By Rudy VanVeghten
Over 200 years ago voters from Meredith and New Hampton nearly caused the defeat of the U.S. Constitution, according to a Dartmouth history professor. However, it was quite possibly Meredith’s elected delegate to the New Hampshire ratifying convention who saved the famous document from an untimely death.
According to Jere R. Daniell, professor emeritus of history at Dartmouth College, “Your delegate from Meredith named Ebenezer Smith played a very critical role. He had to, because the town voted against the Constitution and they appointed a committee to instruct him to vote against the Constitution.
“And he didn’t.”
The famed Granite State constitutional expert suggested that if not for the delegate from Meredith, there might be no U.S. Constitution and, for that matter, no United States of America today. His comments came during a program to the Meredith Historical Society on August 7, 1990.
The Back Story
In the years following the American Revolution, the founding fathers of the 13 United States became concerned that the Articles of Confederation approved in 1777 were insufficient for dealing with world powers like England, France and Spain. Instead of having thirteen separate governments compete against each other, a group of visionaries like James Madison, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin looked to replace the Articles with a new document binding the present and future states into a representative federal republic.
Prof. Daniell explained that the framers of the Constitution at Philadelphia in 1787 had included a provision that ratification of only nine out of the 13 states would be sufficient “for the establishment of the constitution between the states.” He explained that the number nine was calculated because they were certain of approval in eight states including New Hampshire. Two other states, Massachusetts and Virginia, were too close to call. If either of those two approved, the Constitution would become the law of the land.
“Their calculations were extremely accurate except for one place, and that was New Hampshire,” he said. “It turned out to be the one big mistake they made, and it almost proved fatal.”
Delaware quickly ratified the Constitution, followed by Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia and Connecticut, all by January 1788. Massachusetts was the next state to consider the document, and by a narrow margin they approved it in early February.
Next was New Hampshire’s turn, with a ratification convention called for February 13, 1788, in Exeter. “You cannot believe the shock in Philadelphia when they received word that New Hampshire had almost voted against the Constitution and the only thing that prevented that vote was the fact that (the ratifying convention) got adjourned before the vote could be taken,” said Prof. Daniell. He added that a N.H. defeat coupled with the refusal soon after by Rhode Island to even hold a ratifying convention “might very well have reversed the momentum.”
