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Column: The nation of New England

In the early 19th century the nation began to move west, and the tempo of westward movement picked up in the wake of the War of 1812, during which a British blockade of New England ports was very successful in making American exports very difficult.

The War of 1812, during which New Hampshire shipping languished at blockaded ports, was followed in New England by the disastrous agricultural years of 1815-1817, during which New Hampshire crops often froze in the fields. The Exeter (NH) Watchman, a weekly newspaper of the period, reported routinely on the large numbers of covered wagons heading every week through Exeter, and westward to Chittenden County, Vermont; Granite State farmers fled New Hampshire’s stony fields for better lands to the west. Soon the wagons moved beyond Chittenden County, ever westward. An 1841 history of Hillsboroug reported that the town had reached its highest population in 1820, but that since 1820 the population had been in decline, moving to “the valley of the Mississippi.” And similar tales of a vanishing population came from other New Hampshire/New England towns. “Go west, young man” was a slogan that was being acted on.

The feelings of decline and abandonment were widespread in New England by 1815, and they reached a peak in the years leading to the opening of the Erie Canal, in 1825. New Englanders felt abandoned by the central government in favor of westward expansion, and The Keene Sentinel was one of a number of weekly newspapers that printed the widely read “The Nation of New England,” in May 1815, as a reprint from The Green Mountain Farmer, in Vermont.

Suppose within ten years [i.e. 1825] the five New-England States become a nation. Let us then suppose that some Morse or Guthrie or Payne [well-known writers of the era], in making up their book would say of us…in 1825:

“This little Monarchy was once the eastern part of the United States. It consisted of five States. They divided off in 1825. There was very little tumult in the division. The inhabitants, who were fond of republicks [sic], had removed out of the country previous. This nation contains an extent of territory of about 200 miles from north to south and 250 from east to west. At the time of the division they had a number of sea ports and harbors filled with merchant ships; but they had nothing to export, as the country had for thirty years before had never raised from the soil sufficient for home consumption. - They had also several large Cotton Factories, but they did not raise one pound of cotton in the territory. Their chief dependence for wealth was the Newfoundland cod fishery; neither the waters, the soil, [n]or the right belonged to them. They are a very pious people, for they support about 1500 priests and 3000 lawyers. – They are remarkably fond of hunting, but there is no game [New England at that time was largely clear cut for agriculture]. They are fond of smoking, but they raise no tobacco.

“Their government is a mixed monarchy. How they go, their King in it is not known – Their Parliament is very numerous, and sits at a place called Taunton [Connecticut] on the last day of April each year. They assign as a reason for fixing at this place, that a certain small fish [shad?] for the supply of the members run up the river every Spring. Their nobility is numerous.

“Their revenue arises chiefly from the fines the King lays on his own subjects, for breaches of certain penal laws.

“Their principal cities are Boston, Hartford, Castine [Maine] and Pettipaug [Portsmouth, NH].

“Their army is numerous – consisting of those persons for common soldiers who are not [permitted] to vote for Parliament men [eg. felons, slaves]. Their officers [are] appointed from the nobility.

“They have toleration of Religion – only every man must pay taxes to “the Standing Order.”

These 1815 thoughts of New England’s secession from the United States turned out to be temporary, and New England continued to be a part of the Union. In subsequent decades other parts of the growing country harbored thoughts of secession, but we have only one such successful effort in our history, and that conflict lasted but a few years. Thoughts of secession are with us once again as we enter the 21st century. Hopefully we shall surmount these latter threats to national unity as well.

Russell Bastedo, former N.H. State Curator, is a resident of Dublin.

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