The Maine Influence
You can’t fully understand American politics without looking at how Mainers spread their culture across the continent.
- By: Colin Woodard
This summer’s debt ceiling debacle in Washington, D.C., rattled more than the financial markets; it shook Americans’ faith that the republic can be effectively governed. Pundits from across the political spectrum highlighted the polarizing divisions, declaring compromise to be dead, and the body politic to be more dismally paralyzed than at any time in history. To rebut the critics, the best Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could come up with was a favorable comparison with the floor debates leading up to the Civil War, in which one senator beat another senseless with a cane. In the summer of 2011, Reid reassured the nation, there was “never any consideration that the republic would fall.”
Truth be told, this summer’s bruising debates on Capitol Hill share a number of salient characteristics with those of the 1850s and 1860s. To a surprising degree, they were regional in character. They pitted the centuries-old policy agenda of the Deep South against that of Greater New England, with the powers, strength, and very creditworthiness of the federal government at the center of the issue. To a remarkable degree, they rallied or repelled congressmen and senators to their respective banners based on the American regional cultures from which each hailed, with the Tea Party’s uncompromising position endorsed almost exclusively by duly-elected representatives of the Deep South, Greater Appalachia, and the interior West. They were rejected almost unanimously by those representing New England, the swaths of the country first colonized by New Englanders, and Pacific coastal regions New England’s Protestant missionaries had tried to make a “New England on the Pacific.” Civil War-era regional alignments popped to the fore, and not for the first time.
Americans have been deeply divided on regional grounds since the days of Jamestown and Plymouth. As I show in my new book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, the original clusters of North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions of the British Isles — and from France, the Netherlands, and Spain — each with their own religious, political, and ethnographic characteristics. For generations, these discrete Euro-American cultures developed in remarkable isolation from one another, consolidating their own cherished principles and fundamental values, and expanding across the eastern half of the continent in nearly exclusive settlement bans. Some championed individualism, others utopian social reform. Some believed themselves guided by divine purpose, others championed freedom of conscience and inquiry. Some valued equality and democratic participation, others deference to a traditional aristocratic order modeled on the slave states of classical antiquity. Throughout the colonial period and the Early Republic, they saw themselves as competitors — for land, settlers, and capital — and even as enemies, taking opposing sides in the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. There’s never been an America, but rather several Americas, which is why the federal government was created in the first place and has had such a difficult time governing us ever since.
It should come as no surprise that Maine is part of Greater New England, the regional culture founded by the Puritans on Massachusetts Bay in the 1630s, who annexed Maine by force in the 1650s and ran it as a colony for the next 170 years. Since the days of John Winthrop, this culture has sought to perfect Earthly society through social engineering, individual self-denial, and the aggressive assimilation of outsiders. It has prized education, intellectual achievement, community (rather than individual) empowerment, and broad citizen participation in politics and government, the latter seen as the public’s shield against the machinations of grasping aristocrats, corporations, and other tyrannies. By and large, these ideas were not — and are not — shared by the other regional cultures, some of which look upon many of them as decidedly un-American. Mainers — especially the early Scots-Irish settlers in the midcoast — have often been among New England’s internal dissenters to these traditions, a tale told in my earlier work, The Lobster Coast, but broadly speaking we’re part of a common Yankee culture, and one whose borders spread far beyond New England.
Indeed, the true geographical extent of Greater New England is seldom appreciated. From its New England core, it has spread with its settlers across upper New York state, the northern strips of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Iowa, parts of the eastern Dakotas, and on up into the upper Great Lakes states. It moved east as well, laying down the dominant culture of great swaths of Canada’s Maritime Provinces, with which we Mainers share more in common than either place does with New York or Toronto. There was also a conscious attempt by New England’s religious and commercial elite to make Oregon, Washington, and northern California into a new New England, though that effort was only partially successful on those states’ coastal fringe, and not at all in their vast interiors.
New Englanders pushed west because of shortcomings of the land. By the late 1700s, farmers were finding the thin soils of much of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont were played out, while those in densely populated southern New England were having trouble finding land at all. Similarly, Down East Maine fishermen crossed into southwestern New Brunswick and southern Nova Scotia in pursuit of fish, laying down an enduring culture that even the Loyalist exodus to those provinces couldn’t uproot.
