Tuesday, February 19, 2013

February's Exeter History Minute

So who exactly is President's Day supposed to celebrate, anyway? And is it Presidents' or President's? (Just so you know, in New Hampshire, it's President's.) In this ninth episode of the Exeter History Minute - made possible by the Stratham-Newfields Veterinary Hospital - we focus on some of the U.S. Presidents who have visited Exeter while in office, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln -- we couldn't NOT mention him. Click here to watch!

New Hampshire & the U.S. Constitution – 1788

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, Feb. 15, 2013.


A number of years ago, while going over flag etiquette with a Brownie Troop, New Hampshire’s role in the adoption of the U.S. Constitution came up. As we discussed the flag’s meaning, I explained that the stars stood for the fifty states. “So, which one is New Hampshire?” they asked. Of course, the beauty of the American flag is that we don’t have the states’ names embroidered on the stars. We’re all equal in our participation in government, but that wasn’t going to fly with 18 pairs of eyes looking up expecting an answer. “Well,” I fumbled, “New Hampshire was the ninth state to ratify the Constitution, so I guess we’re the ninth star.” Small fingers immediately began counting off the stars until; there we were – number nine – third star, second row.

The ninth star isn’t the FIRST star and it’s not even in the first row. You’d never guess its importance, but being the ninth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution made New Hampshire the state that made the Constitution the law of the land.

By 1787, it was well agreed that the original system of government, the Articles of Confederation, was a shambles. Individual states saw themselves as sovereign nations loosely aligned with one another. The federal government was given few powers and couldn’t effectively raise money. The Revolution had been costly and now the government couldn’t pay down the debt. Trade between the states was unregulated and disagreements were breaking out. There was no executive branch – all legislation had to come from Congress, which required nine out of thirteen states to pass a law. All the states had to agree to any amendments made to the Articles, which proved to be as impossible as it sounds.

In May of 1787, delegates met in Philadelphia to fix the problem, their first decision being to toss the Articles down the outhouse and start over. If you remember your civics class – and I supremely hope you do – the biggest issues involved representation, the slave trade and the Bill of Rights. Over the course of that summer, the delegates argued and compromised their way toward creating a new system of government. Still lacking a bill of rights, it was sent, in September, to the individual states for ratification. Article 7 required nine of the thirteen states to ratify it before it would become the law of the land.

Delaware, New Jersey and Georgia easily passed the document with little opposition. Pennsylvania and Connecticut also ratified early in the process. By February of 1788, the Constitution had five of the necessary nine votes and no state had voted it down. New Hampshire set its convention to begin in Exeter on February 13th.

Many of the delegates in Exeter arrived with strict instructions from their towns to vote down the Constitution. Primarily from rural areas, the ‘Anti-Federalist’ who opposed the new system were suspicious of a centralized government and weren’t comfortable yielding local control. There was also a small minority of delegates who were not comfortable with the civil nature of the document. New Hampshire had a long history of creating religious requirements for holding office – indeed, the requirement to be a Protestant Christian wasn’t removed until 1877. General Sullivan would later write to historian Jeremy Belknap, “The want of a religious test was urged here…but even if that was given up in all other cases, the President at least ought to be compelled to submit to it; - - for otherwise, says one, ‘A Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.’” Cooler heads prevailed, John Langdon reminding the group, according to the American Herald, “Religion must stand upon its own ground, if it could not, (it) should never think of calling upon the civil arm for its support.”

Another issue that troubled the assembly was the provision that allowed the slave trade to continue for twenty more years. Slavery, although not illegal in New Hampshire, was frowned upon as an evil system. The system as it existed in parts of the country was seen as revolting, but not nearly as revolting as the violent kidnapping of people from the African continent. To approve the Constitution appeared to tacitly approve of the slave trade. Some delegates also objected to the ‘three-fifths’ provision that allowed slave owners to count their slaves, whom they considered property and not people, as part of the population. Joshua Atherton, of Amherst, justifiably questioned why, if the south could count their slaves, couldn’t New Hampshire men also count their cattle as population?

But by and large, the Federalists had the edge. As the debates continued, it was obvious to the majority that voting down the Constitution was far more perilous than approving it, but many of the delegates, although personally swayed by the discussion, were still bound by their towns to vote it down. To avoid this, the Federalists called for an adjournment, which was quickly approved, and the convention was postponed until June.

By the time the adjourned meetings took place in June – this time in Concord – the stakes were higher. Massachusetts, Maryland and North Carolina had all ratified. Virginia was holding its ratification convention at the same time as New Hampshire and the delegates realized that if they voted before Virginia the Constitution would stand. The four month recess had done its work. After four days of discussion, New Hampshire voted to ratify the Constitution by a vote of 57 to 47. They beat Virginia by four days and made New Hampshire the deciding vote.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Announcing the 7th Annual Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award Essay Contest & Youth Night

Every winter the Exeter Historical Society invites students in grades 6 to 12 to compete for the Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award in honor of our esteemed former curator for her invaluable contributions to the preservation and interpretation of our local history.

Youth Night 2010
Students at the Cooperative Middle School and Exeter High School, as well as from the greater Seacoast area, are invited to enter by contacting faculty members in their social studies departments or the historical society directly for further information.

