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Boyhood tales of NH's 1st
Revolutionary "President"

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By Charles W. Brewster

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.

John Sullivan-The house boy--His first law case--His advancement--His sail on the Piscataqua.

Read more about John Sullivan

HAVING given a hasty sketch of the history of the Livermore mansion, we will go back a few years to take a more familiar view of the old occupants.

It was not far from the year 1758, that a lad of seventeen years, with a rough dress, might have been seen knocking at the door of this house, and asking for the Squire, who listens to his application, and inquires: "And what can you do, my lad, if I take you?" "Oh, I can split the wood, take care of the horse, attend to the gardening, and perhaps find some spare time to read a little, if you can give me the privilege."

John Sullivan, for that was the name he gave, appeared to be a promising lad, and so he was received into Mr. Livermore's kitchen, and was entrusted with various matters relating to the work of the house and the stable. Mr. L., finding him intelligent, encouraged his desire to read by furnishing from his library any books he wished; and with this privilege he improved every leisure moment. Libraries then were not so extensive as now, but the position of Mr. L. gave him a very good one for the times, and among them the most choice legal works of the day. John was permitted at times to take a seat in the library room, and he had the care of it in Mr. Livermore's absence.

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One evening there had been some trouble in the town, which resulted in a fight. As has been the custom in later days, so then the party which fared the worse prosecuted the other for assault and battery. The case was to be brought before Deacon Penhallow (at his house on the south-east corner of Pleasant and Court streets). The best legal talents were needed for the defence, to save the culprit from the stinging disgrace of being placed in the stocks--in those formidable pieces of timber which were standing for years near the south-east corner of the old North church. The defendant at once resorted to the office of Mr. Livermore. He was absent, and John was reading in the library alone. The man, supposing that any one from an office so celebrated might answer his purpose, asked John if he would not undertake his case. John, on the whole, concluded to go, and, leaving word in the kitchen that he should be absent awhile, trudged off with his client. He soon learnt the merits of the case, and having given some attention to the law books, and acquired some knowledge of the forms of trial, he had confidence that he might gain the case. The charges were made; the blackened eyes and bruises were shown, and the case looked very doubtful for John's client.

While this trial was going on, Mr. Livermore returned from his journey; and on inquiring for John to take care of the horse, was told that he had gone off to Deacon Penhallow's to a court. Mr. L.'s curiosity was excited. He put the horse in the stable, and, without awaiting his supper, slipped into a room adjoining the court, and, without being seen by the parties, listened to the trial. John had just commenced his argument, which was managed with good tact, and exhibited native talent and as much knowledge of law as some regular practitioners. John was successful, his client was acquitted, and John received here his first court fee.

Mr. L. returned as obscurely as he entered. The next morning the young man was called into the library room, and thus addressed: "John, my kitchen is no place for you; follow on in your studies, give them your undivided attention, and you shall have what assistance you need from me until you are in condition to repay it."

The result is well-known. John Sullivan became eminent at the bar, became conspicuous as General in the war of the Revolution, and, after the peace, was for three years President of New Hampshire. He was afterwards District Judge. He died at Durham in 1795, at the age of fifty-four.

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Gen. Sullivan was of Irish descent. His father was born in Limerick in 1692, came to Berwick, Me., as early as the year 1723, and died in 1796, aged one hundred and four years. His mother came over several years after, from Cork. She was born in 1714, and died in 1801, aged eighty-seven. Her mind was of a rough though noble cast. The father's education was good, and together they enjoyed honorable poverty in early life. When on her passage to this country, a fellow passenger jocosely said to her: What do you expect to do by going over to America? Do, said she, why raise Governors for them. Little did she then think that of two of her boys then unborn, John would become President of New Hampshire and James the Governor of Massachusetts.

James, in his minority, was engaged in gondolaing on our river, and it was when following this business that he broke both of his legs, the effects of which were ever after visible in his gait.

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John Sullivan, in early life, was doubtless familiar with the navigation of the Piscataqua. Later in life, after the Revolution, when the General's commission had given place to that of President of New Hampshire, his Excellency, being a resident of Durham, one day saw a boat bound to Portsmouth. He asked for a passage, which was readily granted, one of the boatmen proposing the condition that the President should observe the usual custom of paying his respects to the "Pulpit,"--a name given to some stones projecting from the river, which the superstitious boatmen regarded as subjecting to bad luck if passed without raising the hat. The General said he never did nor never should pay respect to the devil's pulpit, and therefore they need not ask it of him. There was danger of bad luck to the boatmen. They however sailed and rowed on down the river. At length one of the boatmen raised his own hat, and casting his eyes up to the tri-colored hat with waving plume which decorated the head of his Excellency, in apparent wonder said, "sir, the birds seem to have flown over your hat?" His hand was speedily raised and the hat carefully brought down for inspection." I see nothing," said he. "We've passed the Pulpit, sir," was the laconic reply. The superstitious boatmen were in good cheer; they had brought the President down and good luck rested on the voyage of that day.

The success of the Sullivans under great difficulties should give encouragement for perseverance to all young men. There is certainly a memento connected with Livermore street history which should never be forgotten.

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
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