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The thing about turning points

David M. Shribman

WELLS, Maine -- With almost no attention, and surely no grand commemoration, Maine this summer marked an important American anniversary that, despite its unheralded nature, provided one of the more vital, and less well-known, turning points in the nation's history.

It was 200 years ago this summer that, by a margin of 9,959 votes, residents of this windswept state agreed to end its status as a far-flung province of Massachusetts and seek statehood of its own. That vote set in motion a struggle in Washington that brought the issue of slavery to its most prominent point yet in the four-decade-old life of the young republic.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers paired the petition of Maine, which would ban slavery, with the petition of Missouri's, which would permit slavery, resulting in what became known as the Missouri Compromise. Thus Maine's vote on July 26, 1819, can be considered a landmark turning point.

Last weekend's double mass murders prompted questions over whether they might provoke a turning point in the nation's long debate about gun control. Already one Republican lawmaker, Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, who had an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, announced he had had a change of heart, explaining that the shootings in his congressional district were a "catalyst for a broader national conversation about what we can do to stop these mass shootings."

There have been several important turning points in American history, many of them, like the Maine referendum, traceable to a specific date. Here is a (necessarily incomplete) list of some of them, omitting the obvious ones of Dec. 7, 1941, and Sept. 11, 2001:

Aug. 20, 1619. The arrival of the first slaves in what would become the United States would shape American history from its colonial days through contemporary times, providing the country with its "original sin" and its most persistent challenge.

Sept. 17, 1787. The signing of the Constitution, the founding document of the country, established the great American political experiment.

Nov. 6, 1860. The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency is without question one of the hinge events in our history. The first avowed, unapologetic anti-slavery president, his ascension to the White House set in motion the Civil War that had been looming for decades. 

July 9, 1868. The passage of the 14th Amendment provided for "equal protection" under the law and established rules for citizenship that granted full rights to all Americans. 

Aug. 18, 1920. The expansion of the franchise to women laid the groundwork for important advances for half the population that still have not been fully realized.

Aug. 6, 1945. Last week marked the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, inaugurating a frightful era of nuclear weaponry and establishing the United States as a superpower, a status it has held for three-quarters of a century.

Dec. 1, 1955. Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a public bus prompted the beginning of the Montgomery bus boycott, which, among other incidents, set the stage for the modern civil rights movement and the passage of the 1960s Civil Rights and Voting Rights Laws.

June 28, 1969. A police raid at Greenwich Village's Stonewall Inn 50 years ago this summer began the modern gay rights movement that transformed American views of police brutality, sexuality and marriage.

June 17, 1972. The Watergate break-in triggered a great White House scandal, the first resignation of a president and new campaign-finance laws.

Nov. 4, 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan, a onetime FDR supporter, signaled the demise of the New Deal coalition, began the age of tax cuts, and ended the Roosevelt-era notion that government was the answer to the nation's economic, social and cultural ills.

June 29, 2007. The introduction of the iPhone transformed global culture and assured that more people would read this essay on their phones than in print.

Nov. 8, 2016. Already it is clear that the election of Donald J. Trump was a major turning point in U.S. history, an indication that the disruption that had caused upheaval in the economy and culture of the country had come to the politics of the nation, endangering decades-old nostrums about trade, national security and presidential comportment.

Aug. 3-4, 2019. Though tragic episodes in Colorado, Nevada, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Florida numbed the nation to mass murders, the twin shootings last weekend have the potential of being a turning point.

Caveat: The British historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote that in 1848 "Germany had reached its turning point and failed to turn." Before the year is out, we may know whether the same might be said here.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.