S2E5 Interview with Professor Liam Riordan on Democracy and the Humanities

This episode is an interview with Liam Riordan, Adelaide and Alan Bird Professor of History at the University of Maine, where he has been on the faculty since 1997. Riordan was the past director of the University of Maine McGillicuddy Humanities Center and is a past board member of the Maine Humanities Council. To celebrate Maine’s bicentennial, Riordan traveled across the state giving talks on what we learned from the Maine State Bicentennial.

[00:00:00] Eric Miller: Welcome to Maine Policy Matters, a podcast from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine. I’m Eric Miller, research associate at the Center. Today we have with us Liam Riordan, Adelaide and Allen Bird, professor of history at the University of Maine and serves as chair on the city of Bangor’s Historic Preservation Commission.

Riordan was the past director of the University of Maine McGillicudy Humanities Center, is a past board member of the Maine Humanities Council and has been a faculty member since 1997. In his current role, Riordan helps organize Maine National History Day, a statewide history contest for middle and high school students.

His recent work has included him traveling across Maine giving talks such as, “What Did We Learn from the Main State Bicentennial? Reflections on Historical Commemoration. He also gave a talk entitled “Picturing Mains Indigenous Context”.

Hi Liam. Thank you so much for joining us today.

[00:00:57] Liam Riordan: Hey, it’s great to be here.

I’m happy to be invited to Maine Policy Matters.

[00:01:02] Eric Miller: So what brought you into the field of humanities and what role does this subject play in discussing American history and modern policy issues?

[00:01:10] Liam Riordan: So I’m a history professor at the University of Maine, and I arrived here in 1997, and so my initial way of understanding my work as a historian was a somewhat traditional academic understanding that I’d be a scholar.

I’d do original research about the American Revolutionary era, which is my period of specialization, and that I would teach undergraduate courses of all sorts, big survey classes to 150 students, small upper level classes, and one of the real privileges of being a member of the history department at the University of Maine is that we are the only PhD granting department in the humanities in the entire state of Maine.

And so I think that’s a really interesting responsibility and it’s an aspect of the history department at the University of Maine that I’m really proud of.

[00:02:16] Eric Miller: Yeah, very nice. Thank you so much for entering in that field and contributing in such a way and taking on a public service to this degree and being so involved and I know the university is paying some dividends from your, from your service. Could you tell us a bit about what you mean , chatting about the public humanities and how this relates to policy specifically?

[00:02:37] Liam Riordan: So this is really a significant way in which my understanding of my role as a history professor changed over the course of my 20 plus years at the University of Maine.

I mentioned earlier when I began, I really thought of myself as a scholar and as a teacher, both at the undergraduate and graduate level, but I now realize that there is really an important role for university faculty to play in helping to lead the public humanities in Maine. And what I mean by that is that the humanities have a really vital role to play, not just in the scholarly and university tradition, but the kind of impact that the history particularly, but the humanities more broadly should have on how we understand life in Maine in the 21st century. And so in this sense, it has a real significant application for public policy and there are a variety of ways I got involved in this commitment to the public humanities.

First was I served two terms as a member of the board of the Maine Humanities Council, which is the state affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and that really helped me understand the place of the University of Maine. In the context of the state of Maine quite differently, and then a few years after that, I became, helped to organize and became one of the early directors of what’s now called the McGillicuddy Humanities Center at the University of Maine.

And that has a number of goals, but one of them is to share the humanities research that students and faculty do more broadly with the public, and as the director of that Humanities Center at UMaine, I guest edited an issue of Maine Policy Review in 2015 that looked specifically at the relationship between humanities and public policy.

And then more recently still, because I’m a specialist in the American Revolutionary era, I got very involved with the commemoration of the Maine bicentennial. So that 200 year celebration of Maine becoming a state that sort of connected the year 1820 Maine’s birthday is a state with 2020 led to a lot of public speaking all around the state.

It’s led to a volume that I’m co-editing with my colleague Richard Judd and I also organized a conference at the University of Maine in the summer of 2019. All of them really emphasizing the public humanities and the need for us to improve our quality of life in the present by having a deeper understanding of significant historical themes and events in the Maine past.

[00:05:59] Eric Miller: Yeah, that, celebrating Maine’s bicentennial is very exciting. What did you, and you played a very special part in that celebration, what did you enjoy most about touring the state, doing that, public speaking and maybe what was one of your most memorable interactions during that experience?

