07/30/2011

Slavery and Maine

Samuel Gorton, founder of Warwick R.I., anti-slavery legislator

I had put off researching my family history for years, unwilling to discover  ancestors who kept slaves. Instead, I was surprised and pleased to find none.  In fact, I discovered many who were decidedly anti-slavery, including Rhode Island founder and eighth great grandfather Samuel Gorton, who wrote America’s first anti-slavery legislation in 1651. This radical bill proposed that all slaves be set free after 10 years of service. It was passed, but not enforced.

Still, it’s easy to fall into the belief that New England was slave-free. It was not. In the big picture, New England’s slave population was a drop in the bucket compared to southern colonies, and the slave population in the southern colonies was in turn a drop in the bucket compared to the Caribbean.  Also, our Puritan background moderated our treatment of slaves somewhat and the abolition of slavery happened in New England long before the Civil War. By the time Maine separated from Massachusetts in 1820, Massachusetts had been slavery-free since 1783, so you could say that Maine was never a slave state.

Samuel Fressenden, Portland's anti-slavery activist, from mainememory.net

But the truth is a bit more nuanced. Remember, Maine was a busy trade center. We built ships, traded for rum, molasses and cotton and turned the cotton into cloth in our many river-powered mills. Sea captains put down roots in Searsport and other coastal towns. Their livelihood, as well as those of boatbuilders, mill and dock workers depended upon slaves at the other end of the voyage.  Compare these attitudes with frontier farmers in upstate New York who had to compete with slavery-subsidized agriculture from the South, and it’s easy to see how Harriet Tubman, who organized the underground railroad, lived in the middle of New York, not Maine.

Though slow to rock the boat of institutional slavery, Maine had an active anti-slavery movement from 1834, when the Maine Anti-Slavery Society was formed in Portland.  It existed to educate the public about the evils of slavery and the need for abolition, but meetings were often poorly attended or attended by hostile crowds.  After 1850 however, the anti-slavery movement took root in Maine and hostilities towards it’s messengers largely ceased. Among notable Mainers in the movement was Elijah Parish Lovejoy (1802-1837), born in Albion and a graduate of Waterville College (now Colby College), he became a martyr to the movement when his printing press was thrown into the Mississippi River and he was shot dead in Illinois.

Joshua Chamberlain, from mainememory.net

But before abolitionism became universal in Maine, there were pockets of slavery supporters, or at least agnostics, and they called themselves “Nebraskans”.  This odd moniker derived from the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed settlers of those two states to choose whether they wished to be slave or free states. Residents of a portion of Biddeford, Maine called their area Nebraska and took their stand for free choice.

Though slow to embrace abolitionism, Maine became a full member of the Union effort in the Civil War and produced famed lieutenant colonel Joshua Chamberlain, Bowdoin College professor and later governor; but he’s a subject for a future post. Find much Maine history on line at http://www.mainememory.net

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Comments on Slavery and Maine

[…] Originally Posted by pgm123 This is true, but even in areas without heavy immigration (take Maine, e.g.), slavery grew out of practice. Also, the earliest attempts at banning slavery occurred before heavy immigration took place and before heavy industrialization. There was a good economic argument for ending slavery in the North, but it wasn't from industrialization. It's just that the long winters made labor-intensive agriculture less important and slaves were a financial drain in the winter. Slaves were more of a status symbol. The normative argument seems to have mattered more. Pennsylvania was the first to free slaves, but in a way that took a long time. Massachusetts, on the other hand, freed slaves almost immediately and the Yankee states followed suit. New York state was controlled by Yankees, but New York City was not. So, the state outlawed slavery and the rich New Yorkers simply moved their slaves to New Jersey. New Jersey had slavery until 1865, although they changed the name to "servitude for life" well before that. There were only 20 or so slaves left in Jersey at that time, though. For a quick history, this link is helpful: Slavery in the North, Washington, and Oney Judge This one is pretty good too: Slavery in the North Maine was part of Massachusetts up until 1820 and subsequently followed Ma anti-slavery statute. Maine did benefit substantially in the shipping end of the slave trade. Slavery and Maine […]