Yesterday, we brought a piece of Biddeford History back to life. The Biddeford Historical Society and guests explored the period leading up to President James Monroe’s visit to Biddeford in July of 1817. The War of 1812 was a war that many of our citizens did not want. Emperor Napoleon was wreaking havoc in Europe. The British fleets were impressing our men. For the first time in over 200 years, we heard again the words of our Biddeford citizens who vehemently opposed the War of 1812.
Paul McDonough, BHS board member, gave a captivating presentation of the period, showing us the different architecture and the prominent citizens of Biddeford. He talked of the rivalry between Daniel Cleaves and Thomas Cutts. Thomas Cutts had his grandiose mansion, but Daniel Cleaves in his palatial home on Water Street laid the claim to having the most chairs in York County. Daniel Cleaves was the first in the area to house his horses and animals in an area under his house. With all the heat from the animals, his house was the warmest in the area.
Paul showed us the homes of the period from the 1790 commoner’s house on Guinea Road to the palatial Seth Springs’ house that now is the home of Biddeford Lumber. He showed us the site in Biddeford Pool where the British invaded and the actual place where Thomas Cutts’ schooner is buried after being gutted by British troops. War was right here in Biddeford – in our midst and damaged beyond all repair the marine store of Thomas Cutts.
Dan LeBlond, BHS board member, gave us a fascinating view into James Monroe. He was described as handsome with froths of black hair and sharp blue eyes. Over six feet tall, he was imposing for the time. He gave us insight into the Monroe Doctrine and the War.
Denis Letelier, BHS board member, introduced George Thatcher. A graduate of Harvard, he was a prominent lawyer and he was the person that Monroe was had breakfast with. George Thatcher was a Maine Supreme Court Judge and pivotal in the founding of Bowdoin College. Denis showed us an early daguerrotype photo of George Thatcher. Denis talked about the invasion of the White House and how Dolly Madison saved important documents including a painting of George Washington. She had set the table for a big dinner and before the British troops destroyed the white house, they ate the fine dinner that was meant for the Madison guests.
Charles Butler, BHS board member, unearthed early Biddeford documents and published accounts of Monroe’s visit. Monroe’s visits were timed to correspond to breakfast, lunch and dinner (6AM, noon and 6PM). He described the people waiting around in their finest outfits since it was a momentous occasion to have a President visit. For Biddeford, it was the first time ever that a President visited our town. Charles described the arches that were constructed for the President’s entrance into the town. In Saco, they were fashioned out of Balsam fir. In Portland, they were garlands of flowers. To our delight, Charles recounted how Portland had live eagles on their arches and when President Monroe passed under these, the eagle auspiciously spread its wings. For the second time in history, we heard the words that were read to President Monroe.
Monroe was here to unite our country. To banish all the divisiveness and go back to what our citizens wanted prior to the War of 1812 – peace. Monroe, a handsome and imposing figure, bedecked in his Revolutionary War uniform was a reminder of what we fought for during the war. On Saturday, we had the opportunity to remember this and bring the words of our Biddeford ancestors back to life.
Biddeford history is your history. Each one of us has the opportunity to bring our history back to life. We can all be historians and discover and breathe life into these documents and places.
We hope you can join us at our next event – Clipper Ships on the Saco: The History of Biddeford Boat Building on August 11th at 7 pm at the historic Biddeford Meetinghouse.
Below is the petition that Louise Merriman, BHS board member, read:
July 27, 1812
To James Madison, President of the United States of America – The Freeholder & Other Inhabitants of the Town of Biddeford in the District of Maine in legal town meeting assembled having seen your Manifesto, The Act of Congress, declaring war against the United Kingdom of Great Britain & Ireland, and your proclamation of the same, feel in duty bound respectfully to state some of our ideas respecting this subject; some of us bore a heavy burden in the Revolution, which achieved our independence but our heads are now heavy and our limbs enervated by time; our young men have heard what their fathers have told them concerning these days of old, this former years of visitation; the most of us look back with pleasure on the prosperous years that succeeded the adoption of our federal constitution and ask why our gold (has) become dim, why are those happy, thrice happy times, changed, we see no sufficient reason for it, the great belligerents of Europe ever cordially hated each other, their trade and their delight is in war and when get engaged therein, the smaller states and kingdom are obliged to give way in small matters; The Emperor of France at this time making monstrous strides over the Continent of Europe, we view with horror.
If (illegible) the fate of Holland, reduced to a Province of France as well as other republics on the Continent of Europe, nay several of the kingdoms of Europe are obliged to bow to the mighty Emperor we see him shedding blood of millions to give supremacy over Spain and Portugal we view Great Britain as fighting at this time for her very existence of this mighty Emperor subjugates Europe. We shudder, we tremble at the thought, when will his pride be satisfied with Europe, will he not spend conquests around the Atlantic, we tremble when we contemplate these thing, we abhor an alliance with a nation whose ambition knows no bounds, we remember what our Father Washington said, “Why by enterweaving our Destiny with that of any part of Europe. Entangled our peace and prosperity in the toils of European Ambition, we frequently hear how this Monarch daily treats us by burning, sinking and destroying our commerce on the ocean without any legal process, but by caprice of an individual Master of armed vessel belonging to an aspiring usurper for universal dominion we also see many things arbitrary in the Conduct of the Government of Great Britain we see the Commanders of British armed vessels – vessels domineering over our unarmed merchant men pressing and forcibly carrying away our seaman…….
Earnestly supplicate our President to take Constitutional measures to bring about this most desirable object and restore the United States to peace if it can be done on honorable terms. And then break the fetters on commerce, which will restore our revenue to its wanted channel and fill again our Exhausted Treasury, then set up a strict impartiality with all nations and we shall again set us in the Days of Washington, under our own vine and our own fighters and have none to make us afraid, and the town of inhabitants will ever pray.
Voted a copy of said petition be sent to the President of the United States, signed and moderated by the Selectmen and attested by the Town Clerk.