Consolidating the Republic
Separation and Ratification of the Constitution in Maine
From a paper presented at the Bicentennial Conference on Shays’s Rebellion and the Constitution, 1986, sponsored by Historic Deerfield, Inc.
In February 1788 William Widgery described the events surrounding the ratification of the Federal Constitution in Boston, where he had been a delegate to the ratifying convention from the town of New Gloucester in Maine. His letter reflected the feelings of relief and joyous harmony that prevailed once the tense, bitter debate ended. He described the celebratory procession led by a federal ship of state erected on a sled hauled by thirteen horses followed by tradesmen according to their crafts and professions. Merchants followed behind another replica of a full-rigged vessel drawn by thirteen more horses, and next in line a similar number of horses dragged still another sled carrying a miniature shipyard and several small vessels. After visiting the homes of Boston’s convention delegates, the procession returned to Faneuil Hall to enjoy several hogsheads of punch, wine cakes, and cheese. The marchers then proceeded on to the State House, where they fired a thirteen-gun salute. Widgery went on to note that although he had been an outspoken, indeed a leading, opponent of ratification, “I most Tel you I was never Treated with So much politeness in my Life as I was afterwards by the Tradesmen of Boston[,] Merchants & every other Gentleman.”68 For virtually everyone, the fight was over and the issue closed. Widgery publicly proclaimed he would return to New Gloucester to point out that he had fought the good fight but had been overruled by a majority of “wise and understanding men.”69
One notable exception to this spirit of harmony and goodwill was a convention delegate from Topsham, Maine, named Samuel Thompson, who, along with Widgery, had played a leading part in opposing ratification. Widgery’s letter, in fact, had expressed concern over Thompson’s behavior, and several other persons echoed his misgivings. Thompson apparently had refused to accept the convention vote as final. He “had entered too deeply into the Opposition, to think he might be mistaken,” wrote one; “his Zeal, to render it efficatious needs the Addition of good Sense, Lear[n]ing & prudence.”70 Another writer warned that Thompson, whom he called “Ursa Major,” threatened to spread Antifederalist sentiment among the delegates to the ratifying convention in New Hampshire.71 This rumor was corroborated by another who added the alarming news that Thompson was taking his Antifederalist campaign into the “western Counties,” the very heart of the recent Shays’s Rebellion, as well as to New Hampshire.72 In genuine fear one of Thompson’s acquaintances urged a mutual friend:
Do for God’s sake write him once more—he conducts as if the Devil has possessed him. His opposition to the New Constitution continues.—When he left Boston, his last words were—I will throw the State into Confusion—It is true, these were great swelling words; but he may do a great deal of mischief,—Can not you contrive a letter that will do him good?—For I do not believe Thompson to be a man of a bad heart—Should you tell him that the Constitution with the proposed amendments, which will certainly take place, will operate less injuriously than many suppose—that other amendments if found necessary will certainly take place—that you admire the submissive conduct of the minority etc. etc.—(richly interlarding the whole with Republicanism)—something of this kind might be serviceable.73
A portrait of Samuel Thompson begins to emerge: stocky and pugnacious (Ursa Major), outspoken to the point of belligerency, a man of violent action, convinced of his own rectitude, and ardently republican. Among the leaders of society, he seemed to arouse feelings of contempt and fear. Thompson symbolized turbulent, levelling, antiauthoritarian republicanism. In the late 1780s in Maine that meant “Shaysism.” An awareness of potential violence hung heavy over Maine and tainted the political scene, especially the movement to separate Maine from Massachusetts and efforts to ratify the Federal Constitution. To opponents of separation and to Maine’s Federalists, the political career of Samuel Thompson seemed to epitomize and even to link a triad of disunion: separation—state disunion, Antifederalism—national disunion, and Shaysism—social disunion.
