The Hampton Quarter-Millennial -- An Address

An Address by John J. Bell

Address delivered in Hampton, N.H., August 15, 1888
on the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the settlement of the town.

EXETER: Printed by John Templeton, The News-Letter Press -- 1888

[One Hundred Copies Printed]

In the life of all men, there come times, when a look back into the past life, a look forward that would penetrate the future, are the natural and the wise impulses of the heart. So in the greater life of human societies there come times, that we wisely celebrate as epochs in their existence, and when we may profitably turn to the record to see what has been accomplished, and speculate on what should he our future action. The recurring anniversaries of the origin of such societies have always seemed appropriate occasions for this review and preview.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the quarter part of a millennium, our ancestors planted at this place, a town, after the pattern of the Massachusetts Bay Puritans. During these years it has grown, has been modified by the other social forces around it, has itself influenced the growth of others, has been divided and seen its daughter towns growing up about it, has made its mark in history; and we are here this day to celebrate the deeds of those who planted, and those who have in succession continued the history of this ancient town. May our retrospect stimulate us to emulate the good deeds, which have been many, and to avoid the errors if unfortunately there have been any. Our look forward will indeed be fortunate if we can see for ourselves and those who shall follow us the opportunity to exceed the good, and to escape the errors of the past.

It was with pleasure, that I accepted the invitation to address you on this anniversary of the planting of Hampton, among whose early settlers I count so many of my own honored ancestry. The late date at which I received your invitation gave me far too little time to recount the history of this goodly town, if indeed I had been capable of doing it. Fortunately this task was not needed, for it was so well done fifty years ago, by one of your own citizens, who is still here among you, honored and revered as the Historian of Hampton [Joseph Dow], and whose yet unpublished History [of Hampton -- 1638-1888] we all hope will soon be placed within our reach, that little would have remained for me, but the gleaning of the vintage.

Hampton, I have said, was planted a Puritan town. It was the outpost toward the north of the polity of Massachusetts Bay, a protest against the other settlements in New Hampshire and New Somerset and an assertion of the claim of that colony to a far greater empire than she was able to hold. Portsmouth and Dover had preceded and Exeter was settled by Wheelwright and his friends the same year [1638]. These four towns were for years all there was of New Hampshire. In a few years they were all under the egis of Massachusetts Bay and it is to some views I entertain of the inter-action of these towns upon each other, and upon Massachusetts and their share in the evolution of the New England Town, from the Puritan type, that I would call your attention.

The rise and growth, modification and decay of municipal institutions offers a fruitful field for the study of the thoughtful investigator into the progress of human government. For our present purpose we need go no farther back, than to the town, the burgh, of the middle ages, nor wider than the domain of western European progress. What connection these municipalities may have had with the early Greek cities, or with the prototype of the communal system which has existed in European society as one of its prime movers, we need not here trouble ourselves about. It is enough for us, to simply remark upon the fact that the spirit of civil liberty, which seemed elsewhere in Europe to be crushed out, was maintained and preserved in these petty municipalities. I say of civil liberty, for the idea of individual freedom was hardly as yet conceived in the heart of man. While these towns and boroughs preserved to us the memory and the existence of that civil liberty which was the original right of all of European race, yet it was in too many cases with entire disregard of the individual right. Liberty, in the light of that time, was rather that of the citizen, as the member of a free community, than of the freeman, free in his own right. Within the community itself the individual was scarcely more free than the serf without, for him the authority of his town or borough or city stood very much in the place of that of the Baron or King without the walls. Nor did this freedom such as it was entre to all inhabitants; it belonged to the Freeman, the citizen. and all others, although they might be under the town's protection, were allowed no voice in the determinations to which these little republics might come.

Imperfect as such government was, it was a great advance upon the condition of the ordinary subject, who had scarcely any rights at all, certainly few that he could protect against arbitrary power. Through the towns the strength of free principles stimulated by the successful revolt against spiritual tyranny, was making itself felt throughout Europe, at the time of the early American settlements, and something of their character and limitations was brought over to us here.

That we may appreciate the modifications which municipal institutions met with on American soil we need to call to mind the men among whom these institutions were to grow. For from the character of those who are to administer any human society will that society receive an impress, which will alter the character and the results of the society itself. In a broad way we may thus describe the early settlers in New England. The first of English birth to make permanent settlements on this coast, as they were close upon the tracks of the early explorers, were the hardy fishermen and fur traders, those who came for the pursuit of gain only. In their religious character, they were a feeble reflection of the views of those from whom they sprang at home, conforming doubtless to the forms of religion to which they had been accustomed, or to which their friends and neighbors adhered in far off England.

