Bowdoin Historian Highlights Maine’s Debt to Slavery

Brian Purnell, Geoffrey Canada Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History

In two years, Maine will turn two hundred years old. Amid the birthday celebrations, Bowdoin’s Brian Purnell, an associate professor of history and Africana studies, asks that we consider the state’s indebtedness to slavery for its origins. In particular, he suggests we honor the five legislators who in 1820 opposed the key compromise that led to the formation of Maine.

“Maine owes its statehood to slavery,” Purnell writes in Portland Monthly magazine. Congress agreed to carve off a hunk of Massachusetts for a new free state in a compromise that allowed the entry of Missouri as a slave state. “If Missouri permitted slavery, the South would control twelve states to North’s eleven and disrupt a tenuous balance of power,” Purnell writes. “Maine provided a solution for the dilemma Missouri caused.”

From this deal emerged a rule for slavery’s future. Missouri’s border became the wall separating slaveholding states from non-slaveholding states. “Maine’s independence strengthened slavery elsewhere,” Purnell says. In the following decades, the spread of slavery in the U.S. “destroyed black families…, perpetuated rape and sexual violence, separated babies from parents, and promoted citizenship based on white racial purity.”

So, as the state celebrates its two hundred-year history and its contribution to the Civil War and keeping the nation intact, Purnell suggests that that Maine’s bicentennial offers a reminder that “compromising on evil has incalculable costs.” He asks for a formal recognition of the five Maine Congressmen (out of seven) who voted against the Missouri Compromise and Maine’s independence.

“Maine occupies a unique position in the nation’s history. It can name as heroes in a bicentennial celebration legislators who stood against its independence,” Purnell writes. “They knew that freedom that promoted slavery was not freedom at all, and not worth the price. In commemorating them, we can build the courage to follow their lead on current issues of consequence.”

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