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Did NH Governor John Langdon Own Slaves?


He led the 1774 raid against the king’s fort, built America’s first frigates, fought, financed the war, designed and signed the US Constitution, served as New Hampshire senator, “president,” and governor. So was this “founding father” also a slave owner? Signs point to NO.  (Complete article below)



John Langdon is arguably the most important man in Portsmouth, New Hampshire history. An active patriot, he led America’s first revolutionary attack on a king’s fort at nearby New Castle in 1774, months before the battle at Lexington and Concord. He built the famous warship Raleigh, depicted on the state seal, and Ranger, captained by John Paul Jones. He served on the first Continental Congress and was New Hampshire’s first Speaker of the House during the Revolution. And Langdon was just warming up.

You know his stately white mansion on the corner of Pleasant and Court Streets. But have you ever gone inside? President George Washington did in 1789, and he called it the most eminent house in the city. I’m pretty certain it was Langdon who convinced Washington to take on Tobias Lear as his personal secretary. Lear was Langdon’s nephew and Tobias later married Washington’s niece, a pretty cozy arrangement. Lear’s semi-restored house is also a Portsmouth landmark.

By the time Washington visited those two Portsmouth homes in 1789, Langdon had served in the state Senate, been “President” of New Hampshire, and signed the United States Constitution. That is what he’s best known for. Langdon arrived late to the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The state of New Hampshire, in its wisdom, had refused to support the cost of sending any delegates to Philadelphia, so Langdon paid the expenses out of pocket for himself and his fellow delegate Nicholas Gilman of Exeter. New Hampshire proudly became the ninth state to ratify the Constitution and make it official.

John Langdon became the first president pro tempore of the US Senate in 1789 and served two terms as the state’s governor. He turned down Thomas Jefferson’s offer to serve as Secretary of the Navy and declined the post of Vice President to President James Madison.

So why isn’t he a revolutionary rock star? Where are the Langdon statues, postage stamps, and bubblegum cards? His one and only full-length biography was written in 1937 by Lawrence Shaw Mayo. It’s a good book, I’m told, but it hasn’t been updated in 75 years.




Slave-owning roots

I’ve taken the battered biography of John Langdon out of the library a few times, but I never actually read it. I took it out again this week. I had to check my facts. That’s because I got in trouble recently for calling John Langdon “another one of our white, slave-owning, founding fathers.”

“Correction,” said Peter Michaud, an historian and former site manager of the LangdonHouseMuseum operated by Historic New England. “There’s no evidence that Langdon actually owned slaves.”

“Then why is there a Langdon Slave Burying Ground?” I asked. It’s behind the church on Lafayette Road (across from McDonald’s) alongside the UrbanForestryCenter. It’s listed as #27 on the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail. White members of the Langdon family were buried elsewhere.

That was John Langdon Sr., the father, I was told, an early local farmer. His family emigrated to the New Hampshire colony before 1660. The father ran what can only be called a northern “plantation” with enslaved African workers. Mayo’s biography and other patriotic accounts barely mention the topic of slavery and refer to Langdon’s father simply as a “respected” and “successful” farmer. In their book Black Portsmouth, historians Valerie Cunnigham and Mark Sammons document many members of the Langdon family buying and selling enslaved men, women, and children right up until the American Revolution.

John Jr., the son, was born into that slave system in 1741. Educated sporadically in Portsmouth schools, John spent at least a decade as a sea captain before settling into the mercantile trade as a successful businessman. I just assumed that Langdon kept enslaved Africans in his mansion, like so many other rich and famous Portsmouth families, including Declaration-signer William Whipple. Historians should not assume, but then what about Siras Bruce?

About Siras Bruce

Siras Bruce (Langdon spelled his name “Cyrus de Bruce”) was likely enslaved at some point. At least one historian claims he was sold out of New Jersey to John Langdon. No documents show that Siras Bruce was enslaved or freed here in New Hampshire. What we have instead are contracts, beginning in 1783, stating that he was a paid domestic servant of the Langdon family. Bruce was a handsome black man clearly of African origin, but not enslaved.

“There could scarcely be found in Portsmouth, not excepting the Governor himself,” historian Charles Brewster wrote of Siras, “one who dressed more elegantly or exhibited a more gentlemanly appearance.”
According to oral tradition passed on by Brewster, Siras wore gold chains and seals. He wore a broadcloth coat, “carefully plaited linen” clothes, ruffled shirts, silk stockings, and silver-buckled shoes. Siras received a salary, goods, and room and board in the Langdon mansion, built in 1784. Dressing Siras Bruce fashionably “in livery” certainly was a status symbol for Langdon, who seems to have preferred black domestic workers.

Displaying his economic and social status was important to Langdon and his wife Elizabeth Sherburne, who was 20 years younger than her husband. They married in 1777 when Langdon was 37. Having driven John Wentworth, the state’s last royal governor, out of the country two years earlier, Langdon was the political heir apparent of New Hampshire and he made no secret of his wealth and status. At his death in 1819, Langdon bequeathed a lump of cash to each of his household servants. He also paid for each servant to have a newly made black mourning outfit so they could bury him in style.

