The Paper Money Riot of 1786
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Written by Charles W. Brewster

Early NH currencyBREWSTER’S RAMBLE # 105

Soon after the American Revolution, a shortage of legal tender drove the people of New Hampshire to riot. Local insurgents rose up against the newly formed government at Exeter. But thanks to the cool head of New Hampshire "President" John Sullivan, the Seacoast survived.




Insurrection in New Hampshire, 1786

Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values. -- JDR

ABOUT Charles Brewster 

THIS incident in our State history, although its actual locality was a few miles from Portsmouth, yet from the deep interest it excited here at the time, and the terror of the mob at the bare idea that "Hackett's Artillery" from Portsmouth was marching upon them, is entitled to a place among the Rambles.

RamblesIn the beginning of the year 1785, the complaints of the unhappy people, who had contracted debts during the time of the too great plenty of money, induced the Legislature to pass an act, making every species of property a tender at an appraised value. It was soon however found from experience, that this answered no other purpose but to prevent a demand on the part of the creditors and a neglect on the part of the debtors, to discharge their just debts. The scarcity of money still remained a complaint; for so far as goods and real property were substituted as a medium in commerce, so far

specie, of course, ceased to circulate; and credit being thus injured, the money holders turned their keys on that cash which might otherwise have been loaned to the needy.

In August a convention of committees from about thirty towns assembled, and agreed upon and preferred to the General Court a long petition, setting forth their grievances on account of the scarcity of money, and praying for an emission of paper bills of credit, in which there is no single trace of an idea of redemption, or any one attempt to give the currency a foundation; but the whole seems predicated on a supposition that the General Court by a mere act of legislation by words and signs could impress an intrinsic value on paper; which is as fully absurd as it would be to suppose that the Legislature had the power of Midas, and could, from a single touch, turn stones and sticks into gold. Their great object was, however, to have this paper a tender for all debts and taxes, and no plan is hinted by which the people are to get this money out of the treasury; but it rather seems that they expected the General Court to apportion it among the people at large.

The Legislature formed a plan for the emission of fifty thousand pounds, to be let out at four per cent and land security redeemable at a future period, carrying interest at four per cent, and to be a tender in taxes for the internal support of the State, and for fees and salaries of the officers of the government. This plan was sent as early as the fourteenth of September, 1786, to the several towns, to collect their minds upon the subject.

The following interesting account of the matter was drawn up by Judge Smith of Exeter not long before his death.

"It was at this period that the clamor for paper currency began. Many indulged the hope that a liberal emission of bills of credit, and a mere order on the part of Government that they should be received in all cases as equal in value to specie, would operate as an immediate and effectual remedy for all their grievances.

"On the morning of 20th September, we were informed that a large body of insurgents were on their march to Exeter, where the Legislature was then in session; and at three in the afternoon they made their appearance. I saw them as they passed down the street by the Academy. More than a hundred were tolerably well armed; but the rest (for they were upwards of two hundred in number) were mounted, and their arms consisted only of whips, cudgels, and such weapons as tradition has assigned to the Georgia militia. They pursued their march over the bridge, overturning or thrusting aside all who ventured within their reach.

In a short time they returned, and invested the court house. Judge Livermore, who was then upon the bench, and the severity of whose countenance was not diminished at sight of the array, would not permit the business of the court to be interrupted, or allow any one to inspect the besiegers from the windows. In a short time, however, finding their mistake, and probably supposing it rather a hopeless business to ask redress of grievances from a court of law, they marched to the meeting house, where both houses of Assembly were met in conference. The meeting house, at that time, stood where Rev. Mr. Rowland's was afterwards erected, and the court house was just opposite. They here began to load all the muskets which had not previously been prepared, and to point them at the house.

After spending some time in this parade, they sent in a deputation, to demand that the Legislature should allow an immediate issue of paper, which should be made a tender in all cases for debts and taxes; and laid close siege to all the avenues of the house, intending to detain the members until they should see fit to grant their request. Some who endeavored to make their escape were driven back with insult. It had been publicly known some hours before, that the insurgents were on their march, and a large concourse was assembled to watch their motions. Some gentlemen attempted to reason with them on the folly of their conduct, but without effect. President Sullivan soon came to the door. He ddressed them with perfect coolness; expostulated with them for some time; assured them that their reasonable demands should not be neglected; but that they might at once abandon the idea of forcing the government into submission: that their array was not so formidable as to terrify an old soldier. It was now evening, and they still adhered resolutely to their post.

"President Sullivan, as I said before, addressed the insurgents without effect, and there seemed no mode remaining of liberating the Legislature from their imprisonment but a resort to force, until a plan was resorted to with good success. It was now twilight. The meeting house was surrounded by a high fence, which intercepted the view on all sides. A drummer was summoned, who stood at a little distance, and beat his drum with as much vigor and effect as if a regular army were advancing to the rescue, and a band, rendered most formidable in appearance by the indistinctness of evening, marched toward the rebel forces. The surrounding crowd at the same time shouted for Government, and loudly expressed their apprehensions that the enemy would be annihilated by the vengeance of Hackett's Artillery.

The insurgents, unable to measure the extent of their danger, needed no second invitation to decamp. Their whole array was dissolved in a moment. They scampered through lanes, streets and fields, and clambered over walls and fences with a rapidity which nothing but fear could give them, and did not stop until they reached a place at the distance of a mile, where they considered themselves safe for the moment from the terrific host, whose sudden appearance had caused their flight. Here they endeavored to rally their broken ranks, and encamped for the night; while the Legislature immediately declared them in a state of rebellion, and authorized the President to issue his orders for calling in the militia of the neighboring towns.

"A company of volunteers was immediately enrolled under the command of Hon. Nicholas Gilman, afterwards a Senator in Congress from this State. They were ordered to meet at the President's quarters early the next morning. I went to the place appointed before daybreak; and the first person I met in the streets was President Sullivan, mounted, and in full uniform. He told me that he was about reconnoitering the enemy, and immediately rode away. In a short time the militia began to pour in, and by the hour of nine, a large body was assembled. Among their officers was Gen. Cilley, whose bravery and conduct in the revolutionary war is so well remembered. Many distinguished citizens also arrived, and attached themselves to the company of volunteers I have just mentioned.

"Before ten, the line was formed, and the troops commenced their march, commanded by the President in person. The enemy's line was formed on an eminence near the western bank of the river that crosses the Kingston ground When the militia had advanced to a spot near the river, Gen. Cilley, at the head of a troop of horse, dashed into the enemy's ranks, which were instantly broken and put to flight, without firing a single gun. Many of their officers were taken prisoners upon the spot; and the same night, a small detachment seized several of the ringleaders, and committed them to gaol in Exeter, whence they were shortly after discharged by the Court, after a proper submission. The vigorous measures of Government, and the fear which they had inspired, rendered it unnecessary, as well as impolitic, to resort to severer punishments."

Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
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This digital transcript  © 1999