It was of the descendants of such that the story is told, true to the life, whether or not true in fact, that when Whitefield at Portsmouth would have aroused his audience by reminding them that their ancestors came over to preserve a true and pure religion, interrupted with the declaration "Our ancestors came over for no such purpose, but to catch fish and deal in furs."

But to them the great end of life was found in hardy adventures and in the profits of the then new and teeming fisheries, with such incidental profits as might come from the purchase of the Indians' collection of peltries. From the nature of their occupation they were individually free when here, although at home they probably knew little of what we should understand as liberty. Some of them were townsmen, and claimed to be freemen as such; most of them probably were not. Here on this coast they acknowledged neither Lord nor town, and yielded a nominal rather than deep-seated allegiance to the crown. They were Englishmen and as such claimed the protection of English authority, but probably did not feel very strongly the correlative duties. These men made settlements on convenient and easily defensible spots for the convenient prosecution of their trade. They were not known to, or recognized by any legal authority. If not interfered with they probably would have gradually received corporate rights, and grown to be towns, like the mediaeval ones, but their settlements were hardly to be called permanent, and were not recognized by any of the grantors under the authority of the King. There is no record of any town having arisen from them, although it is not certain that some may not have done so. The nature of their life and business naturally made them not only free as individuals, but also little regardful of authority collectively, and they made much trouble for the more settled communities which later came over. Yet the influence of this class upon the development of civil institutions here, has been ignored as has their very settlement itself. It was however, by no means a small element in either.

The second were the settlements commenced with hopes of gain by the adventurous cavaliers about the Court who received grants of lands here, as others of them did in Ireland, with equal disregard of the rights of the natives in either case. In Ireland they simply attempted with more or less success to wring from the unwilling natives the means for their enjoyments near the Court. Here there were no inhabitants from whom such revenues could be derived. If anything was to be made out of their grants it must be by bringing over the settlers who were to till the soil, dig in the mines for the wealth they desired from their grants. Hangers-on about the Court, their religious views were those of the Court itself, nominally Church of England, but with a decided leaning to the more ancient faith. Those whom they brought over were like themselves in their religious faith, and in their political attachments. To successfully establish such settlements required an amount of capital which few of them possessed. And they received as partners, the rich citizens of the towns, who sent over as factors, to care for their interests, citizens with the religious and political characters that were prevalent in their towns. In all these settlements, like those farther south in Maryland and Virginia and the Carolinas, the religious and political tenets were of the Cavalier rather than the Roundhead type, yet far enough removed to render them equally desirous of freedom from King and Parliament in politics, while the settlement not having any religious propaganda at its back, sadly needed religious instructors and perhaps deserved the Puritan taunt of godless.

The exigencies of the civil wars at home and the want of needed capital, credit and prestige sooner or later crippled these settlements, while the Puritan settlements sustained by strong, religious feeling, and partaking more of the character of a national movement, disregarded their grants, and swallowed up their settlements, and largely their people. Those who remained loyal to their planters, were soon left to shift for themselves by the needs of their home Lords and they drew together in a few localities and finally succumbed to the superior life of the Puritan settlements. The Piscataqua had early been one of their chief places and when at last it yielded to Massachusetts Bay it secured by treaty certain rights which had not before been granted to Massachusetts towns. Massachusetts wisely neglected to see many things which in her own towns she would not have permitted, trusting to time and the influence of her people and polity to correct them. Yet the influence of this diverse element was by no means small in introducing a change of type in the Puritan town.

The third in order of time was the Pilgrim of Plymouth. Of him the common remark that our ancestors came over to establish or to find religious freedom was so far true that they came to save themselves and their children from what they deemed the contaminating influences which surrounded them either in England or Holland. They were sincere enthusiasts for their religious views, willing to be martyrs if need be. God fearing men, full of the sweetness of Christ's Gospel, as they understood it, ready, as they felt that they had received a new light which those about them had not, in theory to acknowledge that all God's light might not have come to them, and that they were to expect and welcome any new light that might be vouchsafed to them. Yet so satisfied with their own, that it is not likely that the evidence would readily be found which would convince them of the new light. Withal they were not of the great men as this world counts greatness, they were no doubt wilful and opinionated, their vision was no doubt capable of measurement and their minds were, it may be, narrow. But they had the strength of character which comes from sincere conviction, and in the progress of time we are more willing to identify ourselves with them, than with any other of the types of character which could be found among the early settlers of New England. Their influence was scarcely felt directly in New Hampshire, and they themselves, notwithstanding their efforts to send down through their posterity their own cherished faith, were eventually swallowed up by the stronger Puritans.

