AUGUSTA, Maine — Mainers have a special bond with Massachusetts that’s friendly for the most part. What Mainer doesn’t love the Boston Red Sox, after all?
But it wasn’t always so. Maine became a state by splitting from Massachusetts, gaining independence 200 years ago at a time when residents were smarting over Massachusetts’ decision not to defend the Maine territory in the War of 1812.
The state marked the bicentennial of Maine’s liberation from Massachusetts on March 15, 1820 — but without a birthday party.
The coronavirus pandemic forced the state’s bicentennial committee to postpone Sunday’s celebration in Augusta that was supposed to kick off activities that will continue through the year, including plans for a big parade in May and the arrival of tall ships in late June.
But Gov. Janet Mills didn’t let the milestone go unnoticed. “Maine has a proud and storied history. As we celebrate ‘statehood day’ during our bicentennial year, let us reflect on that history and recommit ourselves to the values that shape us as a state and as a people,” the governor said.
The state was a territory of Massachusetts until 1820. Maine voters rejected statehood three times before the War of 1812, which left many Mainers incensed.
British troops remained in some locations of Maine until a year before the fourth, successful vote in 1819. But statehood wasn’t ratified by Congress until the Missouri Compromise, which aimed to maintain the balance of power between free and slave states.
For the two states, it’s been a complicated relationship.
There’s a shared love of the Red Sox, Bruins and Patriots. But Mainers like to poke fun at their citified, well-to-do cousins who treat the vast state like their playground when they arrive with fancy snowmobiles, big boats, fat wallets — and an attitude.
“It’s the classic love-hate relationship,” joked Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., Maine state historian.
Like their forebears who set up farming communities and summer colonies, Massachusetts vacationers and others “from away” often set up roots in Maine with vacation homes on plum real estate.
Maine humorist Tim Sample said there’s a famous joke about Maine’s statehood and wealthy Massachusetts visitors: “Maine broke away from Massachusetts 200 years ago — and they’ve been trying to buy Maine back one house lot at a time ever since.”
The Plymouth Co. created a trading post in the early 1600s in what’s now Augusta, the state capital. There were decades of unrest with Native Americans and with the French. The Maine territory and Massachusetts, meanwhile, continued to be important trade partners and maintained a relationship that was uneasy at times.
Then came the War of 1812. British and Canadian forces occupied “Down East” Maine, from Bangor to Eastport. Massachusetts Gov. Caleb Strong declined to send troops to defend Maine. A lasting testament to the war was the burial of the bodies of the commanders of the Navy brig Enterprise and HMS Boxer, who were laid to rest side by side in Portland’s eastern cemetery after a naval battle off the Maine coast.
Mainers who had rejected statehood in 1792, 1797 and 1807 changed their tune by 1819. Mainers’ independent spirit is codified in the state motto, Dirigo, which is Latin for “I lead.”
“We love the Red Sox. We love the Patriots. But we also love being on our own,” said Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap. “The bicentennial is an opportunity for Mainers to celebrate where we are, and who we are, and how we got to be the state of Maine.”
Maine is known for its lobsters, quaint fishing villages and lighthouses, a deep logging tradition and Henry David Thoreau’s “North Woods.”
The state has produced a number of important leaders: Secretary of State Edmund Muskie, Senate leader George Mitchell, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to serve in both the U.S. House and Senate. And who hasn’t scared themselves by curling up too late with a page-turning novel by horror writer and Bangor resident Stephen King?
From another era, there was Hannibal Hamlin, vice president to Abraham Lincoln, House Speaker Thomas Reed, and James Blaine, who was secretary of state under three presidents.
Regardless of the coronavirus, the state has plenty to celebrate.
“I have seen a significant uptake in the interest in the history of Maine because of the bicentennial. I would hope that once we weather this present challenge with the virus that there will still be an opportunity for people to celebrate the history and the culture of the state,” Shettleworth said.