From the beginning of the American Revolution Samuel Thompson had been a threat to conservative Whig leaders who were trying to conduct an orderly separation from Britain. Agitation preceding the war had provided Thompson with an opportunity to rise above merely local prominence as tavern keeper and officeholder in the town of Brunswick. Despite his lack of formal education and a pronounced tendency to stutter when excited, his fellow townsmen sent him as their delegate to county congresses and to the Provincial Congress in Boston, which appointed him lieutenant colonel, later colonel of militia, and named him chairman of the Committee of Safety for Cumberland County.74 In 1774 and 1775 Thompson assumed a quasi-legitimate responsibility for enforcing the embargo against Britain, called the Solemn League and Covenant. He led his Brunswick militiamen into the towns of Wiscasset, Pownalborough, and then Georgetown, where he seized “contraband,” humiliated suspected Tories, and even exacted oaths from the justices of the county court that they would reject British authority.75
He also intruded into the affairs of Falmouth, Maine’s leading seaport. The town’s chief men were engaged in delicate negotiations with a British merchant who, protected by the guns of a British man-of-war, was flouting the embargo. Impatient with Falmouth’s lack of action, Thompson and his men captured the British naval commander while he was walking on the beach—and almost precipitated a civil war with the outraged townsmen fearful of British retaliation. Thompson eventually released his captive, who sailed away leaving the town unharmed and its leading men complaining bitterly to the Provincial Congress about Thompson’s illegal actions. Falmouth’s worst fears came true in October 1775, when a British fleet arrived and punished the town by destroying two-thirds of its buildings and virtually all of its merchant fleet. While Falmouth burned, militia from Scarborough, Gorham, and Brunswick arrived on the scene, but rather than defend the town against the British, they proceeded to plunder the houses and possessions of those who had fled.76
With considerable justice, the citizens of Falmouth blamed Samuel Thompson for the destruction of their town. Shortly afterwards they were understandably dismayed to learn that Thompson had received a commission as brigadier general of militia for all Cumberland County—including Falmouth. When the new brigadier general appeared suspiciously slow in providing Falmouth with a garrison against British attack, the town tried to engineer his removal from office on grounds of incompetence. Thompson, however, led a charmed political life, and he emerged from the war unscathed though unpopular with the District’s leading Whigs.77
After the war’s end, General Thompson moved from Brunswick across the Androscoggin to Topsham, where he operated a ferry and ran a tavern and store, as well as several sawmills, while speculating in land. He continued his active political career by representing his new town in the state legislature, and in 1785 the townsmen of Topsham elected him as their delegate to a gathering in Portland to consider separation from Massachusetts—and to succeeding conventions as well.78
This first postwar movement to separate the District of Maine from Massachusetts began in 1785, when a group of residents prominent in the Falmouth-Gorham area initiated a newspaper campaign calling for a general meeting to discuss the matter. The instigators included a group of Falmouth merchants, notably Stephen Hall, Enoch Ilsley, Samuel Freeman, and Peleg Wadsworth (celebrated for his distinguished military record). They were joined by the editor of the Falmouth (later Cumberland) Gazette, Thomas Wait, two Congregational clergymen, and two leading citizens of nearby Gorham.
More than one commentator described the group as chiefly composed of men looking for positions of profit in the new state.79 With the District’s population expanding from 56,300 to 96,500 in the six years following the war, such motives seem reasonable.80 Several newspaper articles even more pointedly suggested that Falmouth (renamed Portland in 1786) might be the capital of the new state. Following the Revolution, Falmouth/Portland reemerged very rapidly from its wartime devastation. In 1784 an inhabitant recorded in his diary that forty-one houses, eleven stores, six shops and four barns had been built that year alone, and “strangers (traders and others) crowd in among us surprisingly.” The next year he reported thirty-three new dwellings.81 The newspaper reflected the booster spirit by publishing an acrostic on the name Falmouth which included this last couplet:
Till (what no doubt will be her prosp’rous fate)
Herself’s the mistress of a rising state.82
Maine and Falmouth would rise together.
The most immediate problem facing the secessionists was how to generate and organize popular support for their scheme. They seized upon the traditional means of popular expression sanctioned by the Revolution—the convention. After a planning conference in October 1785, the separatists organized what became a series of conventions from January 1786 to March 1789. Much opinion was expressed in the newspapers and private correspondence over the size and shape of the new government, and especially concerning the legality of separation and of the methods used to achieve it. The entire debate occurred within the context of unrest and violence leading to Shays’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, all faithfully reported in the local newspaper.
