New Hampshire's Singular Spirit
New Hampshire is different. While the geography of the state is fantastic - soaring mountains, countless rivers and lakes, expansive forests, and a picturesque coastline, the natural features aren’t the source of its uniqueness. The character of the people is what sets New Hampshire apart.
New Hampshirites are known for their fierce independence, encapsulated in the oft-quoted state motto: “Live Free or Die.” The motto isn’t a floating abstraction either. Article 10 of the state constitution’s Bill of Rights, described as the “Right of Revolution,” adds some legal teeth to it by declaring:
Government being instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security, of the whole community, and not for the private interest or emolument of any one man, family, or class of men; therefore, whenever the ends of government are perverted, and public liberty manifestly endangered, and all other means of redress are ineffectual, the people may, and of right ought to reform the old, or establish a new government. The doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power, and oppression, is absurd, slavish, and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.
Modern readers may discount the language as hyperbole, but the writers from the 1780s meant every word of it. They were putting the words into action prior to Lexington and Concord, in places such as Londonderry and Weare.
As early as January of 1769, the independent spirit of New Hampshire was evident when residents of Londonderry came to the aid of at least one man accused of being a deserter from the British army. A local Tory, who definitely did not exhibit the grit of a New Hampshirite, purportedly snitched to the military about the so-called criminal, presaging a much later program pregnant with potential abuse. Desertion wasn’t a light matter either. The penalty was execution by hanging, which made the issue literally life-and-death.
A cadre of Red Coats was dispatched to haul in any deserters present in Londonderry and news of the action spread like a brushfire in a drought. Soon, nearly a dozen men took up arms to rescue their fellow countrymen. Irrespective of the rescuers’ opinions about desertion as a crime, it is evident by their actions they certainly didn’t believe a mortal punishment fitting. Well past the town limits, the Londonderry men ambushed the British regulars and freed the deserters. There is no record of the army ever locating the deserters thereafter, and the men who rescued them were never charged or otherwise harassed for their deeds. The latter is circumstantial evidence pointing to a supportive local population, a population that wouldn’t roll over to please their governmental, self-appointed masters.
The men of the Granite State again battled the British in a pre-Revolutionary dispute over pine trees. Like most governments, the one in England claimed ownership of any resource within its borders, notwithstanding the claims of anyone who happened to live there. Because the navy was the primary means of projecting British power, trees suitable for ships masts were highly valued by the Crown and the white pine trees of New Hampshire had perfect dimensions for mast-making. The colonists of New Hampshire, however, valued the same trees for construction and as an economic resource, so a 1772 law that kept the prime pines for George’s boats sprouted a new round of local resentment towards the British government.
Mast-sized pine trees were discovered after raids against sawmills in Goffstown and Weare. This resulted in fines being levied against the sawmill owners. The Goffstown millers paid, but their Weare counterparts refused and the one in Weare singled out as the leader, Ebenezer Mudgett, was arrested by the Hillsborough County sheriff and his deputy. Disgust with the government must have been growing, since mere fines resulted in an irate horde determined to not only help Mudgett pay his penalty but to also humiliate the British agents trying to enforce it. Over 30 townspeople assaulted the hapless enforcers with switches, doling out a lash for each of the “king’s trees.” Additionally, they shaved the manes and tails of the men’s horses and forced the pair to ride out of town while being taunted. How embarrassing (and humorous) it must have been.
This time the British went after the instigators and about a quarter of the jeerers were charged and had to appear in court. However, the judges exemplified the New Hampshire spirit and fined the defendants a token amount. In New Hampshire at least, the British had already lost the hearts and minds of the populace. It would take a few years more for the rest of the colonies to bristle at the yoke.
The mountains, valleys, and coastal region still reverberate with the liberty-loving sentiment that has been a hallmark of the state for hundreds of years. Those faint rumblings imbue the populace; they’re what make New Hampshire distinctive. And the echoes of that independent outlook are amplified by the Free State Project and its push for greater liberty. Today’s patriots eschew the initiation of violence, yet the determination to stamp out oppression and tyranny is just as fierce as it was those many years ago when men from the Granite State raised arms against a seemingly invulnerable government.
Photo by Tracy Lee Carroll