Campus News

Remarks by Maine State Governor Angus King delivered at Bowdoin's Commencement, May 25, 1996

Story posted May 25, 1996

All my life I've wanted to stand here and read something to you on this particular spot, because only here in the State of Maine, to my knowledge, can you read something and say with complete honesty that you are reading between the lions. I've waited a lifetime to use that line before 3,000 people.

My job is to give you the greetings of the State of Maine to the graduates. But first, I want to provide greetings and thanks to your families, to your parents who have contributed mightily to the economy of the State of Maine over the past four years, and inform you that even as you leave this Memorial Day Weekend L.L. Bean is open just a few miles down the road.

To the graduates, I want to share two thoughts: One is something about the State of Maine being part of you as you leave here, but before that I want to tell you a little story about an inextricable link between Bowdoin College and the State, one that you might not have heard before. You all know of General Joshua Chamberlain, the hero of Little Round Top, whose house is right down on the corner, half a block from my house. You know the story of how Chamberlain literally saved the Union. There are few times in history when it can be honestly said that the actions of one person changed history, but if you read the account of the Battle of Gettysburg on that hot day in 1863 in July, and know of what happened with Chamberlain's Twentieth Maine on Little Round Top when the Confederates were coming up the flank and Chamberlain was literally the last man on the Federal lines. And if Chamberlain had broken; if the Twentieth Maine had broken that day, there was nothing between the Confederate Army and the City of Washington. There is almost no question that the Civil War would have ended within a week of that moment.

But that's not the story I want to tell you. The story is it involved Chamberlain almost 20 years later. In 1880, we had a contested gubernatorial election in Maine that makes the elections that we have these days . We talk about negative advertising and how rough and tumble our politics is, it's nothing compared to what it was a hundred years ago. In 1880, there was a gubernatorial election that was so close that nobody knew who won, and the election was going to have to be decided by a recount and a vote in the Executive Council in the Legislature, and the parties were fighting so hard that they took up arms. Augusta was filled with armed men, and nobody knew what to do or how to solve this problem, and somebody thought of calling General Chamberlain, who had been governor of Maine in the late 1860s and was then president of Bowdoin College. Chamberlain, one more time, got on his horse and went to Augusta, and he went to the State House and locked himself in the building. He was the only person there, and basically he took the position that the only way to decide this question was to submit it to the State Supreme Court. At that time, the parties were gathering, and they were having torchlight parades; there was a sniper on the dome of the State House who had James G. Blaine, who lived next door, in his sights. And finally the crisis reached that moment that events such as that reach and an armed mob stormed the State House, and they were calling to kill Chamberlain because he was stopping what they thought was their ability to seize power. Chamberlain opened the door, went out on the steps, alone, looked at the crowd, and when they quieted down, said this: "I am here to see that the laws of the State of Maine are fully and fairly executed. If any man wants to kill me for it, here I am."

There was a pause of about 20 seconds; no one uttered a sound, and, finally, there was an old man in the back of the mob who said: "I was with you at Little Round Top, General, and if one of these ruffians touches a hair on your head, he'll have to answer to me." And that was the end of the crisis of 1880.

The matter went to the court; it was decided; the rightful governor took office, and Chamberlain came home to Brunswick.

So I want you to remember that story that ties you and Bowdoin College to Maine and to civilization and civility.

Finally, I want you to leave, taking a piece of Maine with you--to remember glorious days like this, you can forget a few in February, I'm sure. Paul Brountas mentioned our clean-air plan, I think we're doing pretty well, Paul.

But you spent four very important years here, and I now that they've been mostly on this campus, but I hope that you take something of Maine with you. I went to a small college in New Hampshire, and in our alma mater is the very odd line about our graduates: "that we have the granite of New Hampshire in our muscles and in our brains." That's what it says; it was written a hundred years ago, and that's what is says. I mentioned that last year and a lady came up to me on the street in Brunswick a few weeks later, and said, "Governor, that really is what it says--I didn't believe you." The granite of New Hampshire in our muscles and our brains, and a later verse talks about "and the hill winds in our veins." You have the granite of Maine in you--the cold winter nights, the bold coast, the tall pines, and, hopefully, something of the integrity that is born of living in such a rough but beautiful place. And I hope that wherever you go around this girdled earth, you will take a piece of Maine with you; remember your years here, and have gained something, not only from your education at Bowdoin, but from your experience in the Grand Old State of Maine.

Congratulations and best wishes from the State and its people.

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