After the Revolution, the westward emigrants overwhelmingly moved to areas claimed by New England’s governments: great swaths of upstate New York (claimed by Massachusetts) and northern Pennsylvania and Ohio (both claimed by Connecticut). The subsequent generation moved into what became the upper Great Lakes states, northern Illinois, and parts of Iowa and the Dakotas, founding a dominant Yankee culture in those regions that can still be seen on linguist’s dialect maps, anthropologists’ maps of material culture regions, and the blue county/red county maps of most any closely contested presidential election from 1860 to 2010. Unlike most of the continent’s other regional cultures, the Yankees tended to relocate as entire communities, often led by their minister, and frequently viewing their journey as an extension of New England’s religious mission. On departure, they drafted Mayflower-like compacts pledging to replicate the cultural and religious conventions of their home regions. On arrival in the west, they planted an entire town, complete with a master plot plan, a town green and commons, Congregational or Presbyterian meetinghouse, and the all-important public school. They founded New England-style Calvinist colleges across the Yankee Midwest, each a powerful outpost of cultural production: Oberlin and Case Western Reserve (in Ohio), Beloit and Olivet (in Michigan), Ripon and Madison (in Wisconsin), Carleton (Minnesota), Grinnell (Iowa), and Illinois College. They maintained near total control of the politics of the three Upper Great Lakes states for much of the nineteenth century, accounting for most of their governors and many of their legislators and congressmen.
Yankee missionaries sailed to the Pacific coast as well, not a few on a Pilgrim-like errand to the wilderness. “If we can plant [on the Pacific] a people with our civilization, our Bible, our Puritanism, our zeal for spreading what we know and believe to others, it will be a direct means of pouring light on the Isles of the Sea and [Asia],” the American Home Missionary Society proclaimed. The noblest deed, Presbyterian minister Timothy Dwight Hunt told San Francisco’s New England Society in 1852, “would be for them to make California the Massachusetts of the Pacific.” This effort was doomed by a flood of non-Yankee immigrants during and after the Gold Rush, but a Yankee strain of utopianism survived in the coastal strip extending from Monterey to Juneau, infecting the Left Coast’s politics and social institutions.
Mainers played an outsized role in certain phases of these various colonization efforts, particularly those centered around the extraction of timber resources. In the early nineteenth century, Maine was the center of the nation’s lumbering industry, a place where many of the essential practices and technologies of large-scale commercial logging were developed, from the Peavey stick and lumber shanty to the large scale consumption of extremely strong tea and baked-in-a-hole beans by lumberjacks. These patterns were transferred to the upper Great Lakes states as thousands of “Bangor Tigers” moved into their virgin forests from the cut-over Penobscot in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. “I’ve heard of your Penobscot, Way down in Parts of Maine,” went a popular tune of the time period, “Where timber grows in plenty, But darn the bit of grain. And I have heard of the Quoddy and your Piscataqua. But thee can’t hold a candle to Michigan-i-a!” In 1852, the exodus prompted one of Maine’s congressmen to warn that “the stalwart sons” of the Pine Tree State were “marching away by the scores and hundreds to the piney woods of the Northwest.” Towns named Bangor and Augusta popped up in Michigan and Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington.
Mainers’ influence in early Minnesota was particularly strong. They founded the first sawmills at Stillwater in 1844, creating a bustling community for a time expected to become the “metropolis of the Middle West.” Mainers founded towns named Bethel, Houlton, Orono, Oxford, Brunswick, Milo, Greenbush, Belgrade, New Avon, and New Maine. Frank Nye of Shirley was one of the state’s first congressmen, Levi Stewart of Corinna emerged as Minneapolis’s richest man, and George Higgins of Gardiner was nominated as the Prohibition candidate for governor. (He lost.)
Maine people made an even greater mark on the Pacific Northwest, naming Portland and Bangor, Oregon, and Machias and Bangor, Washington. Bangor’s Alden Blethen founded the Seattle Times, John McGraw of Penobscot became Washington’s second governor, and La Fayette Grover of Bethel was elected to Congress, the U.S. Senate, and the governor’s mansion in Oregon. Andrew Pope and Frederick Talbot of East Machias founded the Puget Sound lumbering towns of Port Gamble and Port Ludlow, building Maine-style homes and a replica of the church they had worshipped in. Their firm, Pope & Talbot, organized “the longest continuous organized migration in history,” a seventy-year transfer of young people from East Machias to the Pacific Northwest on company ships. “Port Gamble was a fine place . . . filled with State-of-Mainers,” longtime resident George Hoyt recalled in 1944 at ninety. “It seemed everyone came from East Machias or his father did.”
“We always had baked beans and johnny bread at Gamble” Hoyt added, “and plenty of codfish.”
- By: Colin Woodard