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GENEALOGY: Langdon Farm
about Langdon family slaves
Langdon House Museum
HISTORIAN ONCE SAID that the history of New
Hampshire from the beginning of the Revolutionary
War until the beginning of the nineteenth century
was little more than the history of John Langdon.
While that is an overstatement, few other men
were as influential in both state and national
politics as was Langdon. On December 14, 1774,
he became one of the first prominent Americans
to risk hanging when he led the raid on Fort
William and Mary. From that day until 1812
when he retired from public life, Langdon remained
a dominant political figure.
Sea Captain To Privateer
John Langdon was born on June 26, 1741,
on the Langdon family farm near the head of the
Sagamore Creek in Portsmouth. He was a fourth generation
American, a member of an old and established New
Hampshire family. The only school he ever attended
was the public grammar school of Portsmouth, but
although he had little interest in scholarship,
he possessed a keen mind and a remarkable memory.
Soon after he left school he went from the farm
to the counting rooms of Portsmouth, following
the example of his older brother, Woodbury Langdon.
With the help and guidance of his brother
and a prominent merchant named Daniel Rindge, John
Langdon's career moved rapidly. He was a sea captain
by the time he was 22, sailing Rindge's sloops
and brigantines over the Atlantic trade routes.
John Langdon enjoyed the dashing life of a sea
captain and being alert and ambitious, he did a
little speculating of his own along with his regular
duties. He was developing a good business mind
and a start on his own fortune.
Just as John Langdon's career as a merchant
was beginning, British trade restrictions dealt
American commerce some painful blows. The American
Revenue Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765 slowed
commercial activity in Portsmouth. Langdon fell
victim to British trade regulations when a ship
on which he had a cargo of sugar and rum was seized
and condemned by an admiralty judge. Langdon felt
the seizure was due to "private pique" and appealed
the judge's decision, but he lost his appeal and
The Tea Act of 1773 brought a rumble of
dissent from the colonies and pushed John Langdon
into politics. On December 16, 1773, Boston had
its Tea Party. The same day Portsmouth held a town
meeting and passed a tea resolve designed to prevent
the landing of any tea. The citizens of Portsmouth
appointed Langdon to a committee designed to assure
compliance with the resolve and to a Committee
of Correspondence which was to maintain communications
with the other colonies.
On October 19, 1774, King George III issued
a royal order banning the export of powder and
arms to America. This was supposed to be a sccret, but
word got out and reached Portsmouth along with
rumors that British troops were on the way from
Boston to seize the powder at Fort William and
Mary in New Castle. In order to insure a supply
of powder and arms with which to defend New Hampshire,
John Langdon led 400 men against the fort. The
Americans quickly subdued the six man guard force,
hauled down the Union Jack, broke open the powder
magazine, and departed with 100 barrels of powder.
Of Politics And Wealth
In 1775 John Langdon was elected as one
of New Hampshire's representatives to the Second
Continental Congress. At that time Portsmouth was
suffering from the lack of trade and the people
needed work, so when Congress voted to build 13
frigates, John Langdon managed to have one assigned
to Portsmouth. He returned to Portsmouth early
in 1776 to oversee the building of the vessel.
After building the "Raleigh", Langdon
won contracts for two ships, "Ranger" and "America".
Langdon recommended John Paul Jones as captain
of the "Ranger", but the two men remained at odds
over the building and outfitting of both ships.
In March of 1776, the Continental Congress
legalized privateering as a means of attacking
Britain's economic backbone, its merchant marine.
John Langdon resigned from Congress to accept the
lucrative position of agent of prizes for the colony
of New Hampshire. He took charge of the sale of
all prizes brought into Portsmouth and amassed
a fortune on the side by outfitting several privateers
of his own.
Langdon was elected speaker of the New
Hampshire House in December, 1776 and he held that
position until 1782. As speaker he displayed great
ability in guiding the passage of legislation during
the critical war years. During these years he also
presided over various state conventions called
to deal specifically with such matters as currency
and a new state constitution.
Politically, Langdon was often at odds
with Weare, Bartlett and their associates.
The legislature was dominated by the small rural
towns, and their aims for the new state were not
necessarily the same as those of mercantile Portsmouth.
Langdon was quick to support his fellow townspeople,
especially, his critics believed, when it seemed
to be financially advantageous to do so.
He used all his influence to be named
continental agent, but had to resign from the Continental
Congress to accept the lucrative position. As agent
and as the owner of seven privateers, he became
wealthy while many others who were involved in
the civil government placed public service ahead
of personal finances. Langdon also promoted the
political career of his brother, Woodbury, whose
loyalties were questioned by many. All these factors
made Langdon a controversial person in state government.
