by Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr.
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
Seemingly forgotten because of the event of July 4th, 1776 is a historic event that took place in January of that year in New Hampshire. The citizens of New Hampshire in the years leading up to that event were apparently not particularly anxious to break their ties with Great Britain, but by 1775 they had to have felt that the time had come to sever ties with a country that had put unfair burdens upon them.
Leaders in England, which had been successful in adding much territory to its possessions, including all of the American colonies, which were then officially under its dominion. England had accumulated huge debt and felt it only fair that the colonies should be taxed to help pay off that debt. The colonies, on the other hand, resisted the policy of being taxed without any representation in the English government. The mother countries’ desire to control its subjects and the colonies’ desire to govern their own affairs resulted in unrest and conflict.
So, in keeping New Hampshire’s tradition of wanting to be first, a Congress of the state met in Exeter on January 5, 1776 to adopt a state constitution, making New Hampshire the first colony to take such action. The Colonial Governor, John Wentworth, had been removed from his position, and the uncertainties involving leadership and the resistance of the people to orders coming from England were factors leading to the convention to establish a constitution instituting temporary guidelines for governing New Hampshire.
The reasons for the constitution were given as follow: “The sudden departure of his Excellency John Wentworth, Esq., our late Governor, and several of the Council, leaving us destitute of legislation, and no executive courts being open to punish criminal offenders; whereby the lives and properties of the honest people of this colony are liable to the machinations and evil designs of wicked men, Therefore, for the preservation of peace and good order, and for the security of the lives and properties of the inhabitants of this colony, we conceive ourselves reduced to the necessity of establishing A FORM OF GOVERNMENT to continue during the present and unnatural contest with Great Britain; PROTESTING and DECLARING that we neaver sought to throw off our dependence upon Great Britain, but felt ourselves happy under her protection, while we could enjoy our constitutional rights and privileges. And that we shall rejoice if such a reconciliation between us and our parent state can be effected as shall be approved by the CONTINENTAL CONGRESS, in whose prudence and wisdom we confide.”
In establishing a constitution the members of the convention meeting in Exeter, which we might consider the capital town of the state in 1776, the members expressed the hope that differences with the Britain government could be resolved, making the new constitution but a temporary necessity, while making provision for its continuance if reconciliation did not occur. Note that they also subjected themselves to the will of the Continental Congress which would, six months later, declare independence from Great Britain.
The Congress assembled in Exeter called themselves a House of Representatives or Assembly and made provision for a separate legislative branch of government which would include twelve persons chosen by themselves ( that is, the House). This second branch was to be called a COUNCIL and would need a quorum of seven to do business. The Council members would be chosen from the separate counties, five from Rockingham , two from each of the counties of Stratford , Hillsborough, and Cheshire, and one from Grafton. The constitution stated “That no act or resolve shall be valid and put into execution unless agreed to and passed by both branches of the legislature.”
The meeting of what is called a Provincial Congress had held previous meetings before the fifth congress was formed in December of 1775. According to Charles H. Bell’s History of Exeter, New Hampshire , it was “…to be composed of persons having real estate in the province to the value of five hundred pounds each…”. I should include the fact that these New Hampshire citizens sought and received the advice of the Continental Congress before adopting the first constitution by any of the colonies.
A secret group of men called The Sons of Liberty (that may not have been very secret) led the country, including those in New Hampshire, in protesting the acts of Great Britain in taxing Americans. There were a group of laws passed in parliament called the Intolerable Acts which resulted in boycotts against British produced goods.
On June 11, 1776 a committee consisting of members from the New Hampshire Representatives and the Council drew up Declaration of Independence which was adopted on June 15th according to Barstow’s History of New Hampshire. Their delegates to the Continental Congress, Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, and Matthew Thornton were instructed to “…join with the other colonies , in declaring the thirteen united colonies a free and independent state- solemnly pledging our faith and honor, that we will, on our parts, support the measure with our lives and fortunes…” They expressed confidence in the Congress to provide for their safety with the addition of the statement: “Provided, the regulation of our own internal police be under the direction of our own assembly.”
The 1776 New Hampshire Constitution was replaced with a new one in 1784, but the expression of a colony that we might say started out with an identity crisis, including boundary disputes and attachments to other states, to declare itself independent of those who would exercise oppressive rule over it, is significant.
Robert Hanaford Smith, Sr. live in New Hampton.