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Maine can finally get out of Massachusetts’ shadow

The state has never quite shaken off its legacy as a colony of Boston. But the pandemic might speed a transformation of Maine’s economy and outlook.

An 1885 reproduction of the 1620 charter from King James I to Sir Ferdinando Gorges's Council for New England.
An 1885 reproduction of the 1620 charter from King James I to Sir Ferdinando Gorges's Council for New England.Collections of Maine Historical Society, courtesy of MaineMemory.net, item #7541. www.mainememory.net/artifact/7541

FREEPORT, Maine — If the pandemic hadn’t struck, we Mainers would have spent much of this year celebrating our bicentennial — the 200th anniversary of our separation from Massachusetts and our return to political independence after a long and difficult period of colonial rule. But instead of commemorating statehood day on March 15, Maine’s governor declared a state of emergency, and people in the state began locking down.

Survival, once again, took center stage.

Appropriate perhaps, as much of Maine’s history has been tragic, from the pandemic accidentally sparked by the first English explorers — which killed three-quarters of Maine’s indigenous inhabitants in four years — to the post-Civil War economic collapse that some parts of the state have yet to recover from. It’s been a saga of war and betrayal, of clashing empires and ethnic cleansing, a 160-year intracolonial occupation that left the state underdeveloped, undersettled, and cursed with a lasting animosity toward Massachusetts, historically its most important economic partner and source of capital, settlers, tourists, and commerce.

Understanding that story is vital to the people of both states, as Maine stands on the cusp of a major transformation that could benefit both.

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Thwarted by Boston

Some New Englanders know Maine was once a part of Massachusetts, but far fewer realize it was a separate English colony before that, with permanent fishing stations established years ahead of the Mayflower voyage, and towns settled well before the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay. The Bay Colony and the Province of Maine were both English, but that’s where the similarities ended.

Maine was controlled by an English knight, Sir Ferdinando Gorges, who sought to re-create the rural neo-feudal society of his native English West Country, where many of his colonists were from. It was Anglican in religion, Royalist in politics, and aligned with the king in the empire’s greatest conflict of the age, the English Civil War of the 1640s.

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Massachusetts Bay, by contrast, was a utopian Calvinist religious project. Most of its colonists were from East Anglia, the richest and most entrepreneurial region of England, and were opposed to aristocracy and the established church. Its sympathies lay with Parliament, the victorious side in the Civil War, which had put the Puritan Oliver Cromwell in charge in London.

Once Gorges was dead and the king beheaded, Boston was free to move against its rivals to the north in the postwar years, and its leaders came up with a novel reading of their charter allowing them to claim every English settlement in Maine.

When the Maine settlements refused to capitulate, Massachusetts dispatched waves of commissioners to compel compliance. Opponents were arrested and jailed. Their leader, Edward Godfrey, suddenly and inexplicably reversed himself to endorse annexation after a days-long conference in 1652 with the commissioners. (“Whatever my body was enforced unto,” he later cryptically told Parliament, “heaven knows my soul did not consent unto.”)

Under Massachusetts rule, Maine gained the myriad advantages of New England culture: taxpayer-financed public schools, better roads, courthouses, and trade networks, and the town meeting form of government, which Alexis de Tocqueville would credit with cultivating America’s republican citizenry.

But on balance the colonial period was a disaster for the “Eastern Territories.” The Puritans embroiled the region in a century-long series of genocidal wars with New England’s indigenous people, and Maine bore the brunt of the pain on the English side, with every settlement east of Wells wiped out from 1689 to 1713. Thousands of refugees choked Massachusetts, where they were often unwelcome and became the primary victims of the witch hunts in Salem and seacoast New Hampshire. The native Wabanaki lost even more: their French allies, most of their coastal land, and the majority of their people.

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As the wars wound down in the mid-18th century, a group of Boston land barons began assembling paper-mill empires in the Maine backcountry and Down East coast, some as big as a million acres. They renamed towns and counties after themselves — Waldo, Knox, Bowdoin, and Gardiner — and moved to force alleged squatters from their claims. The latter, largely Scots-Irish, resisted, triggering a century-long armed insurrection that brewed the resentments that helped fuel the initial drive for statehood.

When the British occupied the eastern half of Maine during the War of 1812, the federal government’s efforts to liberate it were thwarted by Boston’s bankers, who had loaned their remaining capital to British Nova Scotia, and by Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong, who leaked war plans to the press. Once Mainers realized Boston could not be counted on even to defend it from a foreign enemy, the quest for statehood gained momentum.