As early as December 1785, the town of York refused to participate in the convention on grounds of its prior loyalty to the state constitution and for fear of stirring up civil discord.83 Opposition to separation and to conventions became more vehement as news from western Massachusetts grew more alarming. Late in August 1786, while mobs in Northampton and then in Worcester were closing courts, a Portland town meeting elected delegates to a separation convention, only to have a second meeting instruct them “to oppose every measure that might be taken to establish a new Government,” for it was not a “proper time” to hold conventions with the western part of the state “but a step from anarchy—that we should but add to the confusion—that Conventions, at all times, were dangerous things, and always so considered by the General Court.”84
The General Court, indeed, had expressed itself in no uncertain terms regarding the separation movement. Governor James Bowdoin called it “a design against the Commonwealth, of very evil tendency, being calculated for the purpose of effecting the dismemberment of it.”85 The legislature responded that it felt the “danger and impropriety of individuals, or bodies of men, attempting to dismember the state—The social compact solemnly entered into by the people of this Commonwealth, ought, we conceive, to be attended to and guarded with the utmost care; and it shall ever be the aim of this Legislature, to prevent any infraction upon it, and preserve it entire.”86
Not all opinion from Massachusetts was hostile. Several letters in the Falmouth Gazette, presumably from Worcester and even Boston, suggested that separating Maine from the rest of the state would allow the legislature to be moved to a more central location, such as Worcester, “free from the hurry, noise, and confusion which necessarily disturb its deliberations in large and populous sea ports.”87 A writer from Boston declared emphatically that the state capital would have been moved westward long ago had it not been for Maine’s distance from Boston and the injustice of moving it still farther. The entire state of Massachusetts twenty miles and more west of Boston was anxious for the removal of the General Court. “Their wish to be better accommodated is as ardent as yours,” the author continued, “and they as well know that your Independence would accomplish it.”88 Such promises of support from western Massachusetts became counterproductive as protest in the western counties turned to mob violence and military confrontation. Then, opponents of separation eagerly resurrected these same arguments as a means of discrediting the movement and its die-hard supporters with the stigma of Shaysism.
Opinions tended to polarize between those who denounced conventions as dangerous and unconstitutional and their defenders, who tried to draw distinctions between legitimate conventions and those that were illegitimate. One commentator justified mobs and conventions against parliamentary tyranny during the Revolution but condemned the small minority of unredeemed Tories who were trying to subvert the present voluntary, sacred compact “which holds us in one society.”89 The editor of the Cumberland Gazette, Thomas Wait, agreed that the westerners were acting in an “unconstitutional, riotous, not to say treasonable manner,” yet the separation movement in Maine was “moving with manly firmness towards the Grand Object in view, yet with all that precaution and prudence necessary to ensure the confidence of their constituents, the good will and attention of Government, and Success in the end.” Wait pointed out that the movement in Maine differed from that in the western counties, and he warned his readers to keep their fingers out of that “State Pudding” and not “rush off to butcher their Berkshire Brethren.”90
Another writer, who called himself “Senex,” accepted the theoretical necessity of conventions to instruct delegates and to petition the government but condemned those gatherings downeast as well as in the west whose purposes were either to alter or dismember free government. Indeed, Senex went on to point out that the separation movement in Maine was even more dangerous than the unrest in western Massachusetts in that the westerners merely wanted an alteration of government and redress of grievances; by contrast, the so-called peaceable and orderly conventions in Portland sought to dissolve the government. The Shaysites, he pointed out, “declare certain parts” of the constitution are grievances; the separationists claim “it’s very existence is one.”91
The argument led Senex into a public debate with “Scribble-Scrabble” over whether Article 19 of the state’s Declaration of Rights, which guaranteed the right of assembly and petition to instruct delegates and to seek redress of grievances, included the right to meet in convention. Senex urged a progressively narrower interpretation of the Massachusetts constitution. By late winter and early spring 1786, as western unrest erupted into rebellion, Senex was arguing that conventions were not specifically permitted by Article 19, and so were illegal and unconstitutional. In rejoinder, Scribble-Scrabble pointed out that the people had never surrendered their right to meet in conventions; therefore such gatherings were perfectly consistent with the constitution.92
