Three Lives of the Portsmouth Marine Society
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
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December should be spelled with a dollar sign. We will spend a bundle on consumer goods this month, but we will also be very generous to people in need. That blend of commerce and charity defines the holiday season. That also describes the Portsmouth Marine Society, founded in 1808. Three groups have borne that name. Their stories are rarely told. (Click title to read more)
Today New Hampshire's key industry is tourism. Before that, beginning in the mid-1800s, we were a manufacturing state with an emphasis on textiles. Turn the clock back even further and, for its first two centuries, New Hampshire was a maritime economy. It all began with fishing, but by the 1700s, our primary export was trees, sold as tall straight masts, or cut into boards, shingles, and staves. Piscataqua sailors traveled to distant ports, returning with rum, sugar, molasses, earthenware, cloth, dried peas, beans, and corn.
Our honor wounded
As the state's only seaport, Portsmouth reached its heyday soon after the Revolution. But without a significant navy, American merchant ships were constantly harassed by Barbary Pirates and by the French and British, who were engaged in a lengthy war. Locals were incensed in June 1807, when the British warship HMS Leopard attacked and boarded the frigate USS Chesapeake off the Virginia coast.
The nascent nation felt dishonored. Its sovereignty had been violated. A "large and respectable meeting" of Seacoast residents was held the following month to address the threat to maritime trade. They unanimously condemned the "treacherous, unprovoked, and dastardly attack" on American shipping.
President Thomas Jefferson saw the "Chesapeake Affair" as second only to the infamous British attack at Lexington and Concord. Jefferson struck back with the Embargo Act of 1807. It banned American exports. The goal was to punish Britain and France by cutting off their supply of raw materials from the United States.
Initially Piscataqua businessmen supported the President's actions as wise, prudent, and dignified. "We will cheerfully submit to any sacrifice," they proclaimed. But the embargo backfired, choking off the shipping economy along the Atlantic coast. Locals would come to curse Jefferson's embargo, and the War of 1812 that followed under President James Madison. One treasonous young Portsmouth lawyer by the name of Daniel Webster went so far as to suggest that New England should secede from the United States in protest. The Port of Portsmouth began its sad decline, devolving from a world trade center to a shadow of its former self. It would take almost 200 years for the "Old Town by the Sea" to reinvent its burgeoning economy, this time by substituting trees and the lucrative West India Trade, for tourists.
CONTINUE PORTSMOUTH MARINE SOCIETY
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