ORONO – On July 4, 1815, Maine “mechanicks” could be observed parading through the streets of Portland celebrating the nation’s independence they helped to achieve.

They not only shared in the excitement associated with new beginnings symbolized by the historic Declaration of Independence, but employed the “spirit” of their revolutionary heritage in their struggles to enhance their interests.

The state’s “mechanicks” and farmers viewed themselves as the “bone and sinews” of society, true “producers” of the wealth enjoyed by its members, and pioneers of physical progress.

As “producers” they belonged to the class that did useful work and lived by their own labor and not the labor of others. These “producers” contrasted sharply to the “non-producing” class of bankers, lawyers, merchants, land speculators, and parasitical wealthy employers whose control over production rested solely on ownership of capital.

Not far removed in time from Concord and Lexington and their revolutionary heritage, the “mechanicks” sought their rightful place as citizens and producers. In 1831, mechanicks in Portland organized Maine’s first labor party, the Workingmen’s Institution.

Soon, the political offensive was broadened when their “Call on The Spirit of ’76” reached the workingmen of Cumberland County, calling upon them to convene in Gray on July 4th to energize and activate “the sovereign people” to whom was owed “all those rights which our revolutionary fathers bequeathed to us.”

The cry for equality was so pervasive that some Maine “mechanicks” favored the abolition of titles such as “his Excellency” when referring to the governor, and “Honorable” when referring to members of the House and Senate.

The demands of workers in the early years of statehood were numerous, and laced together with the central idea of equality.

In education, for example, they attacked the “unequal distribution of knowledge,” which accounted for the “disparity of influence” and gave rise to “aristocratic distinctions.”

Free and universal education was necessary to erase a “privileged class” and the “aristocracy of intellect.”

In 1841, between 400 and 500 young female operatives of the York Manufacturing Co. of Saco exhibited behavior regarded as “incompatible with the retiring delicacy of the female character” when they struck against arbitrary work rules.

The strikers, whom some viewed as “living machines” who labored in “living hells” and “prison factories,” paraded through the streets of Saco and Biddeford and carried banners which proclaimed, “We Scorn To Be Slaves,” and sang lyrics which announced their revolutionary heritage:

We are not slaves! — We scorn the name!

We ask not friend’s or foreman’s favor.

We’re freeman’s daughters — and we claim

The rights that woman’s father gave her!

Their act of “sedition” was viewed by contemporaries as a colorful and isolated aberration of the natural order of things, but in reality was linked to a larger struggle between capital and labor growing out of industrialization and conflicting images of social progress.

Land reformers also called upon the “spirit” of their revolutionary heritage.

The land, they argued, was secured by all through the toil and blood of their ancestors through revolutionary struggle, and “thus belongs, equally to the people.”

In 1846, the Portland Pleasure Boat passionately proclaimed, “Every family on God’s footstool has a ‘civil right’ to as much land as it needs to raise bread on.” The paper called upon the “landless slaves” to “Arise! be freemen all.”

Examples abound.

In 1865, the Portland Labor Reform Association declared that women’s suffrage was a prerequisite to the “natural right to be free.”

In Lewiston, on July 4th,1865, young female operatives paraded through the city and carried a banner which shouted: “July 4th 1865, Right of Suffrage to every American Citizen.”

Women who assembled in Augusta on Jan. 29, 1873, to organize the Suffrage Association, asserted that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and that “taxation without representation” was tyranny.

Numerous strikes revealed that labor’s perception of the revolutionary heritage was not universally shared.

Witness the failure of the maiden strike of the Independent Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen, and its divisions in Bangor, Waterville, Brunswick, Lewiston and Portland, against the Maine Central Railroad in 1901.

Workers were compelled to return to their workplaces on July 4th!