Opponents of separation were not successful in preventing a convention in January 1786, another in September following, and an entire series of them down to 1789; yet concern over Shays’s Rebellion had a divisive and dampening influence on delegates and their deliberations. The composition of the conventions took on a new ominous meaning in light of western unrest. The cause of separation held little attraction for Maine’s coastal commercial centers. North Yarmouth, Scarborough, Wells, and York were adamantly opposed, and so too was a majority in Portland. In the January 1786 convention, for example, only four towns from York sent representatives and only six from Cumberland County.93 The most populous, wealthiest areas of the District, containing the leading merchants, lawyers, and officeholders, opposed separation or were apathetic to it. On the other hand, the areas where separation gained popular support commanded little respect from political notables. Lincoln County, because of its poverty and alienation, had representation from ten towns.94 The idea of statehood appealed to the newcomers settling the interior towns along the Kennebec River on lands claimed by the Kennebec Proprietors, the heirs of Clarke and Lake, the Pejepscot Company, and, farther downeast, on lands inherited by General Henry Knox, who would soon acquire millions of acres more. The Great Proprietors clashed with the newly arrived settlers, many of whom were squatters taking up and improving land they regarded as their own by virtue of the common effort in the Revolution. In the eyes of the downeast and interior inhabitants, grubbing out a precarious existence in the Maine woods, the Massachusetts legislature was wrong in granting to anyone tracts of land so vast as to create dangerous inequities in the republic. The government of a new state of Maine would be more responsive to the people occupying and improving the land than to the speculators who merely monopolized it.95
Well might the genteel promoters of separation in Portland view their allies with suspicion; they appeared to be the stuff from which Shaysites were made. Indeed, one of the participants later described his fellow delegates from the interior as imbued with the sentiments of genuine insurgents, who “did not hesitate to speak of the senate and the attorney-general as grievances” and sought relief through paper money and legal tender acts.96 Furthermore, Samuel Thompson was among them as their spokesman. The conservative separationists were determined to keep control of the proceedings, and they succeeded in defeating a motion that voting should be by town rather than by head. The interior towns would have controlled the convention had the motion passed. As it was, the southern coastal towns with their more numerous delegates easily outvoted the interior towns, whose poverty limited them to single or even combined delegates.97
In this manner, the more conservative members of the convention controlled the proceedings and shaped the decisions. The results were so temperate as to be almost anticlimatic. The two conventions in 1786 did, indeed, submit to the towns a referendum on separation and an “Appeal to the People,” which assured Mainers that “mysteries in politicks are mere absurdities invented entirely to gratify the ambitions of princes and designing men—to aggrandize those who govern, at the expense of those who are governed.”98 Such potentially radical rhetoric, however, failed to strike much of a spark; the referendum returns supported separation by a two-to-one margin, but only one-third of Maine’s incorporated towns responded. The conservative influence was more evident in the list of grievances and petition to the General Court which the conventions produced. The grievances contained no demands for paper money or stay laws, no philosophical statement of rights to self-government; instead the conventions emphasized the physical difficulties arising from Maine’s isolated location. Distance from Massachusetts made the administration of justice and political representation awkward and expensive and taxation discriminatory. Even if Maine received additional representation, the problems arising from a disadvantageous location would persist; the only solution was a separate state.99 The petition to the General Court was equally restrained; it merely reiterated the list of grievances and humbly requested a separation from Massachusetts, promising an equitable division of public lands and public debt.100
Mild and peaceable the petition might have been, but conservative members of the convention pushed through a motion to withhold the petition for the present “as the commonwealth in general is at this time in a perplexed state, and this convention being unwilling to do anything that shall seem to lay any greater burthen on the General Court.”101 Newspaperman Thomas Wait, an early supporter of separation and defender of conventions, agreed. In an editorial he declared that it would be cruel under the present distressing circumstances “to perplex government with a request of this kind.”102
The radical element did not give up without a struggle. They responded that on the contrary, now, if ever, was the “golden opportunity” to present the petition: “The legislature are now distracted with care and trouble; if we apply to them at this time, they will not dare to refuse our request; and if they do, we can drive them into a compliance, by threatening to join in the insurrection.”103 When one of the Portland delegates remonstrated against such disposition to “perplex the government,” he was told he was “out of his senses.”104
The convention finally compromised by placing the petition into the hands of a committee with discretionary power to submit it to the General Court when it saw fit. The chairman of the committee was Samuel Thompson. Yet even he could not buck the forces of moderation and the news of violence in western Massachusetts. On March 23, 1787, the Cumberland Gazette carried a notice over Thompson’s signature as chairman that the committee had decided, “considering the peculiar embarrassments of government, and the alarming and distressed situation of the Western Counties,” against submitting the petition at that time.105 The conservative separationists clearly controlled the deliberations and actions of the conventions and were determined to keep the movement orderly and peaceable—uncontaminated by association with Shays’s Rebellion.
