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Did NH Governor John Langdon Own Slaves?

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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