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27. The Setback in New Hampshire

The Federal cause received its first setback in the little state of New Hampshire. General John Sullivan, the president of New Hampshire and an active Federalist, called a special session of the legislature for December to arrange an early convention. A quorum failed to appear, but the legislature continued illegally in session anyway. After an attempt by the Federalists to weight the apportionment in the convention in favor of the Federalist towns around Portsmouth was rejected by the legislature, the Federalists used another device to obtain a quorum for the state convention. To make it inexpensive for the towns to send delegates, the legislature decided to hold the convention at the state capital of Exeter in mid-February, just after adjournment of the legislature session, thus allowing the legislators to readily be selected as delegates. Since the legislature that called the convention lacked a legal quorum, the conventions of 1788 were illegal as well, and thus New Hampshire has never legally entered the Union.11

The calling of the convention for mid-February 1788 allowed some time for thought, and although the Federalists exerted their usual dominance of the press, they were shocked to find an overwhelming majority of the convention opposed to the Constitution. Indeed, out of 107 delegates, only thirty supported the Constitution. The Federal strongholds were the commercial areas of the states, particularly the large towns of the southeast around Portsmouth and Daven, and also the towns on the Connecticut River in the West. At the February convention, the remainder of the towns in the interior and the North were almost totally opposed to ratification.

The Antifederalists were ably led by Joshua Atherton, an eminent lawyer from the interior town of Amherst and one of the few Antifederalist leaders in the U.S. who centered his attack on the Constitution for its sanctioning of the evil of slavery. Although out-argued, the Federalists now began to use their plentiful stock of leading politicos in the state. In particular, Samuel Livermore, Chief Justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, represented the Compton area in the North and exercised an enormous influence in his area. Livermore persuaded a bloc of northern delegates to betray their instructions to vote against the Constitution, but since they could not vote for the Constitution against their express instructions, they arranged with the Federalists to adjourn the convention to June 18 in order to give the powerful Federalist machine enough time to change delegates’ minds. The adjournment squeaked through by 56-51; a shift of only three would have defeated adjournment, and the convention would then have undoubtedly gone on to repudiate the Constitution.

Still, the New Hampshire failure to ratify was a severe setback to Federalist leaders and to Federalist ammunition throughout the country. Federalist New York City was shocked, and Nicholas Gilman wrote that “Much is to be apprehended from this unfortunate check to the tide of our political prosperity. … this unfortunate affair will at least give a temporary spring to the opposition and I fear its effects in other States.” George Washington was afraid that the mystical popularity of the Constitution was damaged since the Constitution was not as popular “as they had been taught to believe.” Massachusetts loomed very large as the crucial state; a Massachusetts ratification would not only give a great victory, but it would also be a turning point in the drive for the Constitution. Defeat in Massachusetts, the next battleground, would of course crush the Constitution then and there.

  • 11. Ibid., p. 237. [Editor’s remarks] Ibid., pp. 235–38; Main, The Antifederalists, pp. 210–12, 221–22.
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