Home Maine The Maine Capitol Riot of 1880

The Maine Capitol Riot of 1880

When armed mobs swarmed the streets of Augusta, Joshua Chamberlain kept the peace

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On Jan. 6, 1880, Joshua Chamberlain stepped  onto a volcano about to erupt in Augusta, Maine. He had agreed to try to quell the Maine Capitol Riot, during which a hundred armed and angry men inside the Statehouse faced off against against an equally armed and angry mob outside. Each side believed the other had stolen the election for governor.


Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, by Matthew Brady

Amid the chaos, the governor resigned leaving Maine with no government. Then the two factions formed their own governments even as they pointed guns at each other. Chamberlain took charge as acting governor and commander-in-chief of the state. He managed to keep the peace over 12 days of turmoil.

Chamberlain survived attempts to kidnap him and arrest him, and he faced down would-be assassins. At the end of 12 days, he turned the government over peacefully to the men the courts declared victorious. Throughout the ordeal, Chamberlain stayed neutral, but he paid a political price for it..

Over a century later a similar scene would play out in the U.S. Capitol, though no Joshua Chamberlain appeared to prevent looting, destruction and death.

The Election of 1878

It all started a year earlier, when Democrat Alonzo Garcelon, a wealthy doctor, won election as governor with 15 percent of the vote.

Alonzo Garcelon

Republicans had dominated state politics for 20 years. Chamberlain himself had served three one-year terms as governor. But hard times for farmers and millworkers had spawned populist  anger. The Greenback money channeled that discontent into opposition to deflation and monopolies. A Greenback newspaper attacked Republican indifference to the common man’s distress in a poem:

Little boys true come blow your horn,
Banks eat the meadow, the cows, and the corn.
Where are the big boys that look after the sheep ?
Down in the Capitol, fast asleep.

In Maine, the Democrats aligned with a new, third party, the Greenbacks, to form the Fusionist Party. During the 1878 election, Garcelon, a Democrat, garnered only 15 percent of the vote. But neither the Republican nor the Greenback candidate won more than 50 percent of the ballots. Maine law then required the governor to get more than half the popular vote. If no one did, the Legislature decided. The Republicans held their noses and voted for Garcelon rather than the Greenback candidate.

It was a decision they probably regretted.

Cause of the Maine Capitol Riot

Maine elected its governor every year back then. The next year, 1879, Garcelon ran again and lost again. But for a second year in a row, no one had a majority. That meant the Legislature would elect the new governor. And this time, it would likely be the Republican, Daniel Davis, because the GOP had narrowly won control of the Legislature.

The Maine Capitol in the 1850s

But first Garcelon and his executive council — dominated by Greenbacks and Democrats — had to collect the ballot returns and certify the results. And so began the chicanery.

Inside the council chamber, Garcelon and the executive council started throwing out Republican votes for legislators. They disqualified votes if names were misspelled, missed a middle initial or a “junior.” Some GOP towns had results invalidated because only three town officials signed the returns instead of four.  Or they threw out a votes if the town’s name wasn’t written in the right place.

Garcelon and the executive council were supposed to announce the winners of the election in November. But they said it would be delayed until December. The counting and disqualifying went on for days behind closed doors inside the Statehouse.

On Dec. 2, 1879, senators and representatives went to the Capitol expecting to examine the voting returns. One after another, however, they failed even to get into the Council chamber.

Fusion Victory

Finally, the Fusionist executive council managed to void the elections of 12 Republicans. That gave the Greenbacks the majority in the Senate and the Democrats a majority in the House. As a result, there was no way the Legislature would elect a Republican governor — the intended outcome of the vote-counting.

To justify their actions, the Fusionists claimed Republicans had rigged the election, as they had for years. The governor and council reported that “numerous affidavits were sent in showing actual cases of bribery. and fraud beyond question….the Republican majorities] were the result of corrupt and improper means used at the poles [sic].“

The Fusionists were probably right. The voting results in certain districts didn’t make sense, with Fusionists winning at the top of the ticket but Republicans winning the lower-ballot races. Further, the Republicans adamantly opposed the secret ballot, suggesting that charges of bribery and intimidation had a basis in reality.

Republicans, stunned at the audacity of stealing 12 legislative seats, demanded the state supreme court settle the issue. But Garcelon refused.

In January, the Fusionists came to the Statehouse and swore in their own men to the Legislature. The new lawmakers then elected their candidate, Joseph Smith, as governor.

Garcelon had  two cartloads of guns and ammunition carted to the Capitol from the Bangor Armory. He stationed a hundred men with guns inside the building. Some had served time in prison. Garcelon had wanted to prevent trouble. His actions had the opposite effect.

James G. Blaine

The courts might have settled the matter peacefully but for U.S. Sen. James G. Blaine, head of Maine’s Republican Party and a future candidate for president of the United States. Blaine’s supporters called him “the plumed knight” and “the magnetic man” because of his eloquence. Detractors called him the Continental Liar from the State of Maine and said he wallowed in spoils like a rhinoceros in an African pool.

Puck cartoon showing Blaine supporters trying to wipe off the scandals with which he’s tattooed

Blaine rushed back from Washington, D.C., to his 28-room white clapboard mansion across the street from the Maine Statehouse. From there he plotted the Republican counterattack.

He gathered his supporters at his house, where they talked about leading armed Republicans to the Statehouse to eject the Fusionists. The Republican lawmakers who claimed victory caucused and named their candidate, Daniel Davis, as governor.

