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Hail Hale, the Hype's All Here

Sometimes a glittering poem
can tell a tarnished tale

Visit the Hale House in Dover, NH

John P. Hale We've got to have a long talk about John P. Hale someday. His house is the handsome red brick number next to the Woodman Institute on Central Avenue in Dover. JP was hailed as the nation's first anti-slavery US Senator back in 1846, nearly two decades before President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation "freeing" the slaves. That phrase still has a nice comfortable ring to it.

That same year, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem called simply, "New Hampshire." It was a short thing, just 20 lines, gushing with praise for the Granite State and its new senator. (Click to read the whole poem.) Whittier, you see, was an abolitionist and he had been pushing hard for emancipation since 1827 when he published a controversial pamphlet on the topic. For sticking to his moral guns, Whittier had been ostracized by many whites, jeered at, pelted with rotten eggs and stones, had his office trashed and burned by an angry mob.

The final couplet of the poem, often quoted, is a stirring call to arms against human bondage with New Hampshire leading the battle charge:

    Courage, then, Northern hearts! Be firm, be true;
    What one brave State hath done, can ye not also do?

That poem also has a nice ring to it. Too bad it doesn't ring true.

When it comes to African-American history, Seacoast New Hampshire has a lot, and a lot of it is painful to recount. The first documented black settler arrived in Portsmouth in1645, barely two decades after the first white settler. The fact that he arrived as a slave, likely kidnapped, probably mistreated and chained, to be sold on the crude colonial dock by one white man to another, tends to diminish the historic impact of his momentous arrival. But it shouldn't.

While scholars are lost in debate over whether New Hampshire's white founder David Thompson spelled his name with or without the letter "p," an opportunity is passing us by. Just as Mr. Thompson deserves a monument at his landing point in Rye, our unnamed black founder deserves no less in the middle of Prescott Park where he was likely purchased by his colonial owner like a hogshead of rum. I want to see that healing statue every time I catch a concert at the riverside park. I need that statue to remind me of all the history no one told me when I was growing up.

This region has had a small but solid black population from that time to the present. Many fine seacoast houses were bought with slave-trade money and many more, including that of our first governor John Langdon were maintained by slaves. John Paul Jones ran a slave ship. The Seacoast was an active participant in the "triangle trade" with the West Indies.

While the open marketing of human flesh was discontinued in this state after the Revolution, legislators never got around to officially emancipating anyone. NH blacks served in disproportionately high numbers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, but as late the 1960s African-Americans serving at Pease Air Force base were reportedly shown a different list of local off-base housing than whites. When local film producer Louis deRochemont shot the nation's first racially focused film "Lost Boundaries" in Portsmouth in 1948, management at the Rorckingham Hotel requested that the black actors not be seated in the main dining room. When deRochemont threatened to remove all his actors and crew from their profitable stay at the hotel, the Rockingham was promptly desegregated.

I grew up thinking the we Yankees were the "good guys" in the Civil War because we rushed in to crush the evil plantation owners. I also grew up thinking chocolate milk came from black cows. But the facts are not so black and white. The excruciatingly slow arrival of equality trudges on.

At first glance, Whittier's poem about Hale glows like one of those giant spotlights in the night sky. But when you follow the gleam, as often happens, you find the rented lamp is parked in some used car lot or mall closeout sale. Whittier meant well, but it's time for a reality check.

JP Hale was a New Hampshire hero. Don't get me wrong. You can see his stature today alongside Daniel Webster and John Stark on the front lawn of the State Capital building in Concord. Hale's son-in-law Senator William Chandler funded the statue. Chandler married JP's daughter Lucy. I have a theory about Lucy who also "dated" Robert Todd Lincoln and an actor named John Wilkes Booth, but I won't go down that road today.

Suffice it to say that Hale had strong principals. He came to prominence when he disagreed with President Polk's plan to annex Texas and allow slavery there. Hale thought we had no business taking over other countries and turning them into slave states. He said so, aloud. Saying so out loud was a risky business then due to the unwritten "Gag Rule" which forbade state legislators from using the "S" word.

As I understand it (and I'm a novice in this complex political era) Hale knew he was committing political suicide by just mentioning slavery. He was mostly concerned with the spread of the "peculiar institution" as it was euphemistically called, into the giant new states being created in the expanding American West.

Hale was best known for a knock-down-drag-em-out debate he had with another young politician named Franklin Pierce, who became the only New Hampshire man to reach the Presidency. Imagine Hale as an early Abraham Lincoln and Peirce as a young Stephen Douglas and you'll get the idea. Hale got in some good verbal punches. Both became famous. Both got big government jobs and their own statues.

When I bumped into Whittier's poem a few months's ago, quite by accident, it felt good, sort of vindicating. Maybe we were the good guys after all. But the more I studied, the clearer it became that New Hampshire had a pretty crummy record on slavery for an "enlightened" northern state. The fact that we are the only state in the country still arguing over Martin Luther King Day is no accident.

