The Maine Thing About Statehood

SPEAKING of Columbus, as so many uninformed experts are doing this anniversary year, I bring you greetings from the almost State of Columbus and will tell you what really happened.

It was back in the year 1819, when Maine was about to achieve separation from Massachusetts and (in 1820) become one of the United States. I have drawn this report from exhaustive search in the archives and lengthy discussions with some of our better folklorists.

Maine, as a "district" and as a "province," gained separation from Mother Maffachuffetts without too much excitement. Around Beacon Hill, in Boston, members of the General Court who lived on spendthrift trusts had become concerned at the growth of Maine. As town after town in the boondocks incorporated, each sending its delegate to Boston, the time was foreseen when the rubes from Maine would have a clear majority, so when separation was proposed, the Beacon Hill brigade cried "Good Riddance!"

But down-Maine, a majority (in the first plebiscite) decided to stick with what they had, and the vote was negative. Then the Maine weather intruded.

We had a winter of discontent. Crops didn't sprout, woodpiles vanished, and we had snow in June. One man went to the pasture to count his sheep and perished from exposure. The thousands who fled Maine to find better conditions in the prairie country were, it seems, largely the pro-Massachusetts folks, because in 1819 a second plebiscite was held, and the vote was favorable. A committee was named to draw a constitution for the new state (Maine became such on March 15, 1820), and it assembled forthwith at Portland, with John Holmes as chairman. Besides preparing a constitution, the committee would be responsible for a name, to be inserted where the preamble starts: We the people of the....

The matter was considered in two steps. First, would the new "unit" be a state or a commonwealth? Massachusetts was, and is, a commonwealth, and a few members felt it would be well for Maine to keep that designation. But some wanted to withdraw completely and hinted that anything to remind them of past affiliation would be unpalatable. One member pointed out that the federal constitution uses the word "state" throughout, and there is no provision, really, for taking in "commonwealths." State prevailed. T he second problem, a name, led to a small debate.

Member Tucker, of Standish, first proposed the name of Columbus for the new state. His appeal was stirring, and he concluded, "And, my fellow delegates, as every schoolchild can asseverate, `In fourteen hundred and ninety-three, Columbus sailed the dark, blue sea.' "

At this, Delegate Vance rose to inquire who Columbus might be. Delegate Adams, however, rose to correct Delegate Tucker, saying, "Mr. Chairman, our learned colleague errs. The rhyme misquoted really goes, `In fourteen hundred and ninety-four, Columbus crossed the ocean o'er.' Thank you." At which Delegate Thatcher pointed out that the real rhyme runs, "In fourteen hundred and ninety-five, hardly a man is now alive," and he moved that Paul Revere be inserted in place of Columbus.

Another name suggested was Lygonia, which is a fish found in the Saco River, esteemed for fish peas, paint oil, and fertilizer.

In the end, Maine persisted. Maine, derived from "the main" or the mainland, had been in use by Irish fishermen for centuries. Predating Columbus, these earlier discoverers of America had based their fisheries on outer islands and called the offshore view "The Maine." Historian Rosier, in 1605, wrote about "trending alongst into the Maine."

So Delegate Thatcher (a judge with an even disposition) said the name Maine was well known in Europe and all commercial nations, using it would enhance our tourism industry, and nobody much knew about Columbus. His reasoning prevailed, and when the clerk read the final draft of the new constitution, he didn't hesitate when he came to the blank. He read, "... by the style and title of the State of Maine ...."

That was that. So we have never had a State of Columbus. And you can say Kansas, and Nebraska, and Ohio - but it's always the State of Maine.

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