Blaine also orchestrated “indignation meetings” in every city in Maine to rouse the rabble. He himself spoke to one indignation meeting in Augusta. He declared, “A great popular uprising will avert these evils and the people are already moving…. A day of reckoning is at hand.”

Blaine House, now Maine’s governor’s mansion

Meanwhile, Democrats and Greenbacks drafted their own makeshift army at an Augusta hotel.

Garcelon realized he had probably gotten in above his head. So he called on Joshua Chamberlain to take over the government as an interim governor and military commander. Chamberlain already served as honorary commander of the state militia.

Garcelon advised Chamberlain to call up the militia. Chamberlain refused, believing a military presence would only inflame the mobs on both sides. He alerted militia in neighboring cities to be on the alert, but to stay put for now.

Twelve Days

January 6 became known as  the first of 12 days that shook Maine. The state had no civilian governments, or it had two. The streets swarmed with angry, armed men. Tense groups of men plotted their next move at three different command posts: the Capitol, a downtown hotel and the home of James G. Blaine.  Writers from national newspapers came to Augusta to report on the Maine Capitol riot. More armed men patrolled the Statehouse halls a d stood guard over offices, especially the rooms that held the disputed election returns.

Chamberlain persuaded Garcelon to send his goons home and to return his arsenal to Bangor.Then he met with Augusta mayor Charles Nash, who agreed to replace Garcelon’s men with city police. Nash also agreed to order the police to patrol the little city and put down any violence. Finally, Chamberlain convinced Garcelon to submit the election results to the court.

Until the gun-wielding mobs stood down, the situation reminded Chamberlain of Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg. During that fight, Chamberlain’s badly outnumbered men ran out of ammunition while protecting the hill and the Army of the Potomac. In one of the most famous maneuvers in the history of warfare, his men fixed their bayonets and charged down the hill. They shocked the Confederates, capturing 100 enemy soldiers, and saved the Union forces.

Chamberlain is credited with a similar act of bravery at the Maine Capitol. It happened on the steps outside or at the top of the stairs inside or maybe in the rotunda.

Both sides harangued him relentlessly to side with them. Chamberlain stayed steadfastly neutral. The result: Plots were hatched to kill and kidnap him. Mayor Nash gave him a bodyguard, and he slept in a different bed every night.

As the stories go, either an angry mob burst into the Statehouse, or an aide told him of an assassination plot. Chamberlain then  stood up before the crowd.

Climax of the Maine Capitol Riot

‘Men,’ he called out, ‘you wished to kill me, I hear. Killing is no new thing to me. I have offered myself to be killed many times, when I no more deserved it than I do now…. It is for me to see that the laws of this state are put into effect, without fraud, without force, but with calm thought and sincere purpose. I am here for that, and I shall do it. If anybody wants to kill me for it, here I am. Let him kill!’

He then tore open his coat, daring anyone to shoot. A Civil War veteran shouted out, “”By God, old General, the first man that dares to lay a hand on you, I’ll kill him on the spot!”

All Over

As the days wore on, passions cooled. Finally, Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court ruled that the Fusionists had wrongly disqualified votes.

[The judicial decision said election returns “are not required to be written with the scrupulous nicety of a writing master. . . . It is enough if the returns can be understood, and if understood, full effect should be given to their natural and obvious meaning.”

Daniel Davis

The court then reinstated the Republican lawmakers. They elected their candidate, Daniel Davis, governor. Garcelon went home. So did Chamberlain went home, after turning over militia command to him. The crisis had ended.

Or had it?

On Jan.19, 1880, a group of Fusionists tried to enter the Capitol. When they weren’t allowed in, they fell back and talked about seizing the building by force.

Gov. Davis called up the militia and placed a Gatling gun on the statehouse lawn. The Fusionists did not return. Instead, the legitimately elected Fusionists were sworn into office. With that, the crisis finally did end.

James G. Blaine ran for president against Grover Cleveland in 1884 and lost.

With thanks to The Greenback Party in Maine, 1876-1884 by Everett L. Meader and Joshua Chamberlain The Soldier And The Man by Edward G. Longacre.

Images: Blaine House By Albany NY at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7009469. Color postcard of Maine Statehouse By Boston Public Library – https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/2381302533/in/photolist-4CqLzM-4CqMhk-4Cv4v3-4Cv4p3-4CqLNa-4CqNwv-4CqNhe-4CqNpg-EUBSC-4CqFrT-4Cv3Xq-4CqM2t-4CqMPZ-4Cv549-4CqMpc-4Cv4Cd-EZu29-4CqFke-4CqM9v-4CqLVz-4Cv44m-o3LaL-EwKgq-nJSEs-hpLRo-4CqMHt-4CqNKB-o3L5o-EH3QT-EUC3b-hpLRp-EZvsw-EZvvk-EZvHV-EZvaK-dWPBQW-E9S3L-qhLhx-phUiY-phUfk-ptAqcp-E5QR6-E5R2w-nDQq3-qRiLxp-nDBYz-nDBK2-EqdJj-EqbKi-E5RU4/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43035200. This story was updated in 2024.

1 comment

David Martucci April 16, 2023 - 8:49 pm

This event is also sometimes called “The Maine State Steal”. One event was the Fusionist Secretary of State on his way out of town tossed the State Seal into the Kennebec River which had the effect of preventing bills from becoming law for several weeks until a new seal could be made!

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