Statehood brought a brief boom, fueled by Maine’s outsized influence over the coastwise wooden sail trade and the demand for its ample stocks of granite, timber, ice, and salt cod. The state’s population grew by a third between 1820 and 1830 and Portland’s by 50 percent to 13,000, making it larger at the time than Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, or Newark.

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But major roads and coastal trade routes led to Boston, and interests there consciously worked to ensure no railroads were built that would bypass the city on their way to Massachusetts’ northern neighbor — a move that would have ended its effective monopoly as the middleman of Maine’s commerce. “The superiority of Boston over any town in Maine enabled her to control not only the course of trade, but the opinions of her people,” the American Railroad Journal reported in 1848. “This has been most fatal to her actual advancement.”

The Civil War dealt a terrible blow to Maine, cutting off the ice and salt fish trade with southern markets and forcing many cotton mills and rum distilleries to shutter for lack of raw materials. Shipyards and the fishing fleet atrophied, and farmers fled for the deeper topsoil of Ohio. Maine’s population shrank between 1860 and 1870, leaving a landscape of abandoned farms, atrophied cities, and collapsing industries. The advent of steamships and East-West railroads, which ended the age of sail and the north-south coastal trade Maine had dominated, completed the state’s transformation into a backwater, an isolated, sparsely settled frontier.

Turning point

It was in this era that the outside world discovered the pleasures of the Maine summer, spearheaded by Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, and Walkers, who built mansions and summer “colonies” and hired “natives” to keep them supplied, cleaned, maintained, and staffed. These “rusticators” used their considerable influence to try to keep Maine as it was: a bucolic playground free of the hustle and bustle of modern life, of automobiles and industry, bridges and electric lighting.

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In these conditions, Maine didn’t thrive. Right into the late 20th century, it was one of the poorest states in the country, with per capita incomes at or near the bottom when adjusted for cost of living. Out-of-state paper companies controlled a third of the interior — a giant timber plantation without towns or public roads — while working waterfronts made way for second homes and seasonal tourism.

Many characteristics of our culture come out of this long colonial and postcolonial experience: self-sufficiency and hard work; pride and defiance; self-doubt and an aversion to risk. With few professional jobs available in their hometowns, young people believe going to college would be tantamount to permanent exile, which explains why we’ve long had above-average high school graduation rates and below-average college ones. Those with professional ambitions often find they have to leave to build their career, hoping to return decades later when they have the ability to telecommute, start their own business, or retire.

But 2020′s pandemic may prove a turning point for Maine, accelerating developments that have been quietly transforming the state. Knowledge-based companies now know “work from anywhere” can turn out pretty well, and a huge wave of their employees have spent much of the year working from places like Maine. As working in a single giant headquarters becomes even less important in some industries, places with a high quality of life and lower living costs have a better shot at hosting corporate workers. Many of Maine’s towns and cities lacked the money to bulldoze their downtown cores in the mid-20th century, which means they still have the walkable 19th-century townscapes integral to 21st-century urban vitality. Our civic culture is sufficiently healthy that we’ve vied with Vermont throughout much of the pandemic for the lowest prevalence of the disease in the continental United States. No wonder year-on-year median home prices jumped by a fifth and sales volume by nearly a quarter in September, with a third of the buyers from out of state.

The climate crisis will drive others to come here for things that Maine has but the world is growing short of: natural landscapes; clean, fresh water; productive seas; fecund farmland. We have deepwater ports, civic-minded people, and strong schools. The world needs green power; we have massive offshore wind potential. Global fish stocks are depleted; we’re a leader in aquaculture. Sustainable products are in demand; the University of Maine has devised ways for the state’s vast forests to produce not just lumber and paper but bioplastics and advanced building composites that can substitute for carbon-intensive steel. Urban foodies want sustainable and locally sourced foods; Maine’s fields and pastures are being reclaimed by an army of savvy small-scale farmers. In a sign of things to come, Northeastern University this year opened the Roux Institute, a $100 million graduate school and research center in Portland that aims to turn southern Maine into a world-class artificial intelligence and advanced life sciences hub, leveraging partnerships with homegrown veterinary, software, and health care companies.

With the right investments in broadband, innovation, and transportation infrastructure, there’s every reason for Maine to go from backwater to vibrant in the century to come. And because many of those investments will likely come from Greater Boston, that development will benefit the entirety of old Massachusetts, Eastern Territories and all.

Colin Woodard is the author of six books including “The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier” and most recently, “Union: The Struggle to Forge the Story of United States Nationhood.”