Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Exeter House of Delegates

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on December 18, 2015.

For over a decade a yellowing packet of papers lingered in the uncatalogued collections of the Exeter Historical Society. When it was finally opened in 1986, the archivist was only able to enter “received before 1972”into the record. What was known, however, was that it came from the estate of Dr. William G. Perry (called “young Doctor Perry” to distinguish him from his father of the same name and occupation). Perry was born in Exeter in 1823and worked his entire life in town. After his death in 1910 the family found a host of historical gems in his papers. One of these was the packet labeled, “Records of a debating society called Exeter House of Delegates, started Oct. 28, 1848.”

Every era has its divisive and seemingly intractable issue. Today the issue is probably guns. Our constitution allows us to own guns, but it doesn’t provide us with enough details about how to live with them. The writers of the Constitution couldn’t have anticipated the leaps in technology that would create weapons capable of tearing apart a schoolroom of little children. Nor did they anticipate that people would want to keep this type of weapon at home to protect themselves against the other guy with the same kind of gun. How are we going to get ourselves out of this mess? Both sides of the issue are dug in. We’ve gotten to the point where we can’t even talk about it.

In 1848, the intractable issue was slavery. The Constitution, although never using the word “slavery,” allowed it. For the first few decades of our country’s history slavery was tolerated – providing it remained in the states where it had become the accepted economic system. Compromises had been made regarding governmental representation based on population. There was a balance, of sorts, between those states that were slave and those that were free, and both sides profited from the other. It was an uneasy truce, but one that was largely accepted by both camps. The Mexican-American War, which ended in 1847, threw that balance off. What would happen now that the United States was expanding? Would the new territories be slave or free? What guidance did the Constitution provide? Even in New Hampshire, which one might think would be against slavery’s expansion, the issue was contentious. Tempers flared.

How best to discuss the elephant in the room without flipping tables at the local tavern? In Exeter, where the county court met and the public often attended court proceedings for entertainment, the local lawyers, businessmen and other educated sorts created a debating society to have a forum to discuss – in a civilized way – the problem. The Exeter House of Delegates mimicked, to a certain degree, the United States House of Representatives. Members participated as “representatives” of the states, thus Dr. William Perry served as the delegate from New Jersey, even though in real life he had no connection to that state.

Their dedication to civility and rules is obvious. About half of the business of the Exeter House of Delegates is what we would call housekeeping. Dates and times of meetings were discussed, “Resolved, That hereafter this House shall not be adjourned before hour 10pm except by vote of two thirds of the members present.” “Resolved, That all absentees be allowed to present their excuses for absence immediately after the resolutions have been called by the Speaker and before any special orders of the evening.” “Resolved, That no member shall speak longer than twenty minutes at a time upon any subject before the House.”

You have to admire their insistence on decorum, especially considering the actual U.S. House of Representatives was a violent place. Yale professor Joanne Freeman has commented on the dangerous machismo of the House, “In the rough-and-tumble Congress of the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, politicians regularly wore weapons on the House and Senate floors, and sometimes used them.” During the discussions leading up to the Compromise of 1850, Senator Henry Foote threatened to shoot Senator Benton. He was stopped (luckily) when other members wrestled him to the floor.

The packet of documents contains only the rules and resolutions of the group. Rarely does it mention whether a particular resolution was passed and it never records the actual debates. They debated resolutions to reduce postage, outlaw usury, allow Athiests to serve as witnesses in court, reduce taxes on manufactured cotton goods. In the spirit of a good role-playing game, they even debated resolutions put forward by imaginary people, in this case women – one that requested outlawing the use of “a certain weed called tobacco” and another that would impose “a duty (tax) upon foreign unmarried females sufficient to prevent competition with the domestic article.” Both were withdrawn before serious debate began. I mean, really.

But by far, the most frequent resolutions dealt with the complicated problems that the nation as a whole could not solve. “Resolved, that we regard the passage of a law by the Congress of the United States abolishing slavery or the slave trade in the District of Columbia as direct attack upon the institutions of the Southern States to be resisted at every hazard.”

“Resolved, that whenever any member shall offer any petition…touching in any manner the subject of slavery in the states where it now exists – or the District of Columbia – or any territory South of the line of the Missouri Compromise – the motion to receive the same shall lie upon the table.” “Resolved, that any petition …shall be introduced touching in any manner the subject of slavery…it shall take precedence of all other business of the House.”

“Resolved, that it is expedient to legislate for the abolition of the slave trade between the several states of the United States.”

“Resolved, that a special committee be appointed to take into consideration the expediency of legislation for the gradual emancipation of the slaves in the several States.”

The Exeter House of Delegates ceased to meet after 1851. The Compromise of 1850, shaky though it was with the North hating the fugitive slave act and the South hating abolition of the slave trade in Washington D.C., bought the nation another decade before war ultimately decided the fate of the slave system. The Delegates, committed as they were to civil debate, were not able to bring forward any of their imagined legislation, however, by participating in the game they found that they could at least talk about the painful divisiveness of the day.

Photo: Materials in the handwriting of Dr. William G. Perry – member of the Exeter House of Delegates

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Charles Marseilles

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on December 4, 2015.

The youngest man ever to own the Exeter News-Letter was a fascinating 20 year old Phillips Exeter Academy drop out named Charles Marseilles. Lucky enough to have been born into a family of means, he had ambitions to become an editorial kingmaker – devoted to Republican politics. He didn’t always succeed, although to read his own press one might believe he had. At his death in 1920, his obituary writer in Exeter found it hard to sum up the life of the man, commenting only, “despite his interest in politics, Mr. Marseilles never held public office. He was a man of much native ability and of marked individuality.”

