In February 1788, George Washington was staying close to home at Mount Vernon, anxiously awaiting news from New Hampshire. The state’s constitutional convention was to be held on February 13, and two of his friends were running it: John Langdon and his former general John Sullivan.
Washington had been relieved to hear that on Feb. 3, 1788, Massachusetts became the sixth state to ratify the Constitution. From Boston, Henry Knox wrote to Washington to say New Hampshire would surely follow its neighbor. Knox thought of New Hampshire as a stronghold for Federalists, who supported the document.
It had to happen, Washington thought. The current government created under the Articles of Confederation was in chaos. The new country had huge war debts and no way to pay them. And often, enough congressmen didn’t show up to make a quorum, so they couldn’t conduct daily business.
Meanwhile, two of the biggest and most powerful states, New York and Virginia, quarreled bitterly over the Constitution. Rhode Island had no intention of ratifying it. If New Hampshire didn’t ratify the Constitution, the country probably wouldn’t have a Constitution.
Then the devastating news arrived: New Hampshire’s constitutional convention adjourned after nine days on February 22 — without ratification.
John Langdon, politician and Portsmouth merchant, had gotten very rich in international trade. An early revolutionary, he built a grand Georgian mansion (open to visitors today) that Washington later visited.
Despite their friendship, John Langdon helped Ona Judge Staines evade Washington’s nephew when he came to New Hampshire. The nephew wanted to bring her back as Martha Washington’s slave.
Like the other Portsmouth shipping merchants, John Langdon strongly supported the Constitution. He thought a stronger national government would protect and expand American commerce.
But Langdon understood something outsiders didn’t. Most New Hampshire people lived inland, and they didn’t expect to benefit from maritime commerce. They didn’t like coastal merchants, either. They opposed the Federalists, because they feared a central government would concentrate power and destroy democracy.
The Massachusetts Constitutional Convention
Delegates to the Constitutional Convention finished in Philadelphia in September 1787. Nine of 13 states had to approve the document for it to take effect. By the time Massachusetts got around to its Constitutional Convention on Jan. 9, 1788, Delaware, New Jersey, Georgia, Connecticut and Pennsylvania (though only barely) had ratified.
The Massachusetts delegates argued for days inside the Old State House in Boston. Washington kept tabs on developments. “We are locked in ice,” he wrote John Jay on Jan. 20, 1788.
Gov. John Hancock had stayed away with gout, but when he finally arrived at the Constitutional Convention he had a proposal. Hancock suggested Massachusetts recommend a bill of rights. When Sam Adams supported Hancock, Massachusetts ratified the Constitution on Feb. 3, 1788.
New Hampshire’s Constitutional Convention would follow in just 10 days.
New Hampshire Gov. John Sullivan was a canny politician who knew the western part of the state wouldn’t vote to ratify the Constitution.
He was the son of an Irish schoolmaster and his wife who immigrated to America. Born in Somersworth, N.H., he practiced law in Durham, N.H., and formed a friendship with Gov. John Wentworth.
But then Sullivan turned away from Wentworth in the run-up to the Revolution. Along with John Langdon, he became a delegate to the Continental Congress. When war broke out, Sullivan received a commission as a brigadier general.
For five years after the war ended, either John Langdon or John Sullivan served as governor of New Hampshire.
Sullivan supported ratification and he tried political trickery to get it. He called a meeting of the state Legislature in January 1788, when winter roads made it hard for westerners and northerners to travel to Exeter. The largely Federalist Legislature agreed to hold the Constitutional Convention in February, when snow and ice still blocked the roads.
But Sullivan’s maneuvering didn’t work. Nor did a pro-ratification propaganda campaign that included ministers preaching supportive sermons. While Washington watched from Mount Vernon, strong opposition broke up New Hampshire’s Constitutional Convention after nine days.
The surprising development did huge damage to the cause. New York’s governor, George Clinton came out as an ardent opponent of the Constitution. Opposition also gained steam in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
But then Maryland ratified the Constitution in April, South Carolina in May. So Langdon and Sullivan decided to try again in June.
Sullivan and Langdon had counted votes carefully. They persuaded four Federalists to stay away from the Constitutional Convention because their towns bound them to oppose ratification.
Ninety of the 113 delegates showed up on the first day, June 18, 1788, at Concord’s Old North Meeting House. By the second day, 107 delegates were present. Pierce Long, a Portsmouth delegate, described ‘dry arguments gone over again’ that left both sides tired out.
When Maj. Joseph Kimball of Plainfield, a supporter, arrived on the third day, Langdon and Sullivan decided to go for it. They knew four of the five still-absent delegates opposed ratification.
Since proposed amendments had won the day in Massachusetts, John Langdon headed a committee to propose New Hampshire’s own amendments. They were the same as those in Massachusetts, but New Hampshire added three: there was to be no quartering soldiers in private houses; no laws touching religion; no disarming of citizens unless they’d been in actual rebellion.
Then Joshua Atherton, a former Loyalist from Amherst, made a motion. He wanted the Constitution to take effect only with the amendments. He strongly opposed the Constitution because it endorsed slavery.
Samuel Livermore, a Federalist from Holderness, moved that the amendments not be a condition of ratification. He won.
Then Atherton sent fear into the hearts of the Federalists. He moved to adjourn.
Atherton lost. The vote would take place the next day.
On June 21, 1788, the clerk took the yeas and nays. Ratification of the Constitution passed by the surprising margin of 57-47. The amendments had done it.
The Constitution was now the law of the land. New Hampshire had put it over the top and, in the process, become the ninth state in the republic.
Virginia and New York had yet to ratify the Constitution, however. Could the Republic stand without those two large important states as part of it? Four days later, Virginia ratified the Constitution. New York would follow in a month.
Virginia was already celebrating its own ratification with cannon fire, banquets and toasts. Then an express rider arrived at Mount Vernon before dawn with the surprising news that New Hampshire had ratified the Constitution.
George Washington attended a stag dinner at John Wise’s Fountain Tavern to celebrate. He was greeted outside the tavern with the fire of 10 cannon and 10 toasts, to celebrate the 10 new states.
He rejoiced at the decision ‘by the People of this great Country to preserve the Union–establish good order & government — and render the Nation happy at home & respected abroad.’
This story about New Hampshire’s constitutional convention was updated in 2020.