The State House almost wasn’t built on its current lot. It almost wasn’t even built in Concord. 

Monitor staff
Published: 6/5/2019 4:51:39 PM

Building the New Hampshire State House was an arduous process, lasting almost three years and costing nearly $82,000, more than double the initial estimate.

But building the State House was a breeze compared to figuring out where to put it.

The whole shebang can be found in the definitive work about Concord’s early days: James Lyford’s History of Concord, New Hampshire From the Original Grant in 1725 to the Opening of the 20th Century, which you can find online on the Concord City Library website. It helps to peruse a history put together for the State House’s 150th anniversary by Legislative Historian Leon Anderson.

The tale is an eye-opener to anybody who doesn’t realize that politics and governance two centuries ago was just as convoluted and squabble-filled, and prone to blame the press for its ills, as it is today.

The debate began when New Hampshire decided that it needed a capital city. Since the Revolution, the state Legislature had been hopping around the state, holding its sessions in communities as far west as Charlestown, just below Claremont; as far east as Portsmouth; as far south as Amherst; and as far north as Concord and Hopkinton.

But the time came to settle down and in 1805 the Legislature said it was going to finally make a choice.

Concord had been the most common site for meetings of what is officially called the general court and its central location at a time when few people lived north of the Lakes Region made it an obvious choice. Obvious, that is, unless you were Salisbury or Hopkinton, both of which thought they would make a fine capital.

The tussle played out for two years, at times bordering on farce. As Lyford tells it, the key point was where the Legislature would meet next. In 1806 the House said that the following year they would meet in Salisbury but the Senate changed Salisbury to Concord and sent the bill back to the House, which changed Concord to Hopkinton and sent it back to the Senate. This could have ping-ponged back and forth forever but the Senate broke down and agreed to meet in Hopkinton.

In 1807 it happened again. The House said that in 1808 they would meet in Salisbury but the Senate said, “No, thank you.” The House changed the location to Hopkinton and tried again. This time the Senate changed it to Concord and sent the bill back. The House threw up its hands and said, “Fine, whatever.”

After that, the Legislature stayed in Concord, more out of inertia than decisiveness. Concord wasn’t actually named the official state capital until 1815.

In Concord the general court gathered in a meeting house that the city had built in 1790. By 1815 it was described as being “a building mean in its appearance and destitute of suitable accommodation,” so the decision was made to build a real State House.

Cue a new fight, one that continued the city’s long-standing north vs. south rivalry, which was really a fight between existing landed interests and newcomers with money. This rivalry had flared up a decade earlier over where to put an institution at least as important as state government – the first chartered bank in the city. The two ends of Concord got so mad at each other that they opened competing banks, both called The Bank of Concord.

“For some time the rivals pestered each other not a little,” wrote Lyford with 19th-century understatement, noting that the North bank tried to institute a run on the South bank, while the South bank sued the North bank for so many things that the action had “more than a hundred points.” The fight continued until a financial crisis killed off one of the banks in 1840.

At this point in his history, Lyford takes a moment to discuss a struggle over another important Concord institution: Whether to let pigs roam free in the street. It took more than 20 years to end that practice entirely – but that’s another story.

Once the decision was made to build a State House, the question arose of where to put it. The North folks, made up of many of the city’s established families wanted the Stickney lot, where the Town House stood, while the “upstart” Southerners wanted the Green lot, named after a lawyer. By the way, these two lots are just four blocks apart: Concord was a lot smaller then.

Verbal fisticuffs ensued. Lyford reports that the North folks called the Green lot a “low and wet quagmire” while the South called the Stickney lot a “sand heap,” as if Concord contained both the Okefenokee Swamp and the Gobi Desert.

In 1816 a legislative committee recommended the Stickney lot, but then a newspaper called the New Hampshire Patriot swung into action pushed by three Concord newcomers – Isaac Hill, the editor, and backers William Low, a merchant, and Col. William Kent – who sided with the other upstarts.

Legislative Historian Leon Anderson puts it like this: “The Hill-Low-Kent triumverate was something for posterity to ponder.”

They pushed the Green site so ardently in print that Rep. Benjamin Prescott of Jaffrey, “a gruff old plain-spoken soldier” who supported the Stickney site, tried to get the Legislature to censure the paper over whether it had accurately reported his comments. The Patriot reported that Prescott called the Green site “nothing but a frog pond” and lamented that the amphibians would make too much noise for lawmakers to proceed.

There was much discussion among lawmakers, including the governor, about the proposed censure, which finally led to a resolution that the newspaper actions “is not an offense cognizable by the Legislature.” Score one for press freedom, even when the press is obnoxious.

The governor and Executive Council decided to choose a site and by a 3-2 vote went with the Green lot, with Gov. William Plumer casting the deciding vote. But one councilor, Samuel Quarles of Ossipee, a fan of the Stickney lot, was absent. He returned the next day and tried to get the vote reconsidered but that effort failed and on July 4, 1816, Plumer wrote in his private diary, “Fixed the site for the State House.”

Construction started in September of that year, but that wasn’t the end of it.

In November 1816, North end residents “succeed in stirring up considerable feeling in their favor among members of the legislature” because of the vote being held without Quarles and tried to reopen the whole question of the State House site, Lyford reported. It wasn’t until Christmas Day of 1816 that the House killed an effort to take the decision away from the governor and council, and the Green lot won.

As for the Stickney lot, it became home of another branch of government: the Merrimack County Court House was built there in 1857.

And what about the New Hampshire Patriot? it comforted the afflicted and afflicted the comfortable for many years through a series of mergers and changes, officially joining forces with the Concord Monitor in the 1920s. Check out our masthead at the bottom of the editorial page: It still says “Concord Monitor & New Hampshire Patriot.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)


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