Little Talks #1313, May 9, 1982
At the close of the second session of Maine’s 110th Legislature.
it may be well to note th~ laws that Maine passed in its first legislative
session in 1820.
The first codification of Maine laws was published directly after
the adjournment of the Legislature in 1821. Produced in two large volumes.
it gave not only the laws enacted by Maine in the two sessions of 1820
and 1821. but also certain laws of Massachusetts that continued to be
effective in Maine. One of the first acts considered by the Lesiglature
in 1820 concerned the institution that is now Colby College. That first,
Maine legislature recognized the acts of the Massachusetts Legislature
that in 1813 had created the Maine Literary and Theological Institution, and
in 1815 had granted it a township of land; then it added its own enactment
on April 19, 1820, granting the institution authority to confer degrees, a
power that had been withheld by the Massachusetts Legislature. In the
next session, on February 5, 1821. it changed the name of the institution
to Waterville College.
The Maine Legislature did, however. place certain restrictions
upon the college. Aware that Baptists had started the college, the legislators
decreed that membership on the board of trustees should not be
restricted to any religious denomination, and that no student should be
deprived of any privileges of the institution on the grounds that his
interpretation of scripture differed from that of the founders.
That provision was in fact unnecessary. The man who had guided the
original legislation through the Massachusetts Senate was William King, who later
became Maine’s first governor. Though a Congregationalist, he was elected a
trustee of the institution. The man who had been most responsible for
locating the college in Waterville was Timothy Boutelle, another Congregationalist.
He was made the first treasurer of the college. One of the
first students admitted to the literary, as distinct from the theological
department, was the son of the Episcopal rector at Gardiner. Colby College
has always been able to state that, from its very beginning, no restrictions
regarding religion have been placed on the admission of any student.
The 1821 Legislature also favored the college in another respect.
It voted an annual appropropriation toward maintenance of the college
of $1,000 a year for a period of five years.
When Maine became a separate state in 1820, churches were not
recognized as business institutions entitled to hold real estate and
trust funds. That had led to the formation of legal, corporate
religious societies that built and maintained the meetinghouses and controlled
permanent funds. Not until 1900 were churches permitted to incorporate
as business institutions. Thus, when it was decided to erect in Waterville
a meetinghouse for the Baptists in 1825, there was created, along with the
Waterville Baptist Church a parallel organization, the Waterville Baptist
Society that raised money by sale of pews, put up the building, and continued
to maintain it until the beginning of the twentieth century.
The legal incorporation of religious societies was made possible
by a law passed by the Maine Legislature in 1821, only four years before the
Baptist Society was organized in Waterville. That law said: “Any persons
21 years of age or upwards desiring to incorporate themselves as a religious
society shall be permitted so to incorporate. Such society shall have the
power to take by gift or purchase any estate real or personal, and to
maintain or sell the same; and it may at any legal meeting vote such monies
as it shall deem necessary for the support of public worship in its building,
and assess its members for the expense.
The law contained this interesting provision: “All monies paid by a
tax on pews, for support of worship rather than for upkeep of the building,
shall, at the taxpayer’s request, be paid to such teachers of his own religious
sect as he shall designate.”
When Maine became a state, Massachusetts had already relaxed many
of its severe penalties for crime. It was no longer possible to hang a 10-year
old boy for stealing a loaf of bread, as it had been in England during the
17th century. From its beginning Maine established only two capital crimes:
murder and treason. But for other crimes maximum sentences could be long:
for manslaughter, fifteen years; for assault with a dangerous weapon,
twenty years; for rape, fifteen years; for” adultery, five years. The
same five year penalty could be pronounced also for blasphemy, defined
as taking the name of the Lord in vain.
The crime of arson, setting fire to property, has always been
regarded as especially heinous. Our first legislature decreed that its
punishment should be imprisonment for life.