Langdon’s treatment of Silas Bruce as an employee rather than property, according to Black Portsmouth, is an indication that he disapproved of slavery, despite his family upbringing. I did not know that.


Being John Langdon

Nobody knows more about this unsung revolutionary than Tom Kehr. The Concord attorney became fascinated by Langdon’s story while serving at the US Coast Guard station in New Castle. The station is next door to the ruins of FortConstitution (formerly FortWilliam & Mary) where Langdon and John Sullivan, forewarned by Paul Revere, led their famous patriot raid and stole the king’s guns and gunpowder. A history major and re-enactor, Kehr is more than a scholar. He is a tad obsessed. Now and then he dons an eighteenth century outfit and becomes John Langdon.

John_Langdon_earlyKehr depicts Langdon as engaging and intelligent, but not a college man like so many of his contemporaries. He says Langdon was neither a great writer nor orator, and preferred one-on-one negotiating to public speaking.

“He was no John Sullivan,” Kehr says, “who would go off on anything. He [Langdon] was quieter. He was a sea captain,” Kehr notes, “just a fascinating guy. He was all about doing things, getting things done.”

Reading Langdon’s letters, Kehr says, shows that he was always in the thick of things – planning the revolution and rebuilding the government, building warships, joining the battle, making money, supporting revolutionary causes, and hanging out with the right people. He was generally well-liked, but made an enemy of John Paul Jones, who sullied Langdon’s reputation. Langdon also had detractors who were troubled that the governor came out of the Revolution as a wealthy man, thanks to privateering, but he never apologized for making money, Kehr says.

So why is John Langdon so little known as a founding father?

“That’s a tough one,” Kehr says. “I’ve never gotten that myself ...It’s incredible the way he just fades.”

Langdon’s letters, Kehr offers by way of explanation, are spread all over the place. Kehr has tracked them from the NH Historical Society to the Portsmouth Athenaeum, to the archives in Pennsylvania, and to the New York Public Library. There may be more revealing letters still out there, Kehr says, probably in private hands. The Langdon House in Portsmouth, meanwhile, has no Langdon collection to support the story of his life.


“This horrible traffick”

Did Langdon own slaves? Thomas Kehr thinks not.

He points to the dramatic story of Ona (or Oney) Judge Staines who was enslaved as Martha Washington’s body servant, and who escaped from bondage while the president was living in Philadelphia in 1796. It is likely that Langdon’s own daughter blew the whistle on the 22-year old, biracial Ona after spotting her in Portsmouth.

As the nation’s largest slave owners, the Washingtons were embarrassed by Ona’s escape and wanted her back, but they didn’t want to arouse public attention. They sent their nephew Burwell Bassett to capture Ona, after she refused to return. Bassett stayed at the Langdon’s house in Portsmouth while plotting to take Ona back by force. But someone tipped her off. Whether Siras Bruce or another member of the Langdon household warned Ona to stay in hiding is unknown. We don’t know if John Langdon was part of the conspiracy, but despite the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law and his friendship with the president, Langdon made no effort to assist in recapturing Ona. She lived out her life as a seamstress in the nearby town of Greenland.

Kehr says the Ona story may be another indicator that Langdon was opposed to slavery. While remaining friendly with southerners, who were his political colleagues and business allies, he was also sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.

Historian Peter Michaud also points out the popular misconception that the small brick outbuildings at the front corners of the Langdon mansion were “slave quarters.”  Instead, he notes, they were very early office buildings rented to downtown business owners.

And more to the point, Michaud points to a 1788 correspondence between Benjamin Franklin and John Langdon. Coxey Toogood, an historian at IndependencePark in Philadelphia mentioned these letters to Peter, who in turn slapped my wrist for labeling Langdon as a slave-owner. Was Langdon a closet abolitionist who quietly used his wealth and influence to employ and free enslaved Africans, or was he just playing politics and exploiting blacks to display his social prominence – or both?

Franklin wrote Langdon, then “president” of New Hampshire, complaining that a great many of the slaves sold in the southern states appeared to be imported on ships fitted out in the Piscataqua region near Portsmouth. Langdon wrote back, complementing Franklin on his efforts to abolish the slave trade. He expressed hope that “the exertions of great and good men together with the spirit of times will soon put an end to this abominable proceeding in America.”

Langdon assured Franklin that his fears were “entirely without any foundation whatever.” New Hampshire was no longer complicit in the slave trade, Langdon wrote. It is my understanding, however, that fast Portsmouth-built ships were used in the illicit slave trade well into the next century.

Langdon did not mince words, but was he being entirely honest, and was he correct?

“It is now more than twenty years since any Vessel has been fitted out from this place on such a cruel Voyage,” Langdon told Franklin. “I am well knowing to the Commerce of this State and I verily believe not a single person whatever either directly or indirectly is now, or has been for numbers of years back concerned in this horrible traffick. This State would by no means permit this Commerce and should any man indirectly engage in it he would be most heartily despised and perhaps be obliged to leave his Country.”


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His latest books are America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812 and Under the Isles of Shoals: Archaeology and Discovery at SmuttynoseIsland.

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