The Taxing Life of George Meserve
His loyalty to the King
It's April again and my office floor is a mosaic of paper. Narrow strips of carpet are barely visible between stacks of old bills, 1099s, check stubs, receipts and bank statements. I've rearranged the piles artistically for days like a poet juggling words. In 1999, according to the balance sheet, I spent $2,000 more than I earned. In the history writing biz, we call that a banner year.
Wealth and I have never been close. I've been described, even by people who like me, as "monetarily immature" and "financially nonresponsive." I think a friend of mine summed it up best when he said, "Dennis sucks at making money." But I'm way better at making money than I am at keeping track of it. Accounting to the government for every cent I've spent is way too taxing for me. So every fiscal year, as the first buds of spring erupt from the trees and the IRS breathes hotly down my neck, I think about hanging George Meserve.
George was Portsmouth's tax man, which was not a good thing to be back in 1765. His dad Col. Nathaniel Meserve, a local shipbuilder, had become a war hero in 1745 when Seacoast soldiers routed the French from Nova Scotia. Back then New Hampshire was filled with loyal British subjects. The King didn't forget his Portsmouth friend, and commissioned the Colonel to build a gigantic 50-gun ship called the America. There's a nifty wooden model of it just inside the front doors of the Portsmouth Athenaeum today. The Meserves became very rich and lived in a big house on the south site of the North Mill Pond. Life was good.
Years later, Col. Meserve, his eldest son and 100 other carpenters joined the second attack on Louisburg in Canada. This time the victor was smallpox. Only 16 of the men survived. Enter George Meserve, now the family heir and breadwinner. George and his family had a nice house on Vaughan Street, which was once a classy Portsmouth address and is now a parking lot. King George saw fit to reward this loyal American family and, while George Meserve was visiting England, appointed him stamp agent to New Hampshire.
Why George wanted to collect the most hated tax in American history mystifies local historians even today. I say "local" historians because, as usual, American history textbooks focus on Massachusetts, Philadelphia and Virginia, oblivious to the Revolution going on in little old New Hampshire. Hanging out with his wealthy British buddies, George may have missed the negative reaction here at home to the Sugar Act that created a tax to pay off British war debt. The Currency Act that forbade colonists from minting money was no winner here either. There would follow a Quartering Act, requiring colonists to lodge British soldiers, and a Declamatory Act, in which the British said they had the right to pass all the other acts. But the Stamp Act -- requiring a tax on newspapers, stationery, legal documents -- really rubbed Portsmouth the wrong way. Even NH's royal governors Benning and John Wentworth seemed to oppose its passage, fearing it might arouse local citizens like us to rebel.
And so we did. On September 12, 1765 a mob of Portsmouth citizens hung George Meserve in effigy. Therapists today might see this as a healthy form of anger resolution. This afternoon, with a year's worth of receipts littering the office floor, I wouldn't mind a little of that mob action myself. The crowd also hung a dummy of the British prime minister who approved the Stamp Act, and a dummy of the Devil, who they said came up with the idea for taxes in the first place. Some wise guy painted a message on a board which was set up to look like the Devil was whispering into George's ear and saying:
"George, my son, you are rich in station,
Meserve was lucky, other tax agents were tarred & feathered. Later that night, the rowdy people of Portsmouth dragged the three effigies to Hay Market, where the John Paul Jones House and Dow's Gulf Station stand today, and set them on fire. People around here, you see, just get a little riled about paying taxes. In colonial days, when the Mass Bay Colony taxed residents on the Isles of Shoals, they ripped down their houses, floated them across Gosport Harbor and rebuilt them on an island governed by New Hampshire. "Live free or die" is more than just a license plate motto around these parts. And don't think things have changed much. At this very moment Portsmouth is refusing to pay New Hampshire's latest education tax, while Governor Jeanne Shaheen is marching the state into court with Maine over a tax-centered boundary dispute that is almost four centuries old.
So while the citizens of Portsmouth were roasting the dummy carcass of their new tax collector, the real George Meserve was heading back home from his extended stay in England. Coming to his senses, George had publicly resigned his position as Stamp Agent while in Boston, but somebody forgot to tell Portsmouth. Met by angry crowds, George was forced to stand on the balcony of the Old State House and officially resign his post again.
A few months later, when the King's official commission arrived from England, George had to publicly resign for the third time. A mob surrounded his house on Vaughan Street and demanded George give up his commission, which he did without hesitation. The official document was stuck on the point of a sword, paraded through town and delivered to a ship captain with instructions to return it to the King. When the stamp tax finally became official in November, nobody was dumb enough to collect it. A year later, the British repealed the act.
How all these great local stories missed the Time-Life history of the Revolution, I'll never know, but they make me proud to be one of the Portsmouth mob. In another Stamp Act event, the local citizens carried a small coffin through the streets containing the body of Liberty, killed, they said, by the new tax law. During his recent primary campaign in Portsmouth, candidate Steve Forbes tried to revive the local story, but his makeshift little tax coffin was a giant public relations dud. Somehow the idea just doesn't work when presented by a millionaire.
The Liberty Pole down by Strawbery Banke comes from this same protest. After shipping the Stamp Act commission back to England, locals raised a banner near the former "Swing Bridge" in the Old Puddledock area. The banner read, "Liberty, Property and No Stamp." The pole has been replaced a number of times, most recently in 1984, and has both a carved shield and a golden eagle on it now. The original banner was the work of the Sons of Liberty who eventually made things so hot for George Meserve, that he high-tailed it out of Dodge. A few years later Portsmouth citizens forced our last British Governor John Wentworth to follow in the footsteps of his Loyalist pal.
What happened to our boy George? Well one British King had made his family rich and the next one made them poor. As the Revolution approached George Meserve found it harder and harder to stay in town where he was a scapegoat for the anger focused on his namesake King George. He hid out on a British ship at Fort William & Mary. He slipped off to neighboring towns. Then he joined the migration of homeless Loyalists, sometimes thousands of displaced Americans.
For awhile the Loyalists hung out in Boston and New York, waiting for the American Revolution to blow over. It was impossible, they thought, for the colonists to start a whole new country over a few irritating little taxes. They went to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where life was intolerable for many, back to New York and finally to England. With other Loyalists, George Meserve petitioned the Crown for his lost wages, home and 100,000 acres of land he had accumulated in the colonies. He wanted 15,000 pounds. He was offered less than half in the Compensation Act of 1783. But collecting from the King was almost as difficult as getting stamp taxes from his former Portsmouth neighbors, who by now had named him an "enemy of America" and moved to confiscate his property here. His wife held the new state of New Hampshire at bay until she died in 1781.
George Meserve died poor in Hampstead, England in 1788. His son John had joined him from Portsmouth, but after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, George never saw his daughters Sarah and Esther or his wife again. In the right place at the wrong time, George Meserve
stamped and sealed his own fate when he cashed in the family name for a juicy political appointment. It's a sad story, indeed, unless it's told in April. In fact, after telling it one more time, I'm feeling better already.
Ray Brighton's "They Came to Fish" (1974), Charles Brewster's "Rambles About Portsmouth" #35 and an article in NH Profiles magazine (June 1975).
Copyright © 2000 Seacoast
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By J. Dennis Robinson
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