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Woodbury LangdonWILLIAM PLUMER, New Hampshire's caustic historian and a contemporary of Woodbury Langdon, once described Langdon as "a man of great independence and decision-bold, keen, and sarcastic. He spoke his mind of men and measures with great freedom. He was naturally inclined to be arbitrary and haughty, but his sense of what was right, and his pride prevented him from doing intentional evil." This was great praise coming from Plumer but Woodbury Langdon deserved it. No other man of the times was as willing to voice an unpopular opinion and to stand behind it as he was.

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A Wealthy Conservative

Born in Portsmouth in 1738 or 1739, Woodbury Langdon attended the local grammar school and then went to work in the counting room of Henry Sherburne, a prominent Portsmouth merchant. In 1765 he married Sherburne's daughter, Sarah, and soon parlayed his influence and intelligence into a fortune of his own. He took the conservative side in the early days of hostilities with Britain and was influential in preserving Portsmouth's conservative attitude during the early 1770s. The moderates of Portsmouth elected Langdon to the Assembly in the spring of 1774 and to the revolutionary Provincial Congress at Exeter the following summer, and they reelected him to the Assembly in February of 1775.

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Whose Side Is He On?

When war broke out in 1775, Langdon went to London in hopes of salvaging "a considerable sum of money" he had invested there. He left England two years later and sailed for New York with "nothing but his baggage." Upon his arrival he found himself restricted to the city by the British commander, Gen. Howe. No one was sure whose side Langdon was on and the British were not willing to let him go until they were sure of his leanings. Neither the influence of Langdon's British friends, nor the efforts of his brother, John Langdon, could win his freedom; so Woodbury Langdon set aside accepted procedure and escaped in December of 1777.

Woodbury Langdon returned to Portsmouth and in the spring of 1779 he was elected to, and served a year in, the Continental Congress. In 1780, 1781, and 1785 he was reelected, but chose to remain in New Hampshire where he served in the legislature. In 1782 he was appointed a justice of the Superior Court, but after a year he resigned the post despite the legislature's requests that he remain in office. In 1786 he once again accepted the office, but this time the legislature ended up regretting its choice.

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Impeached By NH House

Langdon failed to attend several sessions of the court that were held in the outlying counties, preferring instead to pursue his commercial interests in Portsmouth. On June 17, 1790 the New Hampshire House of Representatives impeached him for neglect of his duties. Langdon appeared before the House and countered the impeachment with charges that the legislature failed to provide honorable salaries for judges and interfered in court decisions. The trial was postponed because of a technicality and during the postponement John Langdon managed to have his brother appointed a commissioner of Revolutionary claims by President Washington. Secure in his new position, Woodbury Langdon submitted a letter of resignation to the president of New Hampshire and the trial never took place, though the sentiment in the legislature was that Langdon's conduct was "impertinent and unbecoming to his office."

A few years later Langdon tried to make a political comeback but failed, because of his inability to seek popularity, in attempts to win election to the United States Congress in 1796 and 1797. He won his few supporters with his directness and his ability. Be it a failure or a virtue, he could not compromise his convictions. He died in Portsmouth on January 13, 1805.

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

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Portsmouth, New Hampshire

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