Why Maine Became a State (And Not a Commonwealth)

Because shorter words are better, basically. An odd footnote from Maine’s remarkable constitutional convention.

State of Maine Constitution
By Brian Kevin
From our October 2020 issue

The year is 1819. Founding Father James Monroe is two years into his first presidential term. Journalists have dubbed the epoch “the Era of Good Feelings,” reflecting a swelling national pride following the War of 1812 and an easing of the budding republic’s partisan tensions. Of course, it’s not all good feelings in the young U.S. of A. The country is in the early months of its first-ever peacetime financial crisis. Yellow fever epidemics are disrupting life in the cities. And if you’re not a white male landowner, the good feelings don’t so much extend to you. Women’s suffrage is spotty at best. In the south and elsewhere, human beings still own other human beings. Out along the frontier, the Missouri Territory has applied for statehood, and a critical mass of its prominent settlers are southern transplants who expect it will be a slave state.

Meanwhile, up in the Massachusetts hinterlands known as the District of Maine, stubborn separatists have forced the sixth popular vote for statehood since 1792, and this one finally earns majority support in all of Maine’s counties. Massachusetts lawmakers, seeing the writing on the wall, have sanctioned the separation. And so, in October, more than 200 white, male Mainers gather in Portland, at a Unitarian church known as Old Jerusalem, to hammer out a constitution for their new . . . well, what exactly? Right off the bat, the framers get to arguing over just what it is they’re establishing. Massachusetts, of course, is not a state but a commonwealth — as are Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. The distinction? None whatsoever, except that one rings more egalitarian. 

Some delegates argue that Maine should follow in its motherland’s footsteps. Commonwealth just sounds more respectable, declares future Maine Supreme Court Justice William Pitt Preble. Baloney, says Kennebunk town father George Wallingford, pointing out that the word doesn’t even appear in the U.S. Constitution. Fair enough, replies future governor Nathan Cutler, but we’re all used to it, aren’t we? And doesn’t it just feel right?

Look, says future state senator Stephen Parsons: State is five letters. Commonwealth is twelve. We’re about to paint a lot of new signs and typeset a whole bunch of documents. If we go with a shorter word, Parsons argues, think of the time and money we’ll save!

It’s put to a vote, and state wins the day, 119 to 113.

“A change of four votes would have fastened the word commonwealth upon us,” Maine legislator Harry R. Virgin wrote decades later, in 1906, “and cost the State of Maine, for printing that word alone . . . something less than Mr. Rockefeller’s annual income, but nevertheless a large sum, when we take into consideration how many times the word has been used in the last 80 years.”

That cost-saving measure behind them, the delegates go on to craft an impressive document. Among other things, the Maine constitution abolishes the New England tradition of tax-supported churches and extends voting rights to Black and brown Mainers (though only to men and not to “untaxed Indians”). A popular vote ratifies it, and Maine petitions the U.S. Congress for statehood at the turn of 1820.

The Congress, meanwhile, has been hand-wringing over Missouri, which petitioned for statehood a year earlier. The Union in 1820 comprises 11 slave states and 11 free states. Each side has equal representation in the Senate, and letting Missouri in as a slave state will disturb the balance — and all those “good feelings” that earned the era its nickname. So a compromise is reached: accept Maine and Missouri more or less simultaneously, one free and one slave-holding. Plenty of abolitionist Mainers decry their admittance helping to perpetuate slavery — so much so that five out of the District of Maine’s seven Congressional reps actually oppose the House bill laying out “the Missouri Compromise.” Nonetheless, it passes. President Monroe signs it, and on March 15, 1820, Maine officially becomes a state. S-t-a-t-e. Five letters. 


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