It is often thought that in 1820 no one paid any attention to
objections to gambling. That is not true. Maine’s very first laws dealt
with games of chance. The law said: “Any notes or mortgages for any
money or other valuable thing won at games of cards, dice, or any other
game of chance, or by betting on the side, shall be void and have no effect.”
Any person losing to another person at a game of chance shall be at liberty
to sue and recover by legal action to be commenced within three months after
losing and paying the same.
Then the law continued to cut even deeper. “Any person who shall
be convicted of winning from any other person. by gaming or betting. money
or goods exceeding three dollars in value shall forfeit double the amount
of money or goods, one-half of which shall be paid to the town in which the
offense was committed.”
A person did not have to be actually gambling to violate the law.
One clause of the statute said: “Any person found sitting at a table where
gambling is going on in any tavern or house of entertainment, shall forfeit
ten dollars to the poor of the town.”
In the early days of our republic dueling was common. The most
famous of early American duels caused the death of Alexander Hamilton from
the pistol fired by Aaron Burr, and a few years later an early Maine Congressman.
Jonathan Cilley of Thomaston, was killed in a duel. However, the
very first laws of Maine saw a statute against dueling. It said: “Anyone
engaging in a duel in which no harm occurs shall be prosecuted for felonious
assault and shall be disqualified for twenty years from holding any office
or trust under the state after his conviction. If. in a duel, a homicide
occurs, the one inflicting it shall be tried for manslaughter.”
Maine’s first laws had something to say about Indians. “The Governor
shall appoint for one or more, but not exceeding three years, persons to be
agents for the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy Indians. The agents shall have
care of property for use and benefit of those tribes. All contracts relating
to the sale of trees, timber or grass growing on Indian lands, and all lease
of such lands which may be obtained from the Indians shall be void unless the
same shall be offered by the agent; and no such contract shall be effective
for more than one year.. The agent shall permit sale of trees or timber on
the lands of either tribe in an amount not exceeding $800 in anyone year.
The agent is empowered to recover for damge to the Indian property. and all
such receipts shall be distributed among Indians of the tribe.”
In 1820 it was common to bind out children to work for someone else until
the age of. 21 for boys and 18 for girls. They were technially called indentured
children, and· this is what the law said: “The Overseers of the Poor of any
town are empowered to bind out by deed of indenture any male or female children
whose parents have become chargeable paupers of the town, to any citizens
of this state, such indentures to be to the age of 21 for males and the age
of 18 for females, or earlier if the female is married. Such indentures insure
the right of the children to have instruction in learning to read, write and
cypher. It shall be the duty of the Overseers of the Poor to inquire into the
usage of children so bound out and to defend them from injuries. On proof of
misllsage.-’ or abuse, a bound-out child shall be released from his master and
bound out anew to some other person.”
The indenture law extended beyond children. It could be used against
the adult paupers themselves. It said: “The Overseers of the Poor shall
have power to set to work, or bind out to service, for a term not exceeding
one year, persons over 21 years of age, married or unmarried, as are able in
body but have no visible means of support, who live idly and exercise no lawful
trade or business to get their living. Overseers of the Poor are also
empowered to set to work, under their own direction, any debtor committed to
prison, but no such debtor shall be required to labor more than is necessary
to pay for his support in prison.”
That statute shows that, when Maine enacted its first laws in 1820,
it continued the Massachusetts law authorizing imprisonment for debt; but
in Maine that law was soon repealed.
Today we hear it often said that it is not the state’s business
to see that moral values are taught in the. public schools. People
felt quite differently in the 1820′s. Our 1821 law said: “It shall be
the duty of the presidents, professors and teachers of academies, to
take diligent care and extend their best endeavors to give continuous
instruction in the principles of piety and justice, instilling a sacred
regard for the truth, love of country, humanity and benevolence, and to
urge practice of sobriety, industry, chastity and temperance; and they
shall impress on youth the dangers of the opposite vices.”
And that completes our account of the more interesting of Maine’s