[00:06:18] Liam Riordan: So it was a real privilege for me to do a lot of local public speaking about the Maine bicentennial and I, one of the curious things, so I gave, I’ve forgotten, you know, close to a hundred public talks over the course of four or five years, and one of the sort of curious things about this is that I trained for my PhD in Philadelphia and part of my training was to try to argue that the position of New England in our understanding of early American history was overstated.

So then of course I got my job at the University of Maine and I had to start changing my tune and learn more about New England generally and about Maine in particular. So my process of developing my understanding of that statehood era that culminates with statehood in 2020 really began as a listening experience in a lot of ways.

And many of these early meetings were really just discussions to try to understand what did people see as pressing issues from the statehood era that had some relevance for them in the 21st century? So one of the memorable experiences I had was being hosted by a colleague in Madawaska and getting a very different understanding of what Maine statehood meant from the perspective of people living in the northern part of the state where statehood, and especially the eventual clarification of where the northern boundary was with the state that didn’t occur till the early 1840s was a much more traumatic event and memory that is very much on going to the present, particularly for Francophone people in the St. John River Valley. So that was one really memorable experience for me and I would say the second more broadly is just the way in which doing the bicentennial commemorative work helped me to realize the incredible passion that is had for history at the local level.

So local historical societies, county genealogical societies, practically every public library in the state has a local history room and that’s really where a lot of the most intense commitment to understanding our past lies, and a lot of that occurs at really a great distance from academic historians and professional scholars.

So to kind of circle back to my interest in public history, I, commemoration is a kind of special opportunity to try to connect that local passion at the grassroots level with what goes on in the university, both in terms of my scholarship, but also in terms of my teaching.

[00:09:39] Eric Miller: Yeah, we are all very grateful for our librarians and volunteers and passionate stewards of preserving history, whether oral written down, that is so valuable, and also find so fascinating how seemingly nearby places can have such differing perspectives on the history of a place.

And so as you mentioned in 1820, Maine was, gained its statehood separating from Massachusetts as part of the Missouri Compromise which for as I’m sure many know, but Missouri and Maine were entered as states at the same time, Missouri as a slave state, and Maine as a free state. And so as a historian, what does this context of the birth of Maine mean to you as well as this milestone of reaching 200 years?

[00:10:27] Liam Riordan: Eric, thanks for that question. You know, the way in which Maine Statehood was connected to Missouri is I think almost certainly the most famous aspect of the Maine statehood era. And, it’s a complicated story of how that unfolded. And I have to confess, I never really understood it very well until I began to do my preparation for this Maine Bicentennial commemoration of statehood.

And so one of the things that I now feel pretty strongly about is that we probably shouldn’t describe this event as the Missouri Compromise, and I say this because of a letter that four members of the Maine Congressional Delegation published in a Maine newspaper in 1820 to explain why they voted against Maine becoming a state in the US Congress in the spring of 1820.

And what they said was that it was such an abomination for Maine to become a state and to accelerate the expansion of slavery West, that it would be better for Maine not to become a state, and they specifically say in their letter that they rejected the idea that this was a compromise, that this was something forced upon them and that they disagreed with and that they thought was a big error for the United States.

And what’s really interesting about this very technical vote in the US Congress in the spring of 1820 is that in that Meeting of the House of Representatives, the District of Maine, just a portion, still a part of Massachusetts, but the District of Maine, before it became a state, had seven US Congressmen.

Now that’s pretty interesting to anyone with a sense of civics today, right? We only have two US congressmen today, and we barely hold on to two. Knock on wood. Census comes, so we had seven when we were a district as part of Massachusetts, and five of those seven voted against the critical bill where Maine and Missouri were linked.

Slavery would be permitted to expand into the Western part of what was then the Louisiana Territory. Now, even just to keep going deeper on this little nugget, the vote in the US House of Representatives was so close on this issue that if those two in the minority in Maine had voted with the majority of the Maine delegation that would’ve blocked the expansion of slavery to Missouri.

And so for me, this opens up a really fascinating counterfactual sort of speculation that if those, if the full seven members, had voted against Maine statehood because they objected to slavery, expanding to Missouri, I really wonder, might that have led to a very different outcome for slavery in the United States?

