."

Believing themselves "engaged in a high and noble work," the Society took credit for reducing the number of licensed retailers from 57 to 32, and for changing the social temper of the town so that "It is no longer considered, as an act of decorum to use ['ardent spirits'] in the entertaining of visitants."

Temperance societies could not alone change the environment of saloons and social drinking, which expanded as the nation grew, urbanized, and industrialized, and added even more immigrants to its midst whose cultures included a variety of liquid intoxicants. A problem this broad required legislation to ameliorate the effects of what many saw as a national, social disease. Enter Neal Dow, the "Napoleon of Temperance."

Dow, a businessman, helped found the Maine Temperance Society before entering politics in Portland, where he became mayor in 1851. It was from that position that he successfully wrote and submitted to the state legislature "A Bill for the Suppression of Drinking Houses and Tippling Shops" that prohibited the manufacture and sale of all alcoholic beverages. The bill also allowed the search for and seizure of suspected contraband.

Known as the Maine Law, it was the first of its kind in the nation, and launched its architect onto the national, and international temperance stage where he became a public speaker much in demand, particularly in Great Britain. That not all Mainers were fans can be gleaned from the 1855 "Rum Riot" in Portland and Dow's ouster from politics. Nevertheless, prohibition remained the law of Maine until the national prohibition law was repealed in 1933. Then Mainers, too, repealed statewide prohibition.

As Hannibal Hamlin was a temperance man, so too Neal Dow was an anti-slavery advocate, but temperance was his chief cause. As colonel in the 13th Maine Volunteer Infantry during the Civil War, Dow famously required his soldiers to sign the temperance pledge, gaining his regiment a distinction more favored by the commanding officer and concerned parents than by their enlisted sons. He even ran for president as part of the national Prohibition Party in 1880, garnering above 10,000 votes.

Even with the law on their side, temperance societies, pledges, and publications saw only temporary success in their efforts. Mainers signed pledges, but continued to drink.

Most galling was the University of Maine's "Stein Song" written in 1904 by a couple of freshmen. Essentially a drinking song, it toasts the university in every line, stanza, and chorus. Still, the temperance movement was ahead of the medical establishment in viewing alcohol and its effects as a disease, and was relentless in its pursuit of a cure.

On the national scene, Lillian Stevens of Stroudwater became the assistant to Women's Christian Temperance Union leader Frances Willard and, after Willard died in 1898, became head of the group. Stevens (1844-1914) was president of the Maine WCTU from 1878 to 1914.


Beyond reform movements, Maine has had a number of leaders on the national political stage, one of whom, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Skowhegan, came to represent integrity for Maine and the nation.

Margaret Chase was of humble pedigree. Her father was a Skowhegan barber, and her mother worked off and on in a variety of jobs in town while rearing six children. Margaret was the eldest.

Margaret Chase taught for a while, became a telephone operator, newspaper reporter, and business manager of a Skowhegan textile mill. She fell into politics by inclination and circumstance when she married Clyde Smith, a well-known local politician.

This relationship provided both experience in Republican circles, and an opportunity to convert his untimely death into her own political career when she won election to the House of Representatives in his stead in 1940. She served four terms there before moving on to the Senate.

Margaret Chase Smith was committed to military preparedness, and could have made a career out of that alone, serving on the House Naval Affairs Committee during World War II, and on the Senate Armed Services Committee after she was elected to that body in 1948. She also worked to secure permanent status for women in the military and co-sponsored the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1940s.

But it was Smith's unique combination of conservative and liberal beliefs expressed during the Cold War that brought her to the nation's attention.

The end of World War II left Europe and Asia broken and exhausted, and created a bi-polar world in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed for dominance.

The Cold War – an era that included military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam – also sparked a virulent anti-communist backlash in the United States. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy chaired a high-profile series of hearings to ferret out suspected communists in major American institutions, including the federal government.

The senator bullied and intimidated his way through these hearings, thriving in an atmosphere of fear and mistrust upon which post-war nuclear realities had conferred a deadly degree of urgency.

Senator Smith was appalled at McCarthy's excesses and tactics. She spoke on the Senate floor, expressing her displeasure.

"I think it is high time for the United States Senate…to do some soul searching," she exhorted, "[i]t is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution." Smith criticized the Truman administration, but was particularly disappointed in the Republican Party, and sickened by the depths to which it had fallen under McCarthyism.

Six fellow Republican senators agreed with Smith's "Declaration of Conscience," and added their names to her repudiation of McCarthyism, while a seventh quickly followed with his support after her famous speech. (Senator McCarthy sneeringly referred to the group of disaffected Republicans as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.) Newsweek devoted its cover to her the following week.

Smith gained the spotlight again in 1964 when she sought the Republican nomination for President and campaigned in New Hampshire and Illinois before going to the national convention in San Francisco, where her name was placed in nomination.

Environmental Activism

Edmund S. Muskie (1914-1996) represented Maine in the U.S. Senate from 1959 to 1980. He earned the nickname "Mr. Clean" for his work on clean air and clean water, among other environmental causes. He is especially known for pushing through legislation such as the 1970 Clean Air Act and the 1972 Clean Water Act, and changing the way Americans – and legislators – thought about environmental issues.

Muskie was far from the first Mainer to be concerned about the environment. Conservation voices had been heard among outdoors enthusiasts concerned about fish populations, tree cutting, and many other issues.

Among the best-known 20th century environmental spokespersons with a Maine connection was Rachel Carson (1907-1964), a marine biologist with an early interest in conservation. Carson began spending summers in Southport in 1952, close to the beach and tide pools that she studied. In 1962, Carson gained national fame and controversy when she published Silent Spring, which linked the use of chemical pesticides to biological disasters.

The campaign to save the Allagash waterway was fought on national and state battles and resulted in 1970 in the first designated National Wild and Scenic Rivers System site to be administered by a state.

Mainers fought the Dickey-Lincoln power project, which would have flooded 140 acres of wilderness along the Allagash and St. John rivers. Congress finally denied funding for the project.

Maine Yankee Nuclear Power Plant in Wiscasset, built in 1972, provided what was touted as clean, efficient, and economical energy to the New England power grid. From the beginning, opponents, led by Citizens for Safe Power, tried to stop the project. Mainers rejected proposals to shut down Maine Yankee three times in the 1980s. Opponents continued to monitor the plant, however, drawing attention to any problems or threats that arose from its operation.

Despite its 40-year license to operate, Maine Yankee closed in 1996 after cracks were discovered in its steam generator tubes.

Mainers participated with energy and distinction in the major movements of the nation's past, and undertook as well efforts more closely tied to state or regional interests. They have continued that activity through protests, petitions, and referenda on issues such as civil rights, tax caps, gay rights, the war in Iraq, and immigration.

The state and nation came to rely on Maine leaders for a variety of endeavors – treaties, reform movements, peace overtures, and institutional change among countless others. And Maine continues to supply leaders nationally in Congress and other venues.