Marseilles was born in Philadelphia in 1846, the son of a comfortable wholesale merchant. In 1862, at the age of 16, he entered Phillips Exeter Academy. He remained there for less than a year. The reasons for his leaving are uncertain, although these were uncertain times. The Civil War was raging and within a year Marseilles entered Norwich University – a military academy – in Vermont. Even though his time at Phillips Exeter was short, it held enough social clout for him to remind anyone who would listen that he had attended the school. In a Granite Monthly profile of Marseilles written in 1897, author Henry Robinson wrote, “of the boys whom Mr. Marseilles personally remembers at this superior institution are Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Lincoln; Ulysses S. Grant, Jr., son of General Grant; Levi Woodbury Blair, son of Montgomery Blair; August Belmont Jr., son of August Belmont and many others equally distinguished by their parentage or their own advancement in later years.” But he couldn’t have ‘personally remembered’ them. None of these boys attended Phillips Exeter at the same time as Marseilles.

He remained at Norwich until the war ended in the spring of 1865. Realizing he didn’t need to prepare himself as a military officer, he left the school and went to Boston to work at the publishing firm of Ticknor and Fields. This venerable firm published many of the respected authors of the day, including the likes of Hawthorne, Dickens, Tennyson, Thoreau, Emerson and Whittier. Marseilles absorbed all the publishing knowledge he could and seemed to believe that his short tenure with the company yielded him friendly relationships with the authors. He worked there for less than a year. John Greenleaf Whittier, who later autographed a volume for him, seemed to need reminding of who Marseilles was. When inscribing a book to him in 1891, he wrote, “To Charles Marseilles, who was an attaché of the store of Ticknor and Fields when it was first issued I am sure this little volume will not be unacceptable, with the good will and wishes of its author – John G. Whittier.” It was like that with Marseilles. The publishing house instilled in him an obsession with books and autograph collecting. His extensive personal library began to grow.

He must have heard, while still working at Ticknor and Fields that the Exeter News-Letter was up for sale. He returned to Exeter and purchased the newspaper hiring Andrew Hoyt to serve as his editor and printer. From the very start the two men decided to change the sleepy agricultural paper into a political journal. Jumping into the politics of the post-war period, “politically, we believe the News-Letter to be on the right track,” they wrote in their first edition on September 17th, 1866, “and amid the present chaotic state of politics, we unhesitatingly unfurl the UNION REPUBLICAN banner.” Together Marseilles and Hoyt expanded the paper and introduced decidedly partisan editorial content. Hoyt left the paper in 1871. Marseilles, who had set down roots in Exeter by marrying Annie Leavitt in 1869, inherited a great deal of money from his father’s estate in 1878. He purchased two more newspapers in Kingston, New York, the Daily Freeman and the Journal. This necessitated moving to New York, although he still maintained control of the Exeter News-Letter through the capable editorship of William Morrill. In Kingston, he took credit for the success of Republican candidates in the elections of the 1880s. Granite Monthly would later crow, “at the first election following the transfer of the journals, a Republican county treasurer was elected, for the first time in many years; two years later, led by Marseilles, in the Freeman and the Journal, the Republicans captured the county, which was held by them until the Democratic landslide of 1892.” Although he liked to take credit, this was most likely a reflection of the political winds in that decade.

He didn’t stay in Kingston very long. Overwork began to wear on him, even though he loved the excitement of politics. As something of a gadfly, his journalistic credentials allowed him contact with politicians at all levels. He supported Republican candidates and eagerly name-dropped any he shook hands with. To meet Charles Marseilles was to become his dearest friend – at least to his mind. He wrote to his old ‘school friend’ Robert Todd Lincoln, requesting an autographed photo. The publicity-shy Lincoln sent him the photo – but told him it was NOT for publication.

In 1882, Marseilles became ill. “He fell victim to nervous prostration from overwork and malaria,” explained the Granite Monthly before mentioning that he consulted with the esteemed Dr. John H. Douglas of Brooklyn, NY, physician to General Ulysses Grant. Most likely, he simply wrote him a letter. After taking some time in Vermont to gain strength, he returned to Exeter, sold his newspapers and settled into a life of collecting autographed books and political punditry. Although he was called, “the political prognosticator and Presidential prophet of Exeter, NH” by the Rhode Island Gazette and Chronicle, he rarely picked a winning candidate. In 1899, he enthusiastically encouraged Admiral George Dewey, the hero of the Battle of Manila, to seek the Republican nomination for president. The problem was Dewey, who had sent Marseilles an autographed photo, turned out to be a terrible candidate. He admitted he’d never voted in a presidential election and once it was obvious that the Republicans weren’t interested in him, he simply switched parties and tried to capture the Democratic nomination.

By the turn of the century, Marseilles seemed to be out of his own influence. His wife died in 1904, leaving Charles alone in his house full of books. The entire collection was sold at auction in 1907. Marseilles himself never fully recovered from his earlier illness – which proved to be not malaria but syphilis. He entered the state hospital in Concord in 1908, his health slowly deteriorating for the 12 remaining years of his life. Before his illness took hold of him, he received accolades from many sides. Henry Robinson, the Granite Monthly author and perpetual fan-boy wrote of him, “How many things Charles Marseilles knows, which to tell would make him a brilliant newsman!”

Photo: Charles Marseilles became the sole proprietor of the Exeter News-Letter in 1866 at the tender age of 20.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Our new Exeter History Minute

Most kids play with dolls at some point during childhood, whether it be a baby doll, GI Joe, Barbie or all three. In this episode, Barbara explores the interesting and unique back-stories of two of the dolls in the collections of the Exeter Historical Society. 

This History Minute is generously sponsored by Anne Swane of Citizens Bank.

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website. #ExeterHistoryMinute