In the early 19th century, America was struggling with what to do about slavery.
The expansion of the United States into the west particularly troubled political leaders — specifically, whether new states would be admitted into the Union as slave or free.
Abolitionists were terrified of the possibility that slavery would expand west, providing slavery advocates with additional representatives and senators and the political power that came with them.
Likewise, pro-slavery interests were afraid of the expansion of exclusively free states, as it would give a political advantage to the abolitionists, potentially leading to a complete ban on slavery.
America, of course, would fight a Civil War over the question of slavery. But that Civil War was forestalled for decades by a bit of history that involved Maine: the Missouri Compromise.
Maine owes its official creation in 1820 to the Compromise. In an effort to deal with the question of western expansion, pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions came to an agreement prohibiting slavery in what was the former Louisiana Territory, north of a line drawn at the northern point of what is today Arizona, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
The exception was Missouri, which was to be admitted to the Union as a slave state. In order to balance political power, particularly in the U.S. Senate, the state of Maine was created as a free state to keep the balance equal.
Our state has seen an eclectic and fascinating history since that time.
In six years, Maine will celebrate its bicentennial. In its 200 years, Maine has been a major economic force, a breeding ground for politicians of immense power and influence, and it has enjoyed martial heroism and experienced incredible prosperity.
Yet, in the latter half of the 20th century up through today, it has faced ever mounting challenges.
A little over a decade into its existence, Maine had such strength of population and growth that it possessed eight sitting members of Congress, which was all the more impressive given that Congress only consisted of 242 people at the time.
Today, as the population in the rest of the country has dramatically increased, Maine’s has remained relatively stagnant. Now, we have two members in a Congress of 435, and it appears likely that within a short period of time, we may drop to only one.
Beyond that, the state has seen a massive decline in its manufacturing base and its productive capacity. We are hemorrhaging young people, the economy has become flat, we have seen declining incomes and a lower average wage, and it has become harder and harder to make ends meet. More Mainers, facing hard times, have had to move onto state assistance, straining the increasingly thin state budget.
None of these things is a surprise to anyone here, and policymakers have been talking about this phenomenon for decades.
Yet, this month’s election provided us the clearest mandate in modern political history to make transformative change in this state. In the next two years, we are going to have an opportunity to create a stronger Maine that reverses our long, steady decline and greet the year 2020 with a renewed optimism for the future.
We will never have a better opportunity, politically speaking, than now to make drastic, long needed change.
It is time we comprehensively address the issue of welfare in this state and make significant long lasting changes to the system.
It is time we act boldly to reform the entire tax code, significantly lowering the burden on all taxpayers while making the state a more attractive destination where businesses can locate and grow.
It is time we seriously addressed the cost of energy in this state and the role policymakers in Augusta and out-of-state anti-development dark money groups have in making your electricity bill higher.
It is time we recalibrated the relationships that unions have with workers, businesses and, especially, the government.
It is time we dealt with the broken education system in Maine — not only K-12 education, but the inefficient, bloated university system that is woefully disconnected from the needs of the Maine economy.
And it is time that we undertook wholesale political reform, making positions like the attorney general and secretary of state responsive to the Maine voter.
These are things we need to do and have needed to do for a long time. We finally have a chance to do them, and if we are bold and aggressively focus on these needs, then we will have a very happy 200th birthday indeed.