In this Oct. 2, 2020, file photo, a man sits on a nearly empty Waikiki Beach in Honolulu before the state reopened its economy. Credit: Caleb Jones / AP

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Four weeks beyond the winter solstice, the days of summer swims and barbecues are a remote reality in Maine. And far away in space — 5,147 miles from Bangor — is warm, sunny Honolulu. Yet, despite the distances and differences, Hawaii and Maine have some commonalities, going beyond beautiful coasts to encompass shared individuals and histories of imperialism and resistance.

One person spanning both places was Elisha Hunt Allen, who I first encountered through a quirky list titled “Politicians: Death in the White House.” Allen died at a diplomatic reception held by President Chester Arthur on New Year’s Day 1883.

But it was Allen’s life that was more intriguing.

When he met his demise, Allen, who came of age in New England, was representing the nation of Hawaii.

Born in Massachusetts in 1804, Allen was linked through marriage in 1828 to a prominent Maine political family, the Fessendens. Allen moved to Bangor in 1830 and formed a law firm with John Appleton, later the chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.

Starting in 1834, Allen sat on Bangor’s first City Council. Then he served in the Maine House from 1835-1839, including two years as Speaker of the House, just before and after Hannibal Hamlin was in the speakership.

Allen’s first foray into national politics also involved Hamlin, an officeholder much more well known to us today because Hamlin was Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president. These men ran against each other twice for Congress and, according to University of New England historian  Paul T. Burlin, would spend nearly two months traveling the district and holding “joint discussions every evening.”

In the 1840 race for Maine’s Eighth Congressional District, Allen, a Whig, beat Hamlin, who was then a Democrat. After the 1840 Census, that district was eliminated and Allen and Hamlin competed again in 1842, this time in Maine’s Sixth Congressional District. This time Hamlin prevailed.

Allen, ever-flexible, served briefly in the Massachusetts Legislature and then went across the Pacific after being appointed U.S. Consul to Hawaii by Millard Fillmore. Soon after Franklin Pierce picked his replacement in 1853, Allen became a citizen of Hawaii and a member of its government, first as minister of finance, then chief justice of their Supreme Court and finally minister to the United States, the position he held at the time of his death.

Beyond his bizarre biography, Allen’s life helps illuminate broader social, political and racial dynamics that reverberate today.

During his time, many white Americans moved to find opportunity, as Allen did to Maine and later across the ocean. Alexis de Tocqueville argued in “Democracy in America” that this mobility reflected American entrepreneurial energy, while acknowledging that enslaved people and native peoples were deeply mistreated and lacked freedom.

Beyond North America, native Hawaiians, who Allen labeled “a weak race intellectually,” were subjected to racial bigotry and lost power.

Part of this effort involved cultural imperialism. Missionaries, some from Maine, disrespected Hawaiian society and religion and endeavored to convert them to Christianity.

In both Hawaii and Maine, schools for Indigenous children were part of a disdainful, colonialist mind-set aimed at replacing their cultures and language. In Maine this took place in part via boarding schools that were designed, as Richard Henry Pratt prescribed, to “kill the Indian in him.”  

In both places, native people lost political sovereignty to outsiders.

Native people in Maine long had limited rights in many areas and were among the last to gain voting rights.

Sanford Dole, the child of Maine missionaries in Hawaii, was involved  in overthrowing the native monarchy and increased the power of white-owned sugar and pineapple interests. After the coup, which was assisted by the U.S. government, Dole became president of the Provisional Government of Hawaii.

In our time, Hawaiian and Wabanaki peoples are recovering this dismal history as they call for greater sovereignty. Through  LD 1626 Maine tribes would gain powers to govern themselves in their territories.

And still, in both, across the 5,000 miles or so of land and sea, the past weighs on the present.

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Amy Fried, Opinion columnist

Amy Fried has written about the media and politics, women in politics, Maine and American political culture, and political activism, and works to create change through the Rising Tide Center. A political...