by Sally W. Rand
There has been concern for many years about the tradition that papers were signed in 1820 in Freeport making it the “Birthplace of Maine.” No verification for this claim has been found, despite the bronze plaque dedicated by the DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution, in 1915, and placed at the Jameson-Codman Tavern on Freeport’s Main Street. When the authors of Three Centuries of Freeport published their book in 1940, they devoted an entire chapter to the question of “Freeport and Maine Independence,” concluding the invalidity of the claim, but this unsubstantiated story has lingered on. Without sources, this legend does not stand up to scrutiny.
The struggle to set the District of Maine free from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts began in 1784 shortly after the American Revolution. A series of meetings and conventions in the first phase of the effort lacked sufficient strength to succeed. However, the population of the District grew shortly after Revolution, and the stage was set for a new try. The separationists rallied under the new Democratic-Republican Party, whose stronghold was in the Kennebec Valley Region. The opposition was focused in the Federalist party whose members came primarily from the settled communities along the coast.
The Federalists had many members involved in the merchant class and the shipping business. According to historian Roland Banks in his book Maine Becomes A State, their consistent objection to separation from Massachusetts stemmed from the “Coasting Act” passed by Congress in 1789, requiring all coasting vessels to enter and clear a custom house (and pay a fee) both coming and going in every state, except states that were contiguous with the state from which the vessel hailed. The “Coasting Act” was revised in February 1819, allowing vessels to go from Portland to Savannah, for instance, without having to enter and clear. This action removed the major objection to separation, although some coastal communities remained adamant in their opposition, including Freeport.
In the spring of 1819, 125 out of 130 towns in the District of Maine petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature (the “General Court”) for another vote on the question of separation to be taken in the District. This was done and then approved by the Governor on June 19, 1819. On July 26, the vote of the citizens of the District took place, with every county voting in favor of separation. A constitutional convention then met in Portland in October 1819. The bill making Maine a separate state was signed by President Monroe on March 3, 1820, and on March 15, 1820, all ties with Massachusetts were severed.
Just before the final vote on July 26, there was a flurry of broadsides and letters published both for and against separation. The Maine Historical Society in Portland has in its collection three of these broadsides. One of them was also published in the Portland Gazette, a Federalist newspaper, on Tuesday, July 20, 1819 with the title “NO SEPARATION-this time!!”, reporting on an opposition meeting held in Freeport, and addressed to “The People of Maine.” It was signed by Robert H. Gardiner, Jacob Abbot, Ammi R. Mitchell, John A. Hyde, Josiah Pierce, Dudley Todd, Samuel Fessenden, Edward Russell, Stephen Longfellow Jr., Josiah W. Mitchell, William O. Vaughn, Banjamin Orr, William R. Stockbridge, Joseph M’Keen, William Barrows, John W. Mellen, and Benjamin Dunning. While several of the signers were well known as prominent citizens and ardent Federalists in the District, included were leading citizens of Freeport, Ammi and Josiah Mitchell, Dr. John Angier Hyde, and possibly William Stockbridge. At least two of the latter were, had been or would be selectmen of the town.
Among other complaints, this broadside railed against the requirement in the Act of Separation for the appointment of commissioners to negotiate over the division of public lands. Once the new state was established in the spring of 1820, a Joint Commission was appointed by Maine and Massachusetts to carry out this provision. The Commission met many times in Boston, Portland, Bangor and Augusta between 1821 and 1827, but their records show no meeting in Freeport, as claimed by the DAR in 1915, nor, being appointed following statehood, could they have signed papers make Maine a State.
Nor should Freeport continue to claim to be the “Birthplace of Maine.” Although the proponents’ numbers rose steadily, Freeport voted against separation at least five times, doubtless due to local shipping interests. In addition, some of Freeport’s leading citizens signed a petition against separation just prior to the final vote. The Town of Freeport has much to be proud of, but the evidence indicates this is one claim it cannot make.
Debunking the Myth
The legend that Freeport is the birthplace of Maine has long been controversial, and there are those who will defend this allegation and those who will challenge this story.
When the Daughters of the American Revolution erected the bronze tablet at the Codman Tavern in 1914, it only further cemented this interesting but inaccurate story in local citizen’s memories. This 1920s brochure for tourists summarizes the local lore version that many continue to hold fast to.
The Codman Tavern, now known as Jameson Tavern & Restaurant, remains an important architectural landmark in Freeport worthy of preservation, despite debunking the myth.
Freeport’s voting record during the six elections regarding Separation of the District of Maine from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1792 – 1819
Year For Against
1792 0 85
1797 9 104
1807 no return filed
1816 May 59 107
1816 Sept. 74 160
1819 103 107
The legend exaggerating Freeport’s true role in Maine statehood was further perpetuated by the sale of collectible china. Souvenir china was imported from Germany for sale in local dry goods store in the late 19th century along with numerous other styles of china, needle cases and thimbles.