Shays’s Rebellion was not the only hindrance to separation; the debate over ratification of the Federal Constitution also divided and diverted the movement. Strictly speaking, separation and ratification were separate issues, but in actual fact they were closely intertwined. There was much speculation in Maine how the new constitution might affect separation and what the political consequences of ratification might be.106 General Knox exaggerated somewhat when he declared that the majority in the District would adopt or reject the new constitution as it affected the erection of the new state, yet he saw the connection clearly. From Massachusetts, Christopher Gore urged an influential friend to write to “Eastern people” to relieve their fears that adopting the Constitution would prevent their separation.107 Articles in the Cumberland Gazette also reflected this concern over the relationship between separation and ratification. One writer argued that now was the time to act on behalf of separation before the new government made it more difficult than ever.108 A differing view came from a writer who acknowledged the need to delay separation until the Constitution was ratified. Then, he went on, not only Massachusetts but everyone “this side of Philadelphia” would support it in expectation of adding two more senators “in the northern interest.”109
To the Federalists it became increasingly evident that separatists, Antifederalists, and Shaysites were united in an unholy trinity against political unity and social harmony. In correspondence with each other, Federalists acknowledged that a majority in the District opposed ratification and that Antifederalist sentiment seemed especially to prevail in the interior and eastern towns which had supported separation. One observer commented that the common people in general were opposed, and in Lincoln County in particular, the “middling & common sort,” were “decidedly against” the Constitution.110 Statistics from Van Beck Hall support the alignment: Of the eighteen Maine towns whose delegates voted against ratification, ten had sent representatives to separation conventions at Falmouth. On the other hand, only five of the twenty-one towns whose delegates favored the Constitution had been represented at the Falmouth conventions.111
Gradually distinctions among Antifederalists, separatists, and Shaysites blurred and disappeared. A conservative member of the separation convention referred to his more radically minded colleagues as “genuine insurgents.”112 A Federalist in York County used the terms “Shaysism” and “Antifederalism” interchangeably in describing widespread opposition to the Constitution.113 Another York Federalist, Judge David Sewall, described his opponents as the sort of people who “would degrade a man of Sensibility and Integrity, if it were known and realized he was a genuine Representative of them.”114 By this time distinctions among separatists, Antifederalists, and Shaysites had disappeared. Sewall, who had long been fulminating against conventions and rebellions, tarred them all with the same brush when he described Antifederalists as those who favored paper money and canceling the state debt at depreciated value; as those who were for setting up a new state in Maine, “many of whom reside in Worcester County—for they Suppose if we are disunited Worcester will be the Seat of Government”; and finally as those who “were Shaysites in principle & practice, who are averse to any Government.”115
Several of Maine’s delegates to the ratifying convention in Boston seemed almost to confirm Sewall’s stereotype, none more so than Samuel Thompson from Topsham, Revolutionary radical and veteran of the separation movement. In the ratifying convention he spoke frequently and violently against the proposed constitution. Occasionally he interrupted debate, and more than once he had to be called to order by the chair. His arguments comprise a classic statement of Antifederalism rooted in the conviction that the framers of the Constitution at Philadelphia had exceeded their authority in failing to amend the Confederation and in trying to replace it with a “national consolidation” which would inevitably lead to tyranny.116
