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George Washington's Seacoast Tour

George Washington Painted in Portsmouth

There was a time when everyone in America wanted the same man for President. And he came with royal pomp to Portsmouth in 1789. GW visited NH's future governor John Langdon. He had his portrait painted. He stopped in to see the mother of his Portsmouth-born secretary Tobias Lear. Washington wrote in his journal the the Portsmouth women were quite attractive. Read on.



October 31 - November 4, 1789


For an 18th century New Hampshire citizen, the historic moment packed all the thrill of a moon walk. The first American President took his first step onto New Hampshire soil in a burst of celebration. Revolutionary spin-doctors would have placed George Washington's popularity rating in October 1789 on a scale somewhere between a king and a god. People loved the conquering general whose name remains a synonym for democracy.

With his precedent-setting decision to tour all of the United States while in office, Washington used his popularity to sew together the loosely knit and increasingly derisive confederation of states at a critical time. His four week New England journey, later followed by a tour of the South, brought Washington from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts to the banks of the Merrimack River on October 31. Having previously traveled up the North Shore coast from Salem, Washington breakfasted in Newburyport, but traveled a few miles inland to find a shallow spot to cross the Merrimack River. At a point on the Amesbury road, historians believe, he was ferried across the state line as local militia and lighthorsemen ceremoniously made the border exchange.

John Sullivan, "the president" of New Hampshire, out-pomped his neighbor states by assembling a long receiving line of NH's political elite and an escort of 700 cavalry. Though Seabrook is not mentioned in the accounts, the day trip apparently moved from there through Hampton Falls, Hampton and to Greenland where Washington rode past cheering citizens on horseback. 


All Hail Washington!

The Presidential parade arrived in Portsmouth at 3 p.m. along what is today Middle Street. Newspaper accounts describe narrow streets packed with cheering onlookers, church bells and 13-gun salutes to honor the united colonies (though Rhode Island and North Carolina were not yet officially members.) The changing times are evident in the rapidly changing street names. King Street, for example, had only years before been changed to Congress Street . Since Portsmouth was then the New Hampshire capital city, Washington marched up Congress Street into Market Square where citizens sang lengthy original odes to the tune of "God Save the King". A published sample verse reads:

"Those shouts ascending to the sky,
Proclaim great WASHINGTON is nigh!
Hail Nature's boast -- Columbia's Son,
Welcome! Welcome WASHINGTON."

Washington was received at the State House which no longer stands in the square. Children wearing hats with colored quills to designate their schools had been assigned to the front row Because Washington's whistle-stop New England tour had been suddenly announced, townspeople prepared the elaborate ceremony in just two days.

President GWAfter the festivities, the President took lodging in the Brewster Tavern on the corner of modern day Court and Pleasant Streets. That building too no longer stands, but after dinner with local VIPs, Washington records that he took tea at John Langdon's fine home next door, an historic site still open to the public. Langdon, a NH senator and ship builder, had recently tussled with John Paul Jones over equipping of the tall ship America. November 1 was a Sunday and Washington attended morning church services a few blocks walk toward the harbor at St. John's Episcopal. The current brick church at the top of Chapel Hill was rebuilt when the wooden one burned in 1806. Attending a second afternoon service was customary. With his secretary Tobias Lear of Portsmouth, the Chief Executive heard a very flattering speech at the North Church in Market Square. Only the weathervane of this Portsmouth landmark remains of the structure Washington visited. According to Washington's journal, he spent the afternoon in his room at the tavern writing letters.


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