J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Business in Portsmouth, 1775

On 25 Dec 1775, the white male property-owners of Portsmouth, New Hampshire—ignoring Christmas, like good descendants of Puritans—held a town meeting to select delegates to a Provincial Congress. The men they chose were Samuel Cutts, Samuel Sherburne, and Pierce Long.

One of the big issues at the meeting was the increasing cost of living in wartime:

That the great rise of Goods has given much uneasiness not only to the Inhabitants of this Town, (already being much distressed by being the Frontier & the total Loss of its Trade) but also to those of the Colony in general: Altho’ the Honorable Continental Congress have recommended that the Committees of the several Towns should regulate this matter, yet inasmuch as we have been informed, that Goods, altho’ high here, are higher at Newbury & Salem & higher still at Cambridge, wee are of opinion that it is too extensive as well as too delicate an affair to be in the power of any Town Committee to rectify. Wee therefore look up to the superiour Wisdom of the Congress intreating that they will take up the Matter on a general plan and afford such reliefe as the nature of the case requires.
In other words, prices were okay in Portsmouth, its shopkeepers could undersell those in Massachusetts towns, and the town didn’t want to take any measures to change that.

Portsmouth also didn’t want the New Hampshire Provincial Congress to go too far in assuming governmental powers. The town meeting attendees unanimously approved these instructions to their delegates the next day:
The precept sent to this town for the choice of Delegates, mentions our taking up a form of Government in this Colony. This we conceive to be a measure to be entered upon with the greatest caution, calmness, and deliberation. We are of opinion that the present times are too unsettled to admit of perfecting a form stable and permanent, and that to attempt it now would injure us, by, furnishing our enemies in Great Britain with arguments to persuade the good people there that we are aiming at Independency, which we totally disavow. We should therefore prefer the Government of the Congress till God, in his providence, shall afford us quieter times.
In fact, the town of Portsmouth (heretofore the biggest and most important in the province) was playing catch-up. The Provincial Congress had been meeting in Exeter since 21 December. And the delegates there were already at work on instituting a new government for New Hampshire, with a constitution adopted 5 Jan 1776.

New Hampshire was the first of the rebellious British colonies to establish a new constitution, even a provisional one. The state continued to govern itself by that document until the war ended, and then in late 1783 adopted its current, more detailed and formal constitution.

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