The House chamber was all but empty. The few convened all wore masks. The atmosphere was strangely – and refreshingly – calm.

Most Mainers could be forgiven if they missed Monday’s gathering of the state’s Electoral College – that obscure, some might say anachronistic, process by which we actually go about selecting our president and vice president.

But in this year of turmoil – poisonous politics fused with a pandemic, calamity from the White House to the intensive care unit – it mattered. It said, in its uniquely understated way, that we are still here, that our democracy survived yet again, that the future still beckons.

Leave it to Jim Tierney, Maine’s former attorney general and now a lecturer at Harvard Law School, to put it all in perspective.

While Maine’s four electors – David Bright of Dixmont, Peter LaVerdiere of Oxford, Shenna Bellows of Manchester and young Jay Philbrick of North Yarmouth – waited to cast their three votes for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and one for Donald Trump and Mike Pence, Tierney, fulfilling the role of Electoral College historian, offered those gathered in Augusta and those watching online from home words of reassurance at a time when nothing feels assured.

“We – all of us – have fulfilled our constitutional task. We have done our duty and with a record turnout,” he said. “Congratulations to us all.”

Tierney aimed in his 22-minute address to put the 2020 election in perspective, to show that as bad as things may seem now, they’ve been as bad or worse.

He chose two historical figures – John Adams and Joshua Chamberlain – to illustrate how throughout our history, competing forces have tugged and sometime torn at our national fabric. And how each time, bound together by our Constitution, that fabric has endured.

The election of 1800, Tierney recalled, pitted President Adams against Vice President Thomas Jefferson, a rematch of the contest Adams had won narrowly four years earlier.

Once close friends and mutual admirers, the two men had devolved into the bitterest of rivals.

“At the core Jefferson was a man of the South who owned 200 slaves and opposed a strong federal government,” Tierney said. “And John Adams was the opposite.”

The campaign was distinguished by its bitterness, “rivaling the one we just experienced,” Tierney said. And when Adams lost this time, he did not take it well:

“He believed it was stolen. He believed there was fraud. He believed money had changed hands. He felt personally betrayed. And in his anger he worked till midnight in that last night in the White House – that house built by slaves where he was the first resident – appointing judges right up to the last minute.”

Then, on Inauguration Day, Adams did something extraordinary – not in its defiance or grandeur, but its simplicity.

At 4 a.m. on March 4, 1801, the 65-year-old man who had given his soul to the birth of this nation quietly walked out of the newly built White House, looked back one last time at the candles burning in the windows, boarded a public stage and began his long journey home to Massachusetts.

“He certainly wasn’t going to go Jefferson’s inauguration. He left feeling a complete failure,” Tierney said.

Adams, still the commander in chief during those waning hours of his presidency, could have done something dramatic. On his order, the militia could have been in the streets stopping Jefferson from assuming office.

“But he didn’t. In fact, it never occurred to him. Because we had a Constitution,” Tierney said. “And for the first time in the world, governmental power had been peacefully transferred (between opposing forces) because of an election.”

Three-quarters of a century later, the nation’s focus was on Maine and the very building in which Tierney delivered his speech.

A contested gubernatorial election in 1879 between incumbent Democrat Alonzo Garcelon of Lewiston and Republican Daniel Davis of Corinth teetered on the edge of civil insurrection.

Garcelon, fearing the post-election mob violence that had broken out all over the state, had filled the State House with a paramilitary force that brandished rifles from every upper window. Snipers positioned themselves throughout the balcony overlooking the rotunda.

Across the street, 300 Civil War veterans, summoned by then U.S. Sen. James Blaine, drilled on the lawn in support of Davis.

“This story captivated the country’s imagination and appeared in every national newspaper under banner headlines predicting a civil war in Maine,” Tierney said. “Thousands of voters on both sides held rallies and calls to violence appeared at all of them.”

Then two things happened.

Garcelon summoned Joshua Chamberlain, renowned Civil War hero and himself a former governor, from Chamberlain’s home in Brunswick to bring order to Augusta. At the same time, Garcelon turned to Maine’s highest court to decide how to proceed.

Chamberlain summarily cleared the state Capitol of both armed factions, facing down hordes threatening to kill him on the spot. Then, for 12 long days, he settled in and patiently waited for the court to do its job. In the end, Davis won. Garcelon went home to Lewiston.

Chamberlain, noted Tierney, “would not depart from his conviction that it would be the law, and not threats and intimidation, that would ultimately prevail.” He even turned down offers from both sides of a seat in the U.S. Senate – his long-held dream – because he considered it an attempt to corrupt the democratic process.

The world remembers Chamberlain as the young Union officer who heroically commanded the 20th Maine Regiment at Gettysburg. But late in his life, Tierney said, he would call those 12 cold days defending the state Capitol – and all that it stood for – “by far the greatest public service I have ever rendered.”

Some still wring their hands over what will happen come Jan. 20. Will Donald Trump, unlike Adams, refuse to go quietly? Will armed partisans fill the streets, as they did in Chamberlain’s day?

Tierney, for one, isn’t worried. He’s betting, once again, on the Constitution.

“You see, our Constitution is not a document. It is a way of believing. It is a way of living,” he said. “Our Constitution is in our hearts and while it lives there, our union will continue. If it ever dies there, no judge or president or army can save us.”

After Tierney spoke – his small audience stood and applauded. Then, each elector took a few moments to reflect on the import of the moment.

Jay Philbrick, a freshman at Brown University, noted wryly that he’s spent “5 percent of my life in quarantine” because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s because he’s only 18, making him one of the nation’s youngest electors ever.

Thus it seems fitting, as Tierney takes us back, for Philbrick to take us forward.

“I challenge everyone here to reach out to their loved ones across political divides, to remember that we are human beings first, to remember that politics is a human endeavor,” he said. “And to continue to create a nation that upholds the rule of law and one that respects human difference.”

Amen.


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