The latest type of New England settler that for our present purpose it is necessary for us to consider was the Puritan of Massachusetts Bay. Men they were in whose hearts burned a zeal for their own religion, which left no room for the belief that any new or different light could ever come to themselves, or to the world, intolerant of all other beliefs to a degree which almost rivalled that of the Church of Rome. Yet withal it was more a religion of the head than of the heart, and it was accompanied with a form of assertion, which seemed to their unfriends to savor more of policy than of truth. They were not simple minded souls who found their all in their religious faith, but shrewd hard headed men of the world, their eye was always open to the main chance. If their settlement here was founded professedly to form a community whose God was the Lord, and in which his worship should be and remain pure and undefiled, there was also the hope of founding a commonwealth in which they were to find their temporal interests were duly served. To them are to be ascribed the qualities largely which go to form the idea conventionally received of the Yankee. They were backed by a strong business, religious and political party, at home in England and in their history the alternating supremacy of each of these interests may be traced. Similarity of views led them to a strong feeling of common interest with the Parliament party in the civil war then raging in England, as the Cavalier element did with that of the King. Their settlement had been largely recruited from those who would escape the power and authority of the royal prerogative, and they received the countenance of the Parliament party in their efforts to establish a commonwealth which practically should include all New England. Having come to found a commonwealth, in which they and theirs were to be the chief rulers, their polity was such as seemed to them likely to make that commonwealth a success. They encroached upon their neighbors on either hand, they swallowed up the earlier settlements. Plymouth, Mariana, New Hampshire, New Somerset, ceased almost to have a name. If their religion had not the sweetness of that of Plymouth and its Pilgrims, it was to the full as dogmatic, and assertive as it, while in its influence upon the control of the life it was quite as successful as that the Cavalier element brought with it. They brought with them the germs of a church polity which soon grew into a very perfect system of the forms of religion, and by maintaining those forms seemed to itself and to the careless observer, to have more of the reality of religion than any of the other settlers except the Pilgrim, who was thereby the easier absorbed. Filled with their dream of a Christian commonwealth, they would seem to have the spirit, even though they may never have placed in form, the resolutions of which we have heard, as passed by one of their churches.

Resolved, That the Earth is the Lord's and the inheritance thereof.
Resolved, That the inheritance belongs to the Saints.
Resolved, That we are the Saints.

It was much in the spirit of these resolutions that their colony was carried on under their charter. Let us not judge them too harshly, their faults, such as they were, were those largely of the age in which they lived, while in many respects they builded better than they knew. They introduced municipal government into New England. Not the democratic governments which are commonly ascribed to them, that theory, like that of religious liberty, was far in advance of them. The government, the political power, was in the hands of the Freemen alone, and in the towns the primary ownership of the land and the political power was in the hands of the original grantees and those whom they admitted as freemen and settlers with them. In accordance with the fundamental idea of their religious commonwealth every Freeman must be a member of their church, or rather of one of their association of churches. And those who professed a different faith were not worthy of trust. How could they be, when they denied the very foundation on which their civil government was, in their minds at least, reared!

In thus attempting to point out the character or types of the character of these early settlers let me not be supposed to be drawing any individual portraits. Or to deny that a finer analysis might show intermediate types or to assert that all these characteristic traits were to be found in any one person.

You have all heard of the too susceptible but unfortunate young man who, seeing the photograph of apparently a beautiful girl, fell deeply, madly, in love with her and when he found the original, found it was one of those composite pictures of some sixty young girl graduates of Smith College or Vassar or some other, and, look among them all as he would, no one of them was the ideal original of the portrait, although the photograph of each and every one was there. It is thus I have attempted, feebly I know, to present the composite picture of the different types of early settlers out of whom and others like and from no one of whom has come the strength of New England.

Hampton was in its inception a Puritan town granted by Massachusetts on the ground she intended to claim and the frontier toward the banished and assumed heretical Exeter and the looseliving, half Cavalier, half fisherman of Portsmouth and Dover.

