Welcome, friends, to the new year.
Welcome, too, to the new decade. That’s right, we are now in the roaring 20s. Again.
And while we are at it, welcome to the 200th year of Maine’s existence.
That’s right, this year — technically on March 15, which is the date that Maine was admitted to the union under the Missouri Compromise — is Maine’s bicentennial, and an eventful 200 years it has been.
Our state has a very proud heritage, particularly given the nature of its official beginning. You see, for those unfamiliar with the Missouri Compromise — shame on you, by the way — Maine was admitted as a “free state” to balance the admission of Missouri, which was being added as a “slave state.”
This was, of course, back when the institution of slavery still existed in the United States, and maintaining that “balance” of states that were slave and free was key to the uneasy peace between the north and south over the issue. As we all know, that peace wouldn’t last long as the Civil War would break out 40 years later.
Still, I have always viewed the founding of Maine with great pride. While the Missouri Compromise itself was a cowardly way of avoiding a conflict over slavery in the interest of growing the United States, it still does mean that Maine was founded with the specific intention of it being a haven for freedom and self-determination. I like that, and I think it is a wonderful legacy.
When Maine began, it held a lot of political clout, believe it or not. It was able to vote for president in 1820 and accounted for 9 out of the 232 total votes. That gave the Pine Tree State roughly 4 percent of the total electors in the country. To have similar clout today, we would need 21 electoral votes, which would make us bigger than Illinois or Pennsylvania.
But it wasn’t just in electoral influence where Maine flexed its muscle. Over its lifespan, it has produced tremendous national political leaders.
Take, for instance, Hannibal Hamlin, who remains to this day the Maine politician who has risen the highest in the U.S. government — to the position of vice president.
Hamlin was Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, getting the job due to his fierce opposition to slavery, as well as Maine’s electoral importance, and out of a desire to consolidate support in the north for the ticket. He was replaced four years later by Andrew Johnson, and not for that decision, Hamlin would have been president after Lincoln was shot.
Or how about the ubiquitous James G. Blaine? He began in state politics and was, more than anyone, responsible for the success of the Republican Party in Maine. He also became a national figure, becoming Speaker of the House before running for president three times, nearly pulling it off in 1884.
Then there is Thomas Brackett Reed, one of the least known, and least talked about politicians from Maine. I wouldn’t be surprised if you had never heard of him — but interestingly he may be one of the most consequential of all statesmen from the Pine Tree State.
He was elected to Congress and rose quickly, eventually becoming the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and ultimately became Speaker of the House in 1888. He ran for president in 1896 and lost the Republican nomination to William McKinley.
And of course let us not forget Ed Muskie, whose long and distinguished career gave him a platform to run for president, which evaporated before his eyes because of some supposed tears on his cheek.
But obviously, it wasn’t just in the great leaders produced by the state of Maine that we should feel pride in. The real source of our pride should be in our people, and what they have done.
It is in great entrepreneurs like Leon Leonwood Bean and Chester Greenwood. It is in the fierce and rough people that carved a living out of the wilderness, logging trees, or the brave people taking to the seas to fish.
It is the place that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the setting of almost every Stephen King novel.
It is in the invention of Italian sandwiches, donut holes and the whoopie pie. It is in the production of nearly all of the blueberries in the country, as well as virtually all of the toothpicks.
In the last 200 years, this has been a state of leaders, craftsman, artisans and rugged frontiersmen, and has cemented its status as, in this author’s mind, the greatest state in America. Here’s to the next 100 years.