That, of course, will come to an end, but only with three decades of continued expansion of slavery after and with the horrific personal and financial cost of the Civil War that if we had bolder and more courageous political leadership earlier, and Maine was really at the center of this. Perhaps we would’ve had a much different course for the expansion of slavery and the kind of, you know, no more pivotal event in American history than the Civil War.

That would, of course, come three decades after the Maine, Missouri crisis that ends with the joint admission of those two states.

[00:15:04] Eric Miller: Wow, there are so many layers there that we could pick away at. I something that just stands out to me immediately is the courage, you would, I would assume that would be bad politics to vote against more autonomy in for the, what was then the district may becoming their own state, having more control over their own territory. A little bit of a follow up. Was there much political cost to those five individuals?

[00:15:32] Liam Riordan: So that’s a great question, and it’s a little tricky to figure out the answer to that.

Some of them don’t stand for reelection, others, because Maine becomes a state. It then gets to US senators, so one of those congressmen gets named by the legislature to become a senator. So that’s really a good research question that maybe one of my graduate students should take up in the future.

Broadly speaking, the small number of Northern members of the House of Representatives who voted. With the southern interests to expand slavery, the majority of them faced a very difficult time getting reelected to Congress. Now it is different in the main context, right? Because obviously they were voting in favor of becoming a state.

But I like to think that there was enough anti-slavery Popular interest in Maine, that would not have prohibited them from becoming, being reelected or continuing their careers as politicians in the District of Maine. And I do not think it would’ve seriously changed Maine becoming a state.

That the, you know, some people sometimes say that there was a timeline and it had to get done quickly, but I think that’s really not the case. It’s quite clear that political leaders in Massachusetts, as well as the majority of people in the district of Maine agreed that having two. New England states, Maine and Massachusetts made sense by early 1820.

So I think state would’ve happened anyway. And I think we might have had a somewhat different future for slavery and anti-slavery if Maine representatives had acted differently in that critical vote in the spring of 1820.

[00:17:47] Eric Miller: Yeah. Wow. I love history for this reason is digging into things that occurred centuries ago and getting into the discussions around a particular issue and that it wasn’t as straightforward as the outcome.

There was discussion and disagreement all happening at the same time. So I appreciate your clarification and maybe we will get an answer to that question someday. You may have just covered this in the past question but is there a significant event or period in Maine’s history that you believe is underappreciated?

[00:18:18] Liam Riordan: Let me, I’ll just continue to talk a little bit about the statehood era, cuz this sort of represents my specialty and what I know best and. I do think that talking about the Maine, Missouri crisis is the most famous aspect of how Maine became a state. But it’s interestingly also to start our discussion at the very end, and I think one of the things that’s really surprising to people in Maine today is that it took a very long time for popular opinion in Maine to decisively.

Express itself that Maine did want to separate from Massachusetts. So I think this does kind of surprise people cuz we are pretty familiar with this idea of being suspicious from people of from away and having, you know, cutting comments about flat landers from Massachusetts. But this is a good example of how the distant past surprises us.

It was not an easy decision for people to cut that long connection. And so when I talk about the statehood era, I’m really talking about a period from the 1780s to the final successful vote for Maine statehood in July of 1819. And in that final vote, There are overwhelming majorities for Maine to become an independent state, but previous to that final vote, there were five other statewide elections that were all bitterly contested, and the movement changed a lot over time.

And so something that we might think would be an automatic or easy decision from the perspective of 2022. Was actually something extremely difficult and that really required a lot of work and a lot of changes in the independence movement over the course of several decades before we got to that explosive moment of the Maine, Missouri crisis in 1820.

[00:20:31] Eric Miller: Yeah. Thank you for expanding upon that answer talking and diving so deeply into the main Missouri crisis. Of course the Wabanaki nations were present long before Maine statehood. So would you like to discuss the context of relations with the Wabanaki nations at the point of statehood and how these relations have changed or developed over two centuries?

[00:20:59] Liam Riordan: So this is really a very important issue both for thinking about the history of Maine, but also thinking about contemporary circumstances in Maine. And one thing I think is important to stress is that when we’re talking about commemoration, that I think is a different act than just celebration, and so commemoration calls on us to reflect and engage and think about the circumstances of how Maine became a state in 1820.

And that means more than simply being partisans and fans and saying that was really a great thing. And so one of the important observations is that Maine statehood in 1820 accelerates the colonial process of dispossession, of Wabanaki people from their homeland, and I would say that it even accelerates a experience of genocide for those Wabanaki people.