This year, in honor of the 375th anniversary of Exeter's founding, the theme is "Exeter's Momentous Occasions". We ask that in their essays, the students examine an event that is important in Exeter's history and explain its significance in creating the community. The deadline for submission is Saturday, March 23, 2013, by noon.

A panel of judges will choose one entry from each division (Middle School and High School) that best meets the criteria of outstanding achievement in format, historical accuracy, originality, and style. A $100 prize will be awarded to each winner. Also, winning papers will be read by the authors at our annual Youth Night awards ceremony on Tuesday, April 30 at 7pm. It is our hope that the Nancy Carnegie Merrill Award will foster an appreciation for our community and an interest in its past.

The essay contest and Youth Night are generously sponsored by Service Credit Union. For additional information, please contact Laura Martin Gowing, Program Manager. 2013 Nancy Carnegie Merrill History Award Flyer and Materials. The rubric that the judges will be using to evaluate the entries can be found here.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Exeter’s 1802 Phineas Merrill Map

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, February 1, 2013.

Considering Exeter was founded in 1638, it can be frustrating that we don’t have any accurate maps of the town for the first 164 years of its history. Be that as it may, we are lucky to have a map produced in 1802 that provides us with a snapshot of the town as it looked in the years just after the Revolution.

In theory, all towns in New Hampshire should have an accurate map for the period 1803 – 1805 because it was mandated by the State Legislature. On December 30, 1803, the State passed an act requiring all towns to create a map “containing the exact limits of the said towns by careful admeasurement, together with a description of all public roads passing through the same, also the rivers, falls and principal streams, ponds lakes and mountains, and the names of adjoining towns.”

The purpose of the act was to create a State map of New Hampshire. The town maps had to be complete by November 1, 1805. Failure to comply would incur a $150.00 fine. Luckily for Exeter, we already had an accurate map of the town created by one of the state’s finest surveyors – Phineas Merrill of Stratham.

Merrill, who was born in 1767, was a self-taught surveyor. He served in many capacities in Stratham, including town selectman, school teacher and state legislator. In an attempt to simplify his arithmetic classes, he published the Scholar’s Guide to Arithmetic in 1793, which was republished numerous times over the years. The copy in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society was the fourth edition published in 1802. In it, he expresses his need for list of arithmetical rules while teaching, but “my school being often crowded, I had not time either to write or see to the writing, of such Rules and Questions as were necessary without neglecting the other exercises of the school.” Most teachers will understand this frustration of too much to do and too little time to do it.

His best-known skill, however, was as a map maker. When the 1803 Act was passed, Merrill became the obvious choice to assist Phillip Carrigain, the Secretary of State, with the immense task. Together they collected the maps that were submitted to the state and returned 130 of them to the towns because they weren’t deemed accurate enough. Historian Charles Bell, of Exeter, later wrote that “the surveys of some of the towns were made by incompetent persons, and it required ingenuity if not actual force to fit them perfectly together.” Of the hundreds of maps submitted, those made by Phineas Merrill were some of the most beautifully done. Merrill surveyed the towns of Barrington, Bartlett, Greenland, New Castle, Portsmouth, Rye, Stratham and, of course, Exeter.

For his Stratham and Exeter maps, Merrill merely had to update those that he had already made. He’d laid out a map of Stratham in 1793 – the same year he wrote his Scholar’s Guide to Arithmetic. It is remarkable in its detail. Not only do Merrill maps lay out the boundaries of the town and any geographical features, but as a cadastral map he includes the names of the landholders and a rough idea of what the houses looked like. Clusters of homesteads appear along the roadways and one can almost visualize the reasons people chose to live in a certain spot.

Merrill made the map of Exeter in 1802 – before the mapping act was passed. There were actually two versions created that year – the first is a view of the entire town, including the streams, meadows, woodlands and the Exeter and Squamscott rivers snaking through town and heading out to sea after absurdly winding around the oxbow. Once he’d finished his map of the entire town, he made another one of the “compact part of the Town of Exeter,” which laid out the central business district known to most as simply ‘the village.’ Here we find not just the homesteads and farms in town but the local merchants and churches. Phillips Exeter Academy is a prominent feature as are all the mills located along the river. The map was printed before the mighty Exeter Manufacturing Company engulfed the smaller mills and set up its cotton factory on the east side of the river.

Phineas Merrill didn’t live long enough to see the final result of the State map project. He died in 1815, a year before Carrigain’s map of the State of New Hampshire was finally printed. At the time of his death, Merrill had been working with his brother, Eliphalet Merrill – a Baptist preacher – to compile a state gazetteer. This, like the state map, was published after his death. Eliphalet published the Gazetteer of the State of New-Hampshire in 1817. He apologized for the late publication date; they’d hoped to have the book finished at the same time as the map. “Since the decease of my beloved brother, who was associated as co-partner in this work, there has been an unavoidable delay of its publication, but by the assistance of several literary gentlemen, it is now respectfully submitted to a candid public.”

Copies of the 1802 Merrill maps of Exeter, printed from the original copper plates, are still available at the Exeter Historical Society.