On This Day: Maine Enters Union as Part of Slavery Compromise

The state of Maine is rugged country, with its rocky North Atlantic shoreline, mountainous, heavily-forested interior, and demanding winters. Its people are hardy, as they have to be in coping with its weather and geography. This tenacity served Maine’s citizens well in their early 19th century fight for statehood, because their application for admission into the Union triggered a nationwide debate over slavery.

Illustration: Maine state flag
Illustration: Maine state flag. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

After much acrimonious wrangling in Congress, Maine became the nation’s 23rd state on 15 March 1820, its statehood part of the balance between pro- and anti-slavery forces known as the Missouri Compromise.

President James Monroe signed the Missouri Compromise into law on 6 March 1820. At that time the nation was evenly divided between slave and free states, with 11 each. The compromise allowed Maine to apply as a free state and Missouri as a slave state, but prohibited slavery anywhere else in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of Missouri’s southern border – with the exception of Missouri itself.

The delicate balance between free and slave states had been maintained. Abolitionists were pleased that no area north of Missouri could become a slave state. Southerners, however, relying on arguments that both the Bible and states’ rights (as protected by the U.S. Constitution) permitted slavery, grumbled. The Missouri Compromise calmed the storm that was rising in early 1820, but clearly the slavery issue was not going away.

Ex-President Thomas Jefferson knew the Missouri Compromise was not going to stop slavery from threatening the Union. Regarding the compromise legislation and the division over slavery, he wrote to John Holmes on 22 April 1820:

“…this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union.”

The following newspaper articles about Maine’s statehood reveal some of the discord in Congress and, indeed, in the nation itself. The very fact that Maine was not allowed to apply for statehood on its own, but was forced to have its fate entwined with Missouri, angered many of Maine’s supporters. They were indignant that the Senate had combined Maine’s application and Missouri’s application into one bill – a forced union that seemed unnatural, if not outright unconstitutional.

This point of view is expressed in the savage satire of the following article, published by the Newburyport Herald.

An article about Maine statehood, Newburyport Herald newspaper article 3 March 1820
Newburyport Herald (Newburyport, Massachusetts), 3 March 1820, page 3

Here is a transcription of this article:

Married – In Jan. last, at Washington, by the Senate of the U. States, Massa Quashee Misssouri, to the amiable Miss Maine. The nuptials were violently opposed by the lady as well as by all her connections, she being young and fair; whereas her new bridegroom is a hideous black fellow! who has nothing to recommend him but his wealth in wild lands. Her unhappy condition has excited the sympathy of the other House, who has sued for a divorce, viewing with abhorrence the unnatural match. The marriage was conducted by proxy, the parties never having seen each other, so that all disagreeable consequences may yet be avoided, except the disgrace attached to those who negotiated the alliance.

This same point of view is expressed in this article, published by the New-Hampshire Sentinel.

An article about Maine statehood, New Hampshire Sentinel newspaper article 4 March 1820
New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene, New Hampshire), 4 March 1820, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

NEW STATES BILL

The House [is] principally occupied upon this bill received from the Senate. The proceedings are stated in [the] following extract of a letter published in the Repertory.

“In the House of Representatives was taken up today the bill from the Senate, with Missouri attached to Maine. The friends of Missouri, and of this strange and new invented union of distinct subjects, moved that the bill, with this amendment of the Senate, be committed to a committee of the whole House. A good deal of debate arose on this motion. Those who opposed it, proceeded on the ground that the House was bound, by a sense of its own character, to meet this attempt of the Senate with a prompt rejection. It was said that the Senate proposed, on the Missouri bill, what was called a compromise; but they wished to put, and keep, the House in bonds, while it deliberated on this compromise. It was said by several gentlemen that whatever they might think of a compromise, they would not consider the subject till it was disconnected from Maine. The motion to commit was negatived: seventy for it, one hundred and seven against it. It was then voted to print the Senate’s amendment, and consider it on Tuesday next. I hope this vote may be considered as indicative of the determination of the House to act on these measures separately, and to decide them on their respective merits; and not to be compelled to act on them together, and make a bargain on these important subjects.”

The debates in Congress over the Missouri Compromise were fierce – or, as the following letter puts it, “stormy.” This article was published by the Hallowell Gazette.

An article about Maine statehood, An article about Maine statehood, newspaper article 15 March 1820
Hallowell Gazette (Hallowell, Maine), 15 March 1820, page 2

Here is a transcription of this article:

Extract of a letter to a gentleman in this town dated Washington, March 1.

“This week has been the most stormy time ever witnessed in Congress Halls. The Intelligencer will give you information of the doings though not of the speeches, some of which were inflammatory and seditious in the highest degree. When the bill for the admission of Maine was returned to the Senate with the decision of the House that they adhered to their disagreement to the amendments, a violent debate took place. King, a new member from Alabama, opposed a conference, and declared he was prepared for a separation of the states. He was supported by Smith of S.C. King of New York opposed him in a most solemn and impressive manner, and advocated a conference between the two houses, which was agreed to by a large majority. Randolph has spoken whenever he could gain the floor, in every stage of the business, and been repeatedly called to order by his own party, and once voted down by the house on a motion from an anti-restriction member. His speeches have sometimes been diverting, always very personal and impudent, never argumentative, and seldom have anything to do with the subject under consideration.”

The part of the Missouri Compromise that granted statehood to Maine was, naturally, highlighted by the Maine press. This article was published by the Hallowell Gazette.

An article about the legislation to admit Maine into the Union, Hallowell Gazette newspaper article 15 March 1820
Hallowell Gazette (Hallowell, Maine), 15 March 1820, page 3

Here is a transcription of this article:

An Act for the Admission of the State of Maine into the Union.

Whereas by an act of the State of Massachusetts, passed on the 19th day of June, in the year one thousand eight hundred and nineteen, entitled, “An act relating to the separation of the District of Maine from Massachusetts Proper, and forming the same into a separate and independent State,” the people of that part of Massachusetts heretofore known as the District of Maine did, with the consent of the Legislature of said State of Massachusetts, form themselves into an independent State, and did establish a Constitution for the government of the same, agreeably to the provisions of the said act – Therefore,

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That, from and after the fifteenth day of March, in the year one thousand eight hundred and twenty, the State of Maine is hereby declared to be one of the United States of America, and admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, in all respects whatever.

Washington, March 3, 1820 – Approved, James Monroe.

Note: An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

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