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The American Republic: 1760-1870

The Western Rebellion

by Jere Daniell

From New Hampshire Profile (Special Issue, 1976)

In many of the colonies the general revolution against imperial domination triggered protests against state authority, protests which threatened, at times, to undermine the entire fabric of civil government. New Hampshire experienced perhaps the most serious of these revolutions within the Revolution.

Soon after the signing of the Declaration of Independence community leaders from a number of towns in Grafton County complained about the hastily adopted state constitution, then organized a boycott of the General Court, and eventually convinced their fellow townsmen to secede from New Hampshire. The secession took various forms-refusal to pay state courts, a half-hearted attempt to form an entirely new river valley state of New Connecticut, and at two different times formal union with the self-created neighboring state of Vermont. But in the end it failed.

A complex mix of legal, demographic, geographic, constitutional, historical and political factors fed into the initial refusal of Grafton County residents to accept New Hampshire authority. To be sure, the royal government in 1764 had made the Connecticut River the western boundary of New Hampshire, but independence could be interpreted to mean that past actions of the Crown no longer had the sanction of the law. Legal justification of the refusal also came from the fact that Grafton County was not included in the land originally granted to John Mason and known as the Masonian patent.

Equally important, the entire upper river valley had been settled by migrants from eastern Connecticut with close family, economic and religious ties. Community leaders on both sides of the river wanted somehow to take advantage of the current situation to reinforce traditional bonds through political union. The destruction of royal government, they increasingly convinced themselves, returned them to a "state of nature" and freed them to make any kind of constitutional arrangements they wanted. They wanted, above all, to eliminate the river as a jurisdictional boundary.

The behavior of New Hampshire's Revolutionary leader -- whom Eleazar Wheelock, one of the Upper Valley's most prestigious citizens, described as "not of the greatest abilities" - only reinforced the initial doubts about accepting state authority. The constitution adopted at Exeter in January, 1776 left many Grafton County towns without representation in the General Court, a fact made especially irritating because back in Connecticut every town had had its own representative. Furthermore, the few delegates from the region found travel to sessions of the legislature difficult and their influence with governmental leaders minimal. In the fall of 1776 the frustrated westerners took matters into their own hands.

Elisha Payne of Lebanon, and Hanover's Bezaleel Woodward and John Wheelock (Eleazar's son and heir apparent to the presidency of Dartmouth College) organized the protest by convening a group they called the United Committees, with members from more than a dozen local committees of safety. The group's initial demands included a new constitution guaranteeing each town its own legislative representative and transferring the seat of government from Exeter to the center of the state. After negotiations broke down with President Meshech Weare and other members of the New Hampshire Council, the rebels shifted tack and announced formal secession. They flirted with the idea of a separate state - Dresden, the corner of Hanover where Dartmouth was located, would have become the capital - but settled on union with Vermont as a more practical way in which to assure association with their friends across the river.

That plan, however, ran afoul of the political ambitions of Ethan and Ira Allen, who worried lest annexation of the New Hampshire towns erode their control of the newly created Green Mountain State. The Allens therefore engineered a vote rescinding the first union with Vermont. In retaliation Payne, Woodward, Wheelock and Jacob Bayley of Newbury launched a campaign to have the entire upper valley join New Hampshire. When they almost succeeded, in 1781 the Vermont Assembly reannexed the towns it earlier had rejected, plus several others in Cheshire County. Soon Payne was chosen Vermont's lieutenant governor, both Payne and Woodward became justices in the Vermont Supreme Court, and the state took Dartmouth College under its wing.

The second union with Vermont finally forced the hand of the New Hampshire legislature. Earlier Weare, Josiah Bartlett, Timothy Walker, and other leaders had tried to mollify the rebels with political appointments (which were refused), promises of constitutional reform, and support for the idea of New Hampshire annexing the Vermont towns along the Connecticut river. Now stronger measures were adopted. Weare informed the Continental Congress, the only external authority potentially able to settle the dispute, that unless it did so New Hampshire could contribute nothing further to the war effort. The state Committee of Safety, which Weare also headed, threatened to send troops westward, ostensibly to protect against Indians and the British, but in fact to prevent Vermont officials from exercising authority in the recently annexed valley towns. In January, 1782 the legislature as a whole reinforced the committee action by resolving to use force as a "necessary, though disagreeable measure."

The threat of firm action by New Hampshire played a major role in resolution of the conflict, for it gave encouragement to those inhabitants in the towns who had tired of the machinations of both the "College Party" (a term used to describe spokesmen for the rebellion) and the Allens. But two other developments were more important. Sentiment in many of the annexed towns began turning against the new arrangement after a few overzealous officials appointed by Vermont tried to arrest or seize the property of men who refused to pay state taxes. Then, much to the distress of Payne and Woodward, the Vermont Assembly did a sudden about face: prodded in part by a letter from George Washington critical of Assembly behavior, the members voted to renounced jurisdiction over all towns east of the river.

The vote, for all intents and purposes, ended the rebellion. Within a year virtually all the towns that had joined Vermont had accepted the authority of New Hampshire. The citizens of Hanover were the last to capitulate. They did so in 1784 by electing Bezaleel Woodward their representative to the New Hampshire General Court. He accepted.

Those admitted in 1778

Lyman
Gunthwaite (Lisbon)
Morristown (Franconia)
Bath
Landaff
Apthorpe (Littleton & Dalton)
Haverhill
Piermont
Orford
Lyme
Hanover
Canaan
Cardigan (Orange)
Lebanon
Enfield
Cornish

The following additional towns joined with Vermont during the second union, 1781. There was, however, strong resistance to the union in many of the towns in present day Sullivan and Cheshire counties.

Lancaster
Lincoln
Dorchester
Grafton
Plainfield
Grantham
Croyden
Claremont
Newport
Saville (Sunapee)
Charlestown
Acworth
Lempster
Walpole
Alstead
Marlow
Westmoreland
Surry
Gilsum
Chesterfield
Hinsdale
Richmond

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