The Two-Year Bicentennial Celebration

Despite the cancellation of Maine’s bicentennial events, we have a lot to consider and celebrate over our 200 years

My wife says that a party takes on the personality of the hosts. If you and I invite the same people to parties at our respective houses, the parties will be different.

In fact, the parties will be better at your house. When you throw a party, you have to get something for everybody, including the picky eater you hardly know and only invited to be nice. The event goes by in a flash. Then you’re up until midnight cleaning. Perhaps my bad attitude about parties is why I’m not on the Maine Bicentennial Commission, which planned the events for Maine’s 200th birthday.

Upon reflection, something I did about three years ago shows why I shouldn’t be the one planning events. Recognizing that Maine was part of the Missouri Compromise, I called the athletic director at the University of Maine and suggested that Maine play a series of sporting events with the University of Missouri. If you recall, in order to keep the balance between free and slave states in the Senate, Maine was not admitted to the U.S. until a state in which slavery was legal could be added. The AD was smart enough to say there’s no way Missouri is going to want to bring that up. Good point! People usually don’t want to celebrate the parts of history they’re not proud of.

I am proud that five of Maine’s seven members of Congress voted against our own statehood. It puts us on the right side of history and demonstrates that we had an independent streak even then. Ironically, the two who voted in favor of the amendment to create the Missouri Compromise in the House tipped the vote, 90-87. Had Maine’s delegation been unanimous, we would not have become a state at that time, but we would have taken a stronger stand against slavery.

Stories about the state’s origin have been well documented by the Maine Historical Society, and this year historical vignettes are being shared by various media outlets. I love to delve into stories like these—stories that involve handwritten letters, which would be best read and contemplated by candlelight. They cause us to examine who we are as a state.

In 1820 Maine Senator John Holmes sent a copy of his pamphlet arguing in favor of the legislation to Thomas Jefferson, who responded with a now-famous letter. He said the Missouri Compromise awakened him with terror “like a fire bell in the night.” At the age of 77, Jefferson was contemplat-ing how to end the system of slavery. “Justice is in one scale and self-preservation in the other,” he wrote.

I do believe that we continue to evolve, slowly. I think Maine is a better place than when we were born, and I think it will be a better place when we die. As an older state, we’ve been dragged kicking and screaming through some changes. Other times, we lived up to our motto and led the way. We were the first state to establish Prohibition. Although that didn’t go too well, it does show our independence. We have the first chartered town in the United States, York.

In another first, thousands of people showed up for the hanging of Thomas Bird in Portland’s Bramhall Square in 1790, the first execution by the new United States government. However, you’re more likely to hear that the biggest crowd in Portland gathered spontaneously in the streets upon the announcement of the end of World War II. That, they say, was a party.

We were one of the first states to abolish capital punishment. The last execution was in 1855, when Daniel Wilkinson died a horrific death of strangulation because of a poorly tied noose.

There are so many aspects of Maine to examine. Its people are equally fascinating, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to Edna St. Vincent Millay to Stephen King. I maintain that, of all the Mainers who have ever lived, the one who will be best remembered on our 300th anniversary is Stephen King. How cool is that?

Thanks to a piece of what I call Bill-Green-bad-luck, the Maine Bicentennial Commission had the misfortune of planning a kickoff event for almost the very day that the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Maine.

However, this group of party-givers is to be commended. There is a little something for everyone in our history and, pandemic be darned, the party will continue into our 201st year. That’s appropriate—we need at least two years to celebrate all that we are.

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