The original settlers were men fit for such an enterprise, and as we look back upon them we cannot but be struck with the fact that their leaders would have been eminent in any community, and we who claim descent from them, may look upon their lives and their acts as a constant stimulus to remember the adage ascribed to the French nobility of the olden times, that "Noblesse Oblige." The world has the right to expect and to claim of us, as their descendants, a higher patriotism, a purer life, than of those to whom it cannot point an equal ancestry. But their numbers were too few to cope thoroughly with other social forces about them. The annexation of Portsmouth and Dover and later of Exeter, the combining them with the county of Norfolk, brought Hampton into (for the perpetuity of the Puritan type of town) dangerous contact with other elements, notwithstanding the effort successfully made to Puritanize (if I may he allowed to coin a word) the New Hampshire towns. In Portsmouth and Dover the requirement of church membership through politic management was not insisted upon. The failure of the Wheelwright church in Exeter, and the prohibition of the General Court, "that the people of Exeter proceed no farther in the settlement of a pastor till a further order of this Court," which left Exeter without settled religious instruction for several years, probably produced the same result there. The requirement could not long have been maintained in Hampton. The frequent interchange of inhabitants between the four towns would of necessity have obliterated this as well as the other distinctions of freemen in each. Hampton ceased to be wholly Puritan as the other towns became partially so. The greater freedom of the two northern towns permeated the more southern ones, both religiously and politically. And before the Massachusetts rule was set aside, and the Province of New Hampshire established, in these four towns little distinction was made between those who were after the Puritan manner freemen and those who were not. And these towns were democratic republics, owing a certain allegiance to the central power, but not recognizing many distinctions to which the Massachusetts towns proper were subject. There is, I think, little doubt that the example thus placed before them did much to accelerate a similar change in the status of the Massachusetts towns. Thus Hampton may be said, in the introduction of a freer polity, to have paid to her parent colony a large part at least of any debt which she might be supposed to have incurred from her establishment and early support.

In this way, as I conceive it, the type of New England town government, as distinguished from Massachusetts Bay Puritan towns, came into being. It was not created by the superior wisdom of our ancestors, but like Topsy it "groomed," and that in that part of New England where the necessary influences were most potent. Had it not been for this fortunate chance, which threw four such communities together as the four Now Hampshire towns, it is not improbable that the growth of the municipal system originally introduced in Massachusetts Bay would have been different, and it is quite possible that refusing to yield to the advancing sentiment of freedom it might have ceased to be one of the great forces of of our civilization.

These New Hampshire towns exercised, I was about to say, claimed, but it was rather that without any thought of claim or its denial they simply exercised without question many powers which the stronger government of Massachusetts never would permit to towns under that government. Hence when men learned in the law books, but not so deeply learned in the History of our New Hampshire towns, were called upon to decide upon the authority of the towns, they not infrequently erred, as did the Supreme Court of New Hampshire when it decided, in the War of the Rebellion, that the towns had no authority to raise money to pay in bounties to encourage the enlistment of soldiers, a thing which the New Hampshire towns had done unquestioned in every preceding war. The decision would have been in accordance with the precedents in Massachusetts, from whose cases it was probably taken.

I do not wish to be understood as claiming for the mere form of town government thus established, the origin of the greater freedom of the individual which distinguishes our modern systems of political thought. The recognition of the right of the individual to a personal freedom, as distinguished from that of the social system of which he might be a member, was undoubtedly the necessary result of wider acting causes and would sooner or later have come had the New England town never existed. But there can be no doubt that these towns were the means of introducing that sentiment to the political society of which they formed a part without the shock which elsewhere was caused by it, and that they formed a convenient medium for making known to the world as a practical force this great truth.

