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Four weeks after the winter solstice, days of summer swimming and barbecues are a distant reality in Maine. And far away in space – 5,147 miles from Bangor – lies Honolulu, a warm and sunny city. Yet despite distances and differences, Hawaii and Maine have something in common, reaching beyond beautiful coastlines to encompass common individuals and histories of imperialism and resistance.
One person covering both places was Elisha Hunt Allen, who I first met through an original list titled “Politicians: Death in the White House.” Allen died at a diplomatic reception hosted by President Chester Arthur on New Year’s Day 1883.
But it was Allen’s life that was more intriguing.
When he met his demise, Allen, who came of age in New England, represented the nation of Hawaii.
Born in Massachusetts in 1804, Allen was related by marriage in 1828 to a prominent Maine political family, the Fessendens. Allen moved to Bangor in 1830 and formed a law practice with John Appleton, later Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Maine.
From 1834, Allen served on Bangor’s first town council. Then he served in Maine House from 1835 to 1839, including two years as Speaker of the House, just before and after Hannibal Hamlin was Speaker.
Allen’s first foray into national politics also involved Hamlin, a public servant much better known to us today because Hamlin was Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president. These men twice faced off for Congress and, according to historian Paul T. Burlin of the University of New England, would spend nearly two months traveling the district and holding “joint talks every night.” .
In the 1840 race for Maine’s eighth congressional district, Allen, a Whig, defeated Hamlin, who was then a Democrat. After the 1840 census, this district was eliminated, and Allen and Hamlin competed again in 1842, this time in Maine’s sixth congressional district. This time, Hamlin prevailed.
The ever-flexible Allen served briefly in the Massachusetts Legislature, then crossed the Pacific after being appointed US consul to Hawaii by Millard Fillmore. Shortly after Franklin Pierce chose his replacement in 1853, Allen became a citizen of Hawaii and a member of its government, first as Minister of Finance, then Chief Justice of their Supreme Court, and finally Minister of the United States. United, the position he held at the time of his death.
Beyond his bizarre biography, Allen’s life helps illuminate broader social, political, and racial dynamics that reverberate today.
During his time, many white Americans moved to find opportunity, as Allen did in Maine and later across the ocean. Alexis de Tocqueville argued in “Democracy in America” that this mobility reflected American entrepreneurial energy, while acknowledging that slaves and Indigenous peoples were deeply mistreated and lacked freedom.
Beyond North America, native Hawaiians, whom Allen called an “intellectually weak race”, were subjected to racial bigotry and lost power.
Part of this effort involved cultural imperialism. The missionaries, some from Maine, disrespected Hawaiian society and religion and worked to convert them to Christianity.
In Hawaii as in Maine, schools for Native children were part of a dismissive, colonialist mindset aimed at replacing their cultures and language. In Maine, this happened in part through boarding schools designed, as Richard Henry Pratt prescribed, to “kill the Indian in him.”
In both places, natives lost their political sovereignty to outsiders.
Native people in Maine have long had limited rights in many areas and were among the last to gain the right to vote.
Sanford Dole, the child of Maine missionaries in Hawaii, was involved in the overthrow of the native monarchy and increased the power of white sugar and pineapple interests. After the coup, which was aided by the US government, Dole became chairman of the Provisional Government of Hawaii.
In modern times, Hawaiian and Abenaki peoples are reclaiming this dismal history as they clamor for greater sovereignty. Through LD 1626, the tribes of Maine would gain the power to govern themselves over their territories.
And yet, in both, across some 8,000 kilometers of land and sea, the past hangs over the present.