BATH, Maine — On the highest point of ground in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Bath, a tall granite monument stands above the grave of William King. Erected by the Legislature in 1853, a year after his death.
It’s a monument that is well-deserved, for King arguable did more than any one person to create the State of Maine.
“William King was in many ways the father of statehood,” said Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth.
King was a “self-made man” who left school in his teens, started in the timber and lumber business, then eventually became a merchant and, said Shettleworth, one of the largest ship owners in what was then called the District of Maine.
King became a member of the Massachusetts legislature, where he took on the challenges of some key issues between Maine and Massachusetts.
It was religion, in part, that helped push Maine towards Statehood. As part of Massachusetts, the Congregational church was basically the official state religion, and local towns taxed their residents to support it.
Many Maine residents, especially those with different denominations, resented the tax said historian Herb Adams.
“New people were moving in, with different faiths, and different ideas on what they should have to pay,” Adams said.
Shettleworth said King took on that issue, along with the controversial Coasting Law, affecting shipping and tariffs. Those ideas, he said, helped people, King, to a leadership role in the statehood movement.
Adams said King also became the owner of a newspaper in Portland, called the Eastern Argus, which further helped him lead the push for statehood.
The historians said there were economic sues, too, as well as the idea it was time to control their own future.
There had been several earlier statehood votes that failed to pass, but in July 1819 residents of the District of Maine were clearly ready, followed William King’s leadership and finally voted to separate from Massachusetts.
“I think by his broader political acts and concentrated vision the mechanism moving toward statehood, he was really the father of statehood.”
The George Washington of Maine, we ask?
“In many ways, yes.”
In October 1819, when several hundred delegates gathered at a church in Portland to write the state constitution, William King was chosen to lead them.
That Constitution was a landmark for the time, as it allowed blacks the right to vote, and guaranteed complete freedom of religion—possibly a reaction to the earlier restrictions from Massachusetts. Residents ratified the Constitution in December, and Maine became a state three months later, on March 15, 1820.
When it came time to elect a Governor of the new state, the choice, overwhelmingly, was William Kin.
“There were 22,000 votes of which 21,000 went tor King,” said Earle Shettlewiorth.” He was elected to a second term, then left the Governorship when he was asked by president Monroe to help negotiate a treaty with Spain. He thought it was a way to elevate his (political) status but it didn’t really happen.”
He said King continued to prosper in business, but not in politics. King was a Jeffersonian Democrat but fell out of favor with the party when Andrew Jackson became President. Shettleworth said King changed to the Whig party and ran for Governor again in the 1830s, but lost.
King’s monument stands in the cemetery, while a few miles away, his former summer house also stands, still in use as a year-round home.
And Maine, of course, is still here. The state had nearly 300,000 residents in 1820. Today the population is more than 1.3 million. All of them can look back this year to that day, 200 years ago this Sunday, when William King’s dream of statehood came true.