While he retained his house speakership, it is
significant that he was never appointed to the
powerful Committee of Safety. Langdon might well
be contrasted with William Whipple. Also
a Portsmouth merchant, Whipple was appointed to
the Committee of Safety and while friendly with
Langdon, he was politically associated with Weare
and Bartlett and certainly above reproach in his
Perhaps Langdon's greatest contribution
in the legislature was to pressure the state toward
fiscal responsibility. He was an early advocate
of taxation, price controls and the use of silver
and gold instead of paper currency. He also led
the opposition to a stiff confiscation act against
Loyalists who had fled the state. He reasoned that
the taking of property would result in embezzlement
and that the British might take similar action
against Americans with property in England.
Like many other men of this period, Langdon
also had military aspirations, although he complained
in a letter to Bartlett that since he and other
merchants of the Piscataqua had been passed over
in favor of others, he wouldn't accept a commission
from the legislature if one were to be offered.
Nevertheless, as a colonel, he did lead a voluntary
company to Saratoga, where he witnessed the surrender
of Burgoyne, and in the summer of 1778, he was
in command of 46 men as part of John Sullivan's army
in Rhode Island. It is doubtful that he saw any
action at either time.
When Ticonderoga fell to the British under
Gen. Burgoyne in July, 1777, there was a general
fear in New Hampshire that the british would soon
cross the Connecticut. The state legislature desperately
needed to raise an army to protect the western
frontier, but New Hampshire had no money. At the
moment of despair, legend has it, John Langdon,
then speaker of the house, rose before the legislature
and said, "I have three thousand dollars in hard
money. I will pledge the plate in my house for
three thousand more, and I have 70 hogsheads of
Tobago rum which shall be disposed of for what
it will bring. These and the avails of these are
at the service of the state. If we defend our homes
and our firesides, I may get my pay; if we do not
defend them, the property will be of no value to
me." It is not clear whether thc story is true,
or whether Langdon donated personal funds to the
cause, but the legislature managed to provide backing
NH Gov And 1st Senator
New Hampshire's Gen. John Stark organized
the men and led them into Vermont. The army met
Burgoyne's advance guard at Bennington and won
a decisive victory, sparing New Hampshire from
any British aggression. The end of the war found
John Langdon in the thick of New Hampshire politics.
Elected to the Continental Congress in 1783 and
'84 he declined to serve, choosing instead to remain
in New Hampshire. In 1784 he was a state senator
from Rockingham County and in 1785 was elected
president of New Hampshire.
By 1786 the infant United States was in
trouble because the federal government was not
strong enough to regulate the country. John Langdon
favored a strong federal government, and when a
constitutional convention was called to restructure
the government, he was elected as a delegate. He
worked on the Constitution in Philadelphia and
then went to New York as a delegate to the Continental
Congress and helped win approval for the new document.
He returned to New Hampshire late in 1787 and turned
all his ability and influence to the task of getting
the ratification convention to approvc the Constitution.
This it did on June 21, 1788, as New Hampshire
became the ninth state to ratify, making the Constitution
law. Langdon's satisfaction in the matter is very
evident in a letter he wrote to George Washington
on the same day, in which he said: "I have the
great pleasure of informing your Excellency that
this State has this day adopted the Federal Constitution,
57 years 46 days-there by placing the Key Stone
in the great arch. "
In November of 1788 the New Hampshire
Legislature elected John Langdon as a senator and
early in 1789 he traveled to the capital in New
York City to attend the first meeting of the United
States Senate. The Senate elected him its president
and in this role he counted the votes of the electoral
college in the first national election. To Langdon
fell the honor of informing George Washington that
he had been elected president, and on April 30,
1789, he administered the oath of office to the
nation's first chief executive.
John Langdon served New Hampshire as senator
until March of 1801 and was influential in forming
the 3 policies of the United States in its early
years. Then he returned to New Hampshire and served
as state senator, as speaker of the house, and
as governor for six terms. In 1812 he turned down
the Republican nomination for vice president of
the United States and retired from public life.
In 1813 his wife died and part of his great spirit
died with her. Langdon devoted his remaining years
to religious matters and on September 18, 1819,
he died in his mansion on Pleasant Street in Portsmouth,
ending an era in the state's history.
By Steve Adams
Originally published in "NH: Years of Revolution," Profiles
Publications and the NH Bicentennial Commision,
1976. Reprinted by permission of the authors.
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
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Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03802