Hale, white New Hampshire abolitionists had been pretty tepid in their efforts to free their black brothers and sisters. There were a couple of state abolitionist newspapers, but they seemed to spend more time arguing about politics than making policy. New Hampshire abolitionists usually didn't allow women or blacks into their meetings. Although the state claimed 2,000 abolitionists, only 126 voted for their candidate for President in 1840 -- not exactly worth writing a poem about.

I'd seen Hale's statue, toured his house, and figured he -- not New Hampshire itself -- was Whittier's inspiration. I knew Whittier loved New Hampshire. His brother lived in Dover. His family spent a lot of time vacationing in the mountains, and he wrote a book of NH poems in his later years called "Among the Hills." Mt. Whittier is named after him. In his later years, when the Civil War made his anti-slavery stand politically correct, Whittier finally became wealthy and honored. He came to New Hampshire often then. As a pacifist, he found the Civil War necessary, but painful, and spent some of that time in the White Mountains and out on the Isles of Shoals with poet Celia Thaxter and her salon of writers and painters.

Watching his beloved New Hampshire wake up to the slavery issue turned Whittier rhapsodic. He wrote to a friend in 1846: "He [Hale] has succeeded, and his success has broken the spell which has hitherto held Democracy in the embrace of slavery."

But something about the whole set-up didn't ring true for me. In the mid-1800s, New Hampshire was turning to a mill economy, right? Giant brick factories were taking over the Seacoast and the utopian mill town of Manchester was rising on the Merrimack. Just down the hill from Hale's house in Dover is the Cocheco Mill that still defines the city's center. Now wasn't that a textile mill, one of the most successful in the world at one time?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't textiles come from cotton, and wasn't cotton picked by southern slaves back then? Wouldn't New Hampshire mills want the cheapest cotton possible, and didn't the cotton come through the port of Portsmouth before the trains took over?

I'm not a savvy politician or businessman. NAFTA has me bamboozled. But why would New Hampshire elect a man in 1846 who wanted to free the enslaved workers who were harvesting the cheap natural resources that made the Northern mills profitable and kept the merchant ships busy?

They didn't. Well, morally they did, but economically they were torn, and if you've got a mind to go throwing stones at your ancestors check inside your glass house carefully. See any Third World-made appliances, clothes, crafts, food? Want to send them all back and pay ten times more? The more I study history, the grayer everything gets. The truth is often hidden somewhere in the misty fog of human nature.

But the question was about Hale, and the answer, I think, can be seen through the smoky back rooms of the political machine that ran the state of New Hampshire and most other states back then. In those days, there were a lot of political parties. There were abolitionists from the Liberty Party. Then you had Democrats, Whigs, Independent Democrats, Democratic Republicans, and even a few Federalists and anti-Federalists left hanging about. The Republican Party members, then called Democrats, were just getting their act together. See the confusion? But none of that mattered because then, common folk like you and me didn't even vote for the Senators who ran the country. Senators were picked, instead, by state legislators.

Remember Hale was popular to some in the North because he was outspoken on slavery in Texas. Texas was a big state. As a slave state it threatened to shift the balance of power out of whack. For moral or political reasons, many northerners liked Hale as much as southerners hated him. One southern senator issued him a death threat on the record while the Senate was in session.

So a gray smoky deal was struck. The outspoken anti-annexation JP Hale from Dover was shipped off to Washington, DC (which was itself an active slave center) for six years. In exchange, the Granite State would get a governor who was less inclined to say the "S" word out loud.

The Senate abolitionists, led by Hale and others, would debate the slavery issue for another 20 years. New Hampshire continued to buy its cotton cheaply from the South while complaining about its nasty human rights rating. Young women and eventually children left their family farms and began working long hard hours in the seductive new mills. Many traded away their lives for a little taste of financial independence. Poet Whittier saw this happening too. He worried that Americans might be learning to sacrifice their souls for the money to buy all kinds of material goods. No way!

(Cue the patriotic music, here. Chorus sings. Cut to red, white and blue sparklers)

Thank goodness, Whittier believed, the nation has men like JP Hale, men with moral strength who get things accomplished. And thank goodness America has a state like New Hampshire, where the rivers run clean and no one goes hungry.

And that's why, ladies and gentlemen, when you read an old political poem that stirs your pride and shines out like a beacon in the night -- be careful! It could be a warm true burst of moral enlightenment and patriotic zeal. Then again, it could just be some guy trying to sell you a used horse and buggy.

© 1998 SeacoastNH.com
J. Dennis Robinson

For more on this topic:
Whittier's Anti-Slavery Ode to NH

See Also:
The "New" Dying Words of John Wilkes Booth
Shakespeare, Lincoln, Lucy & John

Don't miss Dennis Robinson's new column "Seacoast Rambles" every other week in Foster's Sunday Citizen at your local newsstand.

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