Franco-Americans in Maine’s political history

Then and Now– A French sub-title for this blog might be, “Plus les choses changent, plus elles restent les mêmes”. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Maine’s political analyst and author Professor Christian Potholm, has often recognized the importance of the Franco-Americans voters.  Writing in one of his many books about Maine’s history and politics, Potholm described how Franco-Americans have influenced the state’s politics and the outcomes of particular elections.  “Over the past 25 years (and, in my blogger opinion, extending into the subsequent 25 years as well), the Franco-American vote has been the most important category of “ticket splitters” in the state of Maine.” (Potholm “An Insider’s Guide to Maine Politics 1946-1996” p311.)

Franco-Americans of Maine

Inside title page book plate reads “This volume is published chiefly for the purpose of showing the achievements of the Franco-America citizens of Maine of today”, published in 1915.

THEN- As I was browsing through the research resources available at the Franco-American Collection (FAC) at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC FAC), I found a 1915, original copy of an anthology titled “Franco-Americans of Maine“. In the book’s introduction, edited by J.H. Burgess, in Lewiston, the political situation describer over 100 years ago has not changed much. Although the population demographics have obviously shifted over time, for example, the manufacturing base has since disappeared, the overall message in the 1915, essay holds true today.

Even earlier than 1915, writing in 1890, E.H. Elwell, who was a prominent Maine historian in his day, had the following to say in relation to the French Canadian population in the State of Maine, at that time.

“The French Canadians, following the track of their ancestors along the railroad lines running into Canada, have found employment in the manufacturing villages and cities in and around Waterville, Lewiston and other river cities and towns. They formed a large and increasing element in the population, not without its influence in determining municipal elections.”

Elwell’s statements, written a quarter of a century before the 1915, anthology was published, and when the French-Canadian immigration was in its first full swing, described a situation that continues today. Franco-Americans, who are the descendants of the French-Canadian immigrants from the North, have influence in determining municipal, state and national elections because they are Maine’s largest ethnic minority. In other words, as described by Elwell, “Franco-Americans are, largely in evidence, throughout the spacious state of Maine from the New Hampshire boundary lines to those of Canada”.

St. Mary's Hospital Lewiston circa 1915

Among the historic photographs published in “Franco-Americans of Maine”, published in 1915.

“In various centers of industry, the Franco-Americans form the larger part of the working employees, many owning their own homes and some are large property holders, while the trades and professions have able representatives, men of broad education, wide intelligence and characteristic energy and perseverance that makes for success.”

Keeping pace with their personal achievements, they have held the political balance of power in several cities and various towns. In Lewiston and Biddeford, the two most important textile cities, the office of mayor was held by Franco-Americans of notable qualification. Other official positions….appeared in the Legislative halls of the Maine State House.

“It is in business and the professions, aside from their industrial number, that the Franco-American citizens were in most evidence; and, it may be emphatically stated, in the lists of the tax-payers in communities wherein they were to be found in any considerable number.”

Lewiston Maine

Photograph published in “Franco-Americans of Maine”, 1915.

In Lewiston, for instance, the Franco-Americans paid fully two-thirds of all the personal property tax.

In round numbers, the estimated Franco-American population of the State of Maine (in 1915) was about 100,000.  This figures was arrived at from deductions made from the 1910, United States census.  The statistics gave the total population of the State of Maine as being, at the time, 742,371.  Descendants from the early French settlers were in Maine from the first, but the largely important French-Canadian immigration to Maine dates back to 35 years (in other words, to 1880), prior to the printing of the 1915, anthology.  They came to Maine primarily to find employment where the textile industries were prominent.

In 1910, Lewiston’s population of French-Canadians and Franco-Americans was 10, 841. Biddeford’s population in 1910, was 8,697.  Therefore, two leading textile cities in Maine had a combined Franco-American population in 1910, that was just shy of 20,000 people. In sharp contrast, the Franco-American population in Portland, the largest city in the state, in 1910, had a population of 58,571 people, and the French-Canadian population was a total of 726 people.

And to the “now”:  In his books, Potholm provides notice to all Maine political campaigns, ballot initiatives and candidates. To ignore the Franco-American voter will put their elections in peril.  Do not take the Franco-American voters for granted, because they are the most likely group to split with traditional party lines.

As we witness the state and national election campaigns heating up, the “Then and Now” influence, with regards to the Franco-American vote, should be evaluated.

Of course, historians will be able to analyze whether anything has really changed between 1915 and 2010, after the votes are counted.

In my prognosticating opinion, I predict that nothing much will change.

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.