Not only was the new consolidated frame of government unconstitutional, but, Thompson argued, it placed in the hands of fallible men unlimited power to legislate, tax, regulate trade, and maintain a standing army. Thompson expressed surprise that his Federalist colleagues had no fear of entrusting “our federal rulers” with such power. He reminded his listeners of the everyday message of the clergy, “who are continually representing mankind as reprobate and deceitful, and that we really grow worse day after day.” To prove his point, Thompson drew examples from the Old Testament and then concluded with a flourish, “Sir, I suspect my own heart, and I shall suspect our rulers.”117
At various times Thompson suggested ways to assure a more responsible Congress. One would be to require a property qualification for election, for he said, “when men have nothing to lose, they have nothing to fear.” One of the Federalists could not resist the opportunity to express surprise that someone who so vigorously advocated popular rights should wish to exclude from government “a good man because he was not a rich one.”118 Thompson was on sounder ground when he emphasized the need for a bill of rights, “which shall check the power of Congress, which shall say, Thus far shall ye come, and no farther.”119 Annual elections would also serve to restrain even bad men in government. Thompson brushed away the examples from classical history to which his more learned colleagues alluded; “but I am, sir, acquainted with the history of my own country.” He proceeded to point out how annual elections had saved the state of Massachusetts by declaring that if the previous state administration had remained in power one year more, “our liberties would have been lost, and the country involved in blood.”120 At this an outcry arose in the convention; the chair had to call Thompson to order and then permit a recess to allow tempers to cool.
The whole process of ratification aroused Thompson’s ire. What would happen, he asked, if three or four states failed to ratify? Would the others use force, and would this not then break up the Union rather than bind it closer? He pleaded for several months’ delay in accepting this new, dangerous frame of government, time to consider amendments to the old Confederation.121 At least, he argued, ratification of the new constitution ought to have been submitted to the towns rather than to a convention so that the people themselves could express their minds. Had that been done, he clearly implied that public opinion would have run strongly against ratification, and would the convention then have dared to act contrary to the popular will?122
Finally, Thompson expressed his abhorrence that the new constitution recognized the institution of slavery and even gave it political representation. How, he asked, could a people who had just won their freedom enslave others? George Washington was as bad as the rest. “O! Washington,” Thompson exclaimed, “What a name has he had! How he has immortalized himself! But he holds those in slavery who have as good a right to be free as he has. He is still for self; and, in my opinion, his character has sunk fifty percent.”123
Although Thompson and his Antifederalist allies failed to block or even to delay ratification, their opposition did force the Federalists to propose ratification that would recommend several amendments—a compromise later followed by many other states. This strategy persuaded enough opponents to shift their position so the Federalists could manage a narrow victory of 187 to 168; by four votes, 25 to 21, the Maine delegation supported the majority. Thompson saw the danger and stoutly resisted the amendments, insisting the convention had no right to propose them. He himself would not vote in favor, even though some men might be persuaded to do so, men whom Thompson implied were no better than so many Judases.124
The difference of only four votes was not especially representative of Maine’s real sentiments. At least fourteen eligible towns failed to send delegates, probably registering their opposition to the constitution in this money-saving but self-defeating manner. Furthermore, at least one Antifederalist delegate, Nathaniel Barrell, of York, submitted to intense pressure from Federalist relatives and switched his vote at the last minute.125 Federalist leaders had good reason to be concerned over the palpable Antifederalist groundswell in Maine, but through a combination of good fortune and good management, they carried the day.
