In the years after statehood (1820) and before the Civil War (1860s) was Maine a Jeffersonian republic? How is the detail of Maine’s first constitution related to that and was this how the...

In the years after statehood (1820) and before the Civil War (1860s) was Maine a Jeffersonian republic? How is the detail of Maine’s first constitution related to that and was this how the republic should work?

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kipling2448 | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The birth of the State of Maine was a product of radically shifting demographics in Massachusetts, from which Maine was created.  That shift primarily involved the concentration of farmers in the region’s interior as Massachusetts sought to profit from the more marketable land it owned in what is now coastal Maine.  The concentration of agricultural-based communities inland and growing disenchantment with policies made in distant Boston, and the not inconsiderable role being played in the region’s movement towards statehood by the debate between pro- and anti-slavery advocates (Maine was strongly pro-abolitionist while the Missouri territory, similarly agitating for statehood, was pro-slavery), all combined to create a population in what became the state of Maine of ardent republicanism.  That Maine achieved statehood the year after the start of the Depression of 1819 also contributed to the new political entity’s constitutional prerogatives given the significant distinctions between Republicans and Federalists regarding the role of a central or national bank and the federal government’s broader role in the economy.  The Constitution of the State of Maine (a link to which is provided below) placed the highest priority on the rights of the individual and of the people over the government that serves it.  Hence, Article I of the constitution begins with a lengthy series of sections that specify those rights, including Section 2, which declares “All power is inherent in the people; all free governments are founded in their authority and instituted for their benefit; they have therefore an unalienable and indefeasible right to institute government, and to alter, reform, or totally change the same, when their safety and happiness require it.”

Of particular note with respect to the 1820 Constitution is Article I, Section 13, which states “The laws shall not be suspended but by the Legislature or its authority.”  Seemingly anticipating the future suspension of habeas corpus that would occur under president Abraham Lincoln, the drafters of Maine’s constitution understood that the legislative branch of government would endure as that closest to the public it represents.  There is certainly irony in that situation given the relationship that would develop between Lincoln and Maine, which remained a bedrock of abolitionist sentiment and to which Lincoln looked when choosing a vice presidential candidate.  Section 17 stated, "No standing army shall he kept up in time of peace without the consent of the Legislature, and the military shall, in all cases, and at all times, be in strict subordination to the civil power.”  This provision was followed by a section prohibiting the stationing of military personnel in civilian homes except with the consent of the owner, another principle borrowed from the federal constitution that reflected republican attitudes towards government (i.e., cynical and fearful).  Article III of the constitution establishes the same division of powers among branches as the federal model, and the document devotes considerable space to the authorities and structure of the legislative branch of state government (See Article IV for the powers vested in the Legislature; Article V specifies those granted to the chief executive, and note how, especially in Section 7, how the authorities of the governor are proscribed in deference to the legislative branch).

The debate between Federalists and Republicans, the latter represented most prominently by Thomas Jefferson, was the defining ideological division of the time.  One of the most noteworthy provisions of the 1820 Constitution, then, hints strongly at the anti-elitist sentiments that characterized republicanism and that sought to restrain the powers of those elites to impose their will on the population as a whole. 

“A general diffusion of the advantage of education being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people; to promote this important object, the Legislature are authorised, and it shall be their duty to require, the several towns to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the support and maintenance of public schools; and it shall further be their duty to encourage and suitably endow, from time to time, as the circumstances of the people may authorise, all academies, colleges and seminaries of learning within the State;”

The importance of this provision within the context of the debate regarding the nature of the newly-established state’s constitution cannot be overstated.  The authors of the document understood that the interests of the state’s population could not be protected or served in the absence of an educated demographic from which to elect local and federal representation.  Relying on the Federalists to protect the interests of the rural farmers was deemed inadequate, and the importance of an educated public, another principle closely associated with Jefferson, was considered central to the future viability of the enterprise.

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