And this was a absolutely crucial issue in 1820 as Massachusetts prepared to transition away from having a sort of sovereign government role over the District of Maine. And part of the articles of separation that the Massachusetts legislature required Maine voters and the new Maine government to accept as part of the terms of separation was an explicit recognition that the new state of Maine would take on all the duties and responsibilities and obligations that the state of Massachusetts had entered into in its state-to-state treaty negotiations with tribal nations, and that is a very serious and textually specific aspect of the articles of separation that become part of the main constitution.

Now, as some of your listeners may know, the Maine Legislature and Maine voters in 1875 voted to redact this passage from printed copies of the Maine Constitution. They said it would remain lawfully intact and enforced, but this specific language about Maine bearing responsibility for maintaining Massachusetts’s treaty agreements no longer would be printed in the Maine Constitution.

This is kind of bizarre and hard to wrap our heads around and as recently as four or five years ago, the legislature revisited this, but were not successful in getting this language restored to printed copies of the Maine State Constitution. You can’t actually find the language. The secretary of State’s office in a separate piece of legislation has made it available to the public, but this, I think, really stands as a clear symbol of just how unequal that transition to Maine state sovereignty was for Wabanaki individuals, for Wabanaki communities, and for Wabanaki sovereignty as their own tribal governments. And Massachusetts even gave the new state of Maine a large sum of money to continue to honor their treaty obligations. We might think in the 21st century that Wabanaki issues are somewhat newly resurgent in public life in Maine, but this was also a searing issue in the statehood era and was a big part of the transition from Massachusetts to Maine sovereignty that I think if we think about this logically also had clear implications for Wabanaki sovereignty. The last thing I’ll say is that it’s striking that 2020 Bicentennial of Maine Statehood is also the 40th anniversary of the 1980 Maine Indian Claims Act.

That is the sort of crucial federal legislation that remains a matter of really intense political debate in Maine about the balance of tribal state relations, and I do feel that hasty language in the 1980 law that has been interpreted as excluding Wabanaki, federally recognized tribes from the benefits of over 200 federal laws pertaining to Indians since 1980 is really an extraordinary injustice and is something that should be addressed by the Maine state governments so that Wabanaki tribes don’t discover this, don’t continue to suffer this very unfair discrimination in how they’re treated as sovereign entities.

[00:27:20] Eric Miller: I really appreciate your differentiation between commemoration and celebration. It, there are things in history that we don’t have to celebrate at all, but recognition being a huge factor in just grappling with the past and something that comes to mind. We were just talking about the courage of those five legislators that voted against slavery or the Missouri Compromise.

But then also at the same exact time, that language being striked from the distributed papers of the Maine Constitution, I find that quite interesting is, and taking a stance on one subjugated population and not necessarily carrying that over to a different and within the bounds of the new created place, minority population. So as guest editor of the 2015 Maine Policy Review, Special Issue on Humanities and Policy you covered William Adams’ piece entitled “The Urgency of Democracy”. What would you like to share about the significance of that piece in the current state of American democracy?

[00:28:31] Liam Riordan: Great.

Thanks for that question about the issue of the Maine Policy Review that I guest edited back in 2015. And I’ll remind your listeners that all issues of the Maine Policy Review are accessible on the Digital Commons of the University of Maine Library. Pretty easy to Google and get there, and you can look up in the special issues column. You can click on the one related to the Humanities and Policy and see the wide spectrum of pieces that were in that particular issue. William Adams wrote one of the two Margaret Chase Smith Essays that opened that 2015 issue. We had two high profile national figures on the humanities landscape in the United States, right are Margaret Chase Smith Essays, William Bro Adams was then the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and he wrote a piece called “The Urgency of Democracy”. I think you’ve covered this on a recent podcast. So listeners who are regular subscribers have probably heard him read that piece.

And one of the things that really strikes me about it, Is that he, no, this was published in 2015, so this was before both of our most recent presidential elections that have been so controversial, and I think that he was really, had a sense of foresight about the coming crisis of American democracy and how this connects directly to our need for a more robust engagement with the humanities in order to preserve the quality of civic life in the United States.