Snarling and bitter, Thompson took no part in the celebration following ratification and the conclusion of the convention. Yet despite his threats and the fears of acquaintances, he never did go to the western counties to rekindle the embers of Shays’s Rebellion or to New Hampshire to block ratification there. Instead, he resumed his seat in the General Court as representative from Topsham and tried to rekindle the movement to separate Maine from Massachusetts. In January 1789 the General Court finally took up the petition for separation—the very same petition which the committee, chaired by Thompson, had submitted almost two years before. As a member of the legislature, Thompson now could defend “his” petition and the idea of separation, aided by his old Antifederalist ally, William Widgery and other diehards. Defeat was a foregone conclusion; the most that the separatists could hope for was to have the petition tabled so that it might be taken up again at some later date. Opponents tried to have the petition killed outright by arguing the separation conventions and petition were not representative of the people.126 To this, Maine separationists pointedly replied that the number of people in Maine supporting statehood probably exceeded the number supporting the Federal Constitution. Thompson added that by including Maine, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was simply too large for effective administration, and the government could do its business more effectively without the eastern counties. Thompson went on to say that whereas he had formerly opposed the Federal Constitution, he now supported it and that under this new frame of government it made sense to separate Maine in order to increase the northern representation in the national congress: “and as we have the ‘trumps’ in our hands, we ought . . . to make the best possible use of them.”127 On January 22, 1789, Thompson and his allies enjoyed a victory of sorts when the General Court reluctantly accepted the recommendation that “the respectability of the Eastern Counties demanded so much compliance as that the petition should lay on the files.”128
Separation was all but dead; it expired at what proved to be the last of the Portland conventions in March 1789. Attendance had been dwindling at the previous conventions until at this final one only three delegates arrived. Having elected one of their number president, another one clerk, there was no one to second the motion made by the third to adjourn; the movement came to an end.129 It would revive and subside several times more before finally reaching fruition in 1820, but for the time being it appeared to be over. Shays’s Rebellion had tainted the movement and split the leadership, and ratification drove the wedge yet further.
Important as were Shays’s Rebellion and ratification in the failure of the movement for Maine statehood, that movement actually was doomed from the very start. An economic dependency on Massachusetts, a General Court willing to make concessions for Maine, and an undeveloped sense of regional identity would have undermined the separation movement in any case. Shays and ratification were important chiefly as divisive and diversionary influences. The shadow of Shays’s Rebellion, “Shaysism,” provided a useful political tool and an epithet—an eighteenth-century version of Bolshevism. Federalists and those hostile to Maine statehood used “Shaysism” to discredit separation and Antifederalism, while supporters of an independent Maine used it to pressure the government.
Maine produced no Shaysites—least of all Samuel Thompson, despite his reputation for radicalism and his “great swelling words,” which so alarmed his acquaintances. He never did advocate physical violence against the state or closing the courts, nor did he advocate radical economic measures such as paper money and stay laws. As the owner of a tavern, a store, and sawmills, as a speculator in land and even a canal, he must have found little attraction in economic radicalism.130 He was a successful entrepreneur in a region growing in population and in potential. This set off the eastern counties of Massachusetts from the western ones. The western ones had enjoyed prosperity during the war only to see it disappear with the war’s end, leading to frustration, despair, and armed violence. In Maine the war years brought suffering and devastation. The postwar years, despite depression and economic dislocation, held a promise of better times, as Thompson’s career shows. Optimism in Maine’s future was the basis for immigration into Maine and the separation movement. After the collapse of the initial effort in 1789, the movement revived and, with the continued participation of Samuel Thompson, produced more conventions and another referendum in the 1790s.131 Thompson was never a Shaysite, but he was a persistent separationist until he died in 1798.
Maine’s interior squatters and farmers, isolated, burdened with debt, harassed by proprietary agents and court officers, should have provided fertile ground for the seeds of Shaysism. For the time being, however, they found an alternative to radicalism and organized violence in the promise of separation and Maine’s statehood. If Shaysism—and ratification—undermined the separation movement, so did that movement with its promise of statehood dilute the appeal of Shays. It is significant that once the interior settlers lost their faith and confidence in the movement for statehood, they drifted into their own brand of violence and radicalism during the 1790s—but by then, Shays’s Rebellion no longer threatened. The first separation movement, although ultimately a failure, proved to be as much a deterrent to Shaysism in Maine as was the threat of Shays to separation.