Recently, the Hallowell team’s Hall-Dale Middle School students took an MCHP-inspired field trip next door for tours of the Maine State Museum, State Archives, and the hallowed halls of the State House in Augusta. Just as there’s nothing like a foray to Washington, D.C., to appreciate the history and political systems of our country, there’s no substitute for the experience of visiting one’s home state capitol. Here is where the laws of the land around you have been, and are being, made. Here is where your state’s collective history is housed and displayed for all to see and feel a part of. Here, in short, is Democracy writ large.
Meanwhile, back in downtown Hallowell there is a little-known local treasure that provides a shining example of Democracy writ small–and with young people also at the center of it all. Housed in the Hubbard Free Library, encased in a small wooden chest, neatly bundled in rolls or tucked away in tiny Shaker-style boxes, are all the papers and voting ephemera of the Franklin Debating Society (FDS), which existed in Hallowell from 1822-1829. No, the members weren’t respected elders of the burgeoning city. They were young apprentices of local printers, ages 16 and 17.
Less than 50 years after the American Revolution, these serious young men (not surprisingly in this era, membership for women in such an organization was pretty much unthinkable) were practicing the ideals of American civil society. By definition, civil society is the collective voluntary civic and social organizations that manifest the shared interests, values, and will of citizens, as opposed to governmental systems or commercial institutions.
The level of discipline and dedication inherent in the group’s activities quickly impressed MCHP team member Gerry Mahoney when he began researching the Society back in the 1980s. At first thinking it would be interesting to examine the FDS papers in detail to “learn something about the issues which interested Mainers at the time of statehood,” as he notes in the “Prologue” of Ardent Spirits: The Franklin Debating Society, his 2003 publication of the Society’s entire collection, Gerry’s fascination grew with each unfurling of the fragile papers. The meticulously-kept records consisted not only of the group’s Constitution, Standing Orders, Library Rules, and meeting minutes and correspondence, but also compositions, essays, reports, and poetry. It was, Gerry knew, “a unique collection of materials which provided countless insights into the cultural, historical, and social forces which shaped early life in Hallowell as well as the rest of Maine.”
The records clearly reflect the personalities and maturation process of the members–people like H. K. Baker, who later went on to become Editor of The American Advocate, a local paper that was eventually sold to the Kennebec Journal, and Justin Ely Smith, who would one day be President of the Northern National Bank of Hallowell, and who served as as town auditor and clerk. An unpublished memoir by Baker, written when he was 91, reveals how concerned the members were with a humble sort of “mutual improvement”–for each other, clearly, but also, one might imagination, for the good of society in general:
We had no audience but ourselves. Our compositions would not compare with elegant literature but were such stuff as boys would write… We discussed in debate and compositions some great subjects which we probably knew nothing about. But this is what many still do, editors, authors, and even some statesmen… If none of us rose to be great men, not one became vicious or dissipated.
As Gerry writes of these determined lads in Ardent Spirits, “The range and handling of the subject matter is impressive… [and] resonate with us today… slavery, temperance, the status of women and minorities, problems with the Electoral College, the potential for conspiracy and intrigue in political appointments.” Some of the weighty questions debated in meetings and in writings by the group: “Wherein consists the happiness of man?” “Which carries the greatest sway in the minds of the people, honor or riches?” and “What is the greatest virtue of mankind?”
Timeless questions with endlessly debatable answers. The lesson here is not so much in the responses themselves–which, as Gerry notes, can sometimes be “disturbing” in their reflection “of the attitudes of the period” (such as those related to women’s rights or Native American status)–but in the process they took to get there. These young men embraced their young country’s hard-won freedom to debate, to question, to do what “even some statesmen” did, in order to improve themselves and, whether they realized it or not, practice democracy on a small scale.
What a great example for their teenage counterparts nearly 200 years later. While the experience of youth has changed markedly from that day to this, and the forums for self-expression may be different, the need to ask big questions, develop articulate answers, and learn to become productive members of society has not diminished.
If you are interested in reading more about the Franklin Debating Society, check out Gerry Mahoney’s limited edition Ardent Spirits: The Franklin Debating Society, his 2003 publication of the Society’s entire collection. Copies are available for review at the Hubbard Free Library and the Kennebec Historical Society. (And if you are wondering if Benjamin Franklin was the inspiration for the group’s name, the answer is… quite possibly. Although there’s no concrete evidence, Gerry discovered an address to the Society in 1823 by one of its members that mentioned “to what a height of glory the renowned Franklin arose and from what a small beginning… he improved every leisure hour and even minute to some good advantage.”)