Leaving now the past, let us look forward, with what prescience we may possess, into what shall be the future of the influence of the New England town system upon the progress of the race. For I assume, that with all that has been done, no thoughtful man believes that the great problem of successful human government has yet been solved, our most advanced systems are yet but experiments, out of the repeated failures of which we are as yet to find only buoys to mark out the false tracks which have been heretofore followed, as well as to indicate the direction in which progress is for the present least impeded. That these New England towns possessed, for them, a far better system of government than had ever before been known and probably better, for them, than any we are likely to find, will I think compel the assent of every careful and truth seeking enquirer into political truth. Not that they were perfect, as none of the works of man can be, but that the evils are more than counterbalanced by the gain over all other systems. But that the system which, in our smaller towns, where there is great practical equality of knowledge, of virtue, of social standing and of wealth, has been productive of so much that is desirable, if not all that is essential, in good government, may fail when applied to other communities where no such practical equality exists; where on the contrary great extremes of knowledge and ignorance, of public and private virtue, of vice and crime, of refinement and vulgarity as well as of wealth and prosperity, separate the community into classes and cliques among whom great jealousies will necessarily exist of each other, often rising into enmity; is a priority highly probable, and in many instances has directly or in directly very near making wreck of all the good, which else where has come from it in communities like those where it originated. Again, the growth of population, the diversities of business, the greater accumulation of capital and the consequent increase of the scale on which our business enterprises are carried on, have brought together bodies of men in the same community far too large to transact business in town meeting, and to render some other system a necessity. In what way then shall this necessary growth of the body politic be provided for in the government of National affairs, which in the earlier times of political history were little more than the quarrels between towns, and which as these towns coalesced into States were provided for by more or less arbitrary government, modern example has provided representative government and the so far successful working of Representative governments has in this country led to the adoption of similar governments in cities, not however with that complete satisfaction in its working, which we might desire; so that now in many of our large cities there is a growing sentiment, practically, although almost unconsciously, in the direction of arbitrary power. A result which would seem in other nations to be very generally resorted to. While these experiments have been making in the government of our heterogeneous cities, they have reacted unfavorably upon our town governments, and they have been changing from the democratic republic of the New England types of towns, in which the body of the inhabitants determine the course of public action, into representative governments, in which not the town but executive officers, originally designed merely to carry out the views of the citizens as declared by them, in town meeting, have assumed the power of direction of the town's policy. In both cases our experiments seem now to be failures. What then? The method of arbitrary government, no matter how variously our body politic may be made up or how extensive or how complicated the details of the government may be, is highly repugnant to all our notions and prejudices and almost equally so to our well informed judgment. The problem is one that day by day is pressing us for solution, and every day we are giving it up as too hard for us. While all the time there are many who think they see, in the failure of representative government in cities, the evidence of its eventual failure in state and national affairs. I am no pessimist, nor would I be so much of an optimist as to shut my eyes to dangers which are plainly before me. While there is much which I can not see, I fully believe in the democratic basis of our town system of government. I believe that the encroachments of mere agents upon the province of the town should be resisted and cured, not so much by legislation as by a higher sense of public duty in each citizen. Representative institutions are a makeshift only, to do that which the Demos is too unwieldy to perform. Their tendency is to steal the power from the many and deposit it with the few, still they are so far as can now be seen, indispensable, the dangers arising from them are to be met by increased sense of responsibility in the elector, and increased jealousy of unnecessary legislation, in short by greatly increased public spirit. We should endeavor so far as possible to resist the causes which are making the great inequalities in our modern society, by increasing the intelligence and learning of of those who are behind in the race; by the promotion of public and private virtue among those who lack by the cultivation of the higher and more refined feelings among those who now are coarse and vulgar and the more equal distribution of wealth, that homogeneity which has made the success of the New England town may be in great part restored. I know the many difficulties which beset any attempt to do any of these things, but I feel well assured that if the wise and learned remain unwilling, as they seem now to me to be, to make the elevation of their fellow men the first and the highest exercise of the powers and energies which the Creator has implanted in them. If the virtuous and the religious portion of the community remain satisfied with their own freedom from vice and like the Levite and the Priest in the parable, pass by on the other side, their brothers and sisters who form the dangerous classes in society. If the refined continue to recoil from the coarse and vulgar, and to appear at least to believe themselves made of better clay than others. If the rich continue to trust in their wealth, and to increase it by methods which can hardly pass the golden rule, of doing unto others as you would have others do to you, while entirely falling short of the Saviour's rule of love, not as we love ourselves but as he loved us. If all these classes make no more effort than in my time they have done to reduce and minimize the differences between different ranks in society. Our representative institutions, like our system of town governments, will prove a failure, and the tendency I have adverted to, to resort to arbitrary government will become too strong to be resisted and in some way, it would be presumptuous to even guess what, the spectre which has been felt rather than seen, which we sometimes speak of as "the man on horseback," will brood over us, sapping our very national life.

But the proverb that "man's extremity is God's opportunity has very much of truth and to Him I am willing to trust the future of our beloved country, always remembering the story of Mahomet, who when one of his fanatic followers in his presence said, "I will now loose my camel and trust him to God," replied "Friend, tie thy camel and trust him to God."

I have thus attempted a review of some things in which this town of Hampton in common with the other New Hampshire towns did for the great cause of individual liberty, and have tried to impress upon you my sense of future impending dangers and duties. That I have in either done what was in my heart to say to you my own imperfection is too well known to me for me to claim. If I have said ought to raise your respect for our fathers in the struggle they fought or to call to your minds the duties that are pressing upon us and to stimulate you to meet those duties as our fathers did those which came to them. If I have done something, ever so little to help in the solution of the problem before us I shall be amply repaid.

Thanking you for your kind attention I ask you to remember what may be worth remembering and to forget all that may seem to you trivial and false.

Bell revised this address for the sixty-eighth annual meeting of the New Hampshire Historical Society two years later.