So I’m going to just repeat what I think are the final lines of William Adams’ essay in that 2015 issue he wrote that “the humanities provide richness, beauty, and wisdom in our lives, and they help our communities to flourish, but we need them, especially because the humanities provide. The intellectual and emotional foundations for democratic life and citizenship for Maine and the country as a whole. The urgency of the humanities is the urgency of democracy.” So for me, what I think he means by this is that a concept like citizenship. What does it mean to be a citizen or a concept like democracy? These are both fundamentally born out of the humanities, right? We don’t get a sense of citizenship from mathematics.

We don’t get a sense of citizenship from a well-designed bridge or road. We don’t get a sense of democracy from the, a bottom line analysis of how to have the most successful investment. And I think a lot of times scientific, technical, economic calculations are ones that get prioritized in how we think about what matters for public policy.

And so William Adams’s essay at the start of that 2015 issue of Maine Policy Review really was the opening note of, I think some 30 essays in that issue that explored what do we mean by the humanities? What are the value of the humanities and how could a more robust engagement with the humanities have a positive impact for our quality of life in Maine and for the types of public policy that we value and choose to pursue?

You know, we’ve got, in the time since that article was written, we’ve got a national presidential election that remains contested. We’ve had the US Capitol building stormed in a violent riot, and this is absolutely crucial that I think we really take up William Adams’ point that the urgency of democracy and the urgency of humanities are deeply related to one another.

And this circles back to my opening comments of why I think the public humanities are so crucial for where Maine and the nation are in the 21st century that the humanities prioritize the qualitative aspects of human experience and in our daily life. That means the basic skills that we have for insight, for reflection, and for better understanding our place in an often confusing and complex world.

[00:34:16] Eric Miller: Thank you for all that additional context around William Adams’ piece. I second the recommendation to listeners if you haven’t listened to that episode or read the piece. I frankly, when I read it, I was so taken aback by the fact that it was written in 2015. I would’ve assumed that it was sometime in, in 2021 if the date was removed.

But it is amazing how some folks can articulate such an incredible point at a time that seemed a little bit, not quite as of course it was very relevant at the time, otherwise you wouldn’t have wrote it, but even more relevant today. So to finish things off, is there anything that you’d like to share that we haven’t covered already?

[00:35:01] Liam Riordan: I guess I’ll close with another plug to your listeners. I’m really proud of that 2015 issue of Maine Policy Review that looks at the intersection of the humanities and policy. And of course, we’ve got people like William Adams or the president of the American Association of Arts and Sciences who give our sort of opening Margaret Chase Smith essays.

But the heart of that issue are about 30 other essays that really showcase the vitality of the humanities in Maine. And this is partly university faculty, but it’s also important organizations like the Maine Humanities Council, like your public library, like your local historical society, like museums, theaters, concert halls, and movie houses.

So I would encourage everyone to take a look at that issue online at the Digital Commons. And I’d also say, it’s time to re-engage with the humanities, and that could be something different for every single listener. It could be pursuing other podcasts. It could be reading a book. It could be visiting your local historical society or library, and participating in the way that the humanities can really enrich our individual lives.

But more significantly is how it can enrich our communal lives. And I do think we’re at a moment where we need a more robust sense of what are our civic responsibilities as citizens and how can we have a more civil life in the state of Maine? So that starts with our family and our households and our friends and our neighbors.

But the humanities should have a robust part in that for everyone.

[00:37:11] Eric Miller: Thank you so much for your perspective and your service to the humanities in the state of Maine, and thank you so much for joining us today, Liam.

[00:37:19] Liam Riordan: Thanks, Eric. It’s been a pleasure to be on the podcast.

[00:37:28] Eric Miller: What you just heard was Liam Riordan’s perspective on Maine’s history. Maine Policy Review is a peer reviewed academic journal published by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center. The editorial team for Maine Policy Review is made up of Joyce Rumery, Linda Silka, and Barbara Harrity. Jonathan Rubin directs the Policy Center, A thank you to Jayson Heim and Kathryn Swacha, script writers for Maine Policy Matters, and into Daniel Soucier, our production consultant.

In two weeks, Jonathan Malacarne and Jason Lilley, two of the authors of an article entitled “The Response of the Maine Food System to the Onset of The Covid-19 Pandemic” will be joining us for an interview. We would like to thank you for listening to Maine Policy Matters from the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine.

You could find us online by searching Maine Policy Matters on your web browser. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us on your preferred social media platform to stay updated on new episode releases. I am Eric Miller. Thanks for listening and please join us next time on Maine Policy Matters.