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Recalling Portsmouth in the War of 1812

The war at home

Historian Sandra Rux has been boning up for the Portsmouth version of the bicentennial. As curator of an upcoming exhibit at the Portsmouth Historical Society, Rux has been reading books about the War of 1812 and studying 200-year old Portsmouth newspapers. Her exhibit, “The War of 1812: What it Meant to Portsmouth,” opens at the John Paul Jones House Museum on May 25. The Portsmouth Athenaeum also offers a lecture series on the war.

1812_Langley_Boardman_House“Most exciting is the tension of the period,” Rux says. “The whole decade before the war you have trade in shambles. Jefferson’s Embargo [of 1807] caused a lot of disruption. So you have people making a lot of money, and people being ruined.”

Before the war around 1800, she says, Portsmouth was in its heyday as a merchant trading center. Many of the city’s grand three-story mansions were built from 1800 to 1820. The town was expanding away from its downtown center. Langley Boardman and James Rundlett, for example, were astute businessmen and real estate mavens, whose houses still stand on Middle Street.

While Rundlett and Boardman were “winners” in the war economy, Rux says, there are many sad stories. Henry Sherburne Langdon was doing well as a merchant, but made bad investments in the war and his son, a midshipman aboard the Wasp, was killed. By 1822 Langdon was broke and all of his property was, auctioned off.

Bookbinder Benjamin Floyd’s business went “dull” during the war, so he closed his shop and joined the crew of the privateer Portsmouth, hoping to recover his losses. The brig Portsmouth was lost at sea in 1814 and never heard from again.

Captain Samuel Ham, Jr. was a prosperous merchant with his fleet of 15 vessels but his business was destroyed by the outbreak of war. In 1813 he invited friends to a lavish party at his newly built Portsmouth mansion. After the guests left, he climbed to the top floor of the home he could no longer afford and hanged himself.

Regional perspectives

“I went to a southern school,” Rux says of her childhood in Virginia. “We were big on Dolley Madison rescuing things from the White House and Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. Oddly enough, I learned about the Hartford Convention, which no one up here seems to know anything about.”

1812_Young_Daniel-WebsterThe Hartford Convention was a meeting of New England Federalists opposed to the War of 1812 and to the domination of American presidents from Virginia. The 26 delegates met secretly to discuss ways of reducing the political power of the slave states and to hamper their ability to finance the war. There was even talk of banning new slave states in the west or having New England negotiate a separate peace treaty with England.

“They taught us that the North had the first idea to secede,” Rux says of her Virginia schooling. “That’s why they don’t teach the Hartford it Convention in New Hampshire or Connecticut.’

“In Portsmouth you really have a mix, rare in New England, of people who are Jeffersonian and people who are Federalists,” Rux says, each side with its competing newspaper. While the New Hampshire Gazette offered a reasonably pro-war coverage, she points out; the headline in the Federalist-leaning Oracle in 1812 announced the outbreak of hostilities as “War Horrid War!”

Among the Yankee protesters in 1812 was a young Federalist named Daniel Webster, then practicing law in Portsmouth. Webster read an anti-war paper in a field in Brentwood, NH. The enthusiastic crowd of nearly 2,000 heard Webster speak “under the great canopy of Heaven,” according to an historic marker that stands on the spot today. Webster’s rebellious address also included a hint of sedition. If President Madison continued to favor the economic survival of one region of the United States over another, Webster implied, then the offended states might discuss secession. The speech, considered treasonous by some, launched attorney Webster’s political career in Congress where he took on Henry Clay and his War Hawks. Webster’s anti-war position eventually softened as his fame and his waistline grew. Both Webster and Clay failed in their many later attempts to win the presidency.

CONTINUE WAR OF 1812

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