Moultonborough, New Hampshire, and the Constitutions

By Jane Rice

        Since we are just at the time of year to celebrate the Declaration of Independence, and by extension the Constitution that has preserved our freedom over the last 215 years, it seems appropriate to examine the role that Moultonborough and New Hampshire have played in those two documents.

       New Hampshire’s delegates to the Continental Congress in 1776, which produced the Declaration of Independence, were Josiah Bartlett, Matthew Thornton, and William Whipple; and they were two physicians and a merchant, respectively. None were born in New Hampshire: Bartlett was born in Amesbury, Mass, Thornton in Ireland, and Whipple in Kittery, Maine. Whipple died in 1785, and thus did not live to see the Constitution written and adopted, but Bartlett lived until 1795, and Thornton until 1803, and he saw the new Republic into its third President before he passed away.

       New Hampshire was wrestling with the question of how to govern itself once colonial governor John Wentworth was forced to flee from the colony on August 23, 1775, sailing from Portsmouth on a ship called the Scarborough, along with his lovely wife, Lady Frances Wentworth, and infant son. Among other possessions, he left behind his summer estate in Wolfeboro, which gives them the claim of being the “first summer resort in America.” There was a legislative assembly under Gov. Wentworth, but only towns whose citizens were known to be of pro-British sentiment were allowed to send representatives. Because this was not truly representative, a Provincial Congress began meeting in Exeter in 1774, and 85 towns were represented. It was an argument over seating Wentworth supporter John Fenton, ending with a cannon drawn up to the door of the Wentworth mansion in Portsmouth, which led to the departure of the Wentworth family.

       This left no legal authority of any kind in the state, and they were advised by the Continental Congress in December, 1775, to call together a representation of the people to form a state government. Moultonborough was represented in this Provincial Congress by Daniel Bede, Esq. In 1776 that group adopted the first “state” constitution, drafted by a committee of four, including Dr. Matthew Thornton. It might be noted that New Hampshire also drafted its own Declaration of Independence on June 15, 1776

       The constitution was meant to last only until the war ended, possibly with peace restored between the colonies and the mother country, when it would be more convenient to draft a permanent document. There were some problems with the 1776 constitution, however, and in 1778 the world’s first constitutional convention sat in Concord to create a more lasting article. Draft constitutions were voted down in 1779 and 1781, and finally, on October 31, 1783, voters ratified a new constitution by the needed two-thirds majority, to go into effect on June 2, 1784. Moultonborough does not appear to have been represented at this convention, although James Brewer represented  “Sandwich, etc.” Detailed records of the convention were not preserved.

       Many of the same problems with royal government which were addressed in the U.S. Constitution in 1787 were also addressed in New Hampshire’s own “Bill of Rights” and constitution, including unlimited search and seizure, quartering of troops, cruel and unusual punishment, unfair trials and hereditary government were all forbidden. Constitutional conventions are mandated every ten years to make needed changes, but Article 10, Right of Revolution, remains a part of the current document, and we are also the only state to retain the governor’s council as one side of a “split executive” branch, as the founders were quite wary of placing too much executive power in the hands of the governor alone.

 U.S. Constitution

       We know that the Articles of Confederation that were originally adopted in 1781 was too weak a document to bind the states together in national unity. It remained in force eight years, by which time the national government, unable to collect taxes or exercise executive or judicial power, could not even pay the interest on foreign debts or the back pay due to the Revolutionary army.

       A convention was called in the spring of 1787 to rectify this situation, and New Hampshire chose four representatives: John Langdon and John Pickering of Portsmouth, Benjamin West of Charlestown, and Nicholas Gilman of Exeter. Only Langdon and Gilman attended. Both were leaders in state government and in the Revolution, with Langdon among the party that seized the gunpowder at Fort William and Mary in 1774, also pledging personal funds to raise the brigade of troops under Gen. John Stark that fought at the Battle of Bennington, as well as being New Hampshire’s very first U.S. Senator, and first President of the Senate. Gilman was adjutant of the 3rd N.H. Volunteers in the Revolution, and later a U.S. Congressman and Senator.

       The draft of the new federal constitution was reported to Congress in September, 1787, and referred to the states for approval, with a majority of nine of the thirteen states needed to bring the constitution into effect in the ratifying states. The convention for the “Investigation, Discussion, and Decision of the Federal Constitution”, sat at Exeter on February 13, 1788, at which time it had already been ratified by six states-unanimously in Delaware, New Jersey, and Georgia, and by vote in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, which adopted it by a vote of only 187-168. Moultonborough, Tuftonboro, Wolfeboro and Ossipee were represented by Nathaniel Shannon of Moultonborough. Many of the delegates to the New Hampshire convention had instructions from their districts to vote against the document, and although many became converts during the ten days of discussion, they still felt obliged to vote against it due to the feelings of the folks back home. The convention therefore adjourned without a binding vote, in order that the Federalist party could explain the document to the voters and possibly convert them to their side.

      The convention reassembled on June 18, 1788 in Concord, at the Old North Meeting House. Maryland and South Carolina had meanwhile voted for ratification, and New York and Virginia were also then in session. The next state to ratify would cast the deciding vote. In spite of determined opposition by abolitionists who were concerned because the Constitution did not ban the practice of human slavery, the delegates voted on June 21, 57-47 in favor of ratification, with Nathaniel Shannon among the party voting in favor, although his constituents, objecting to the concessions to slavery, had originally instructed him to vote against. Shannon began as a clerk in Jonathan Moulton’s store in Hampton, became one of the 12 Proprietors of the town, and served in many public offices. Little New Hampshire thus became the state that brought the United States Constitution into force and effect among the states that had so far voted.

       Express riders immediately set out to carry the word to New York and Virginia, as well as to Gov. Hancock of Massachusetts, and to various parts of the state. Since it was the Lord’s Day when word reached Portsmouth, the citizens contented themselves with prayers of thanksgiving in all the churches, until at 1:00 a.m. Monday morning a joyful peal was rung on the bells, saluting the members of the convention and their work. The following Thursday a grand procession was held of men of all professions, plus a ship representing the UNION, drawn by nine horses, with music written for the occasion, additional salutes by cannon, and a picnic, and the state-house illuminated with nine candles in each window. The “New Hampshire Gazette” carried the headline, “The Ninth and Sufficient Pillar Raised”, giving New Hampshire the honor of laying the top stone to “the grand Federal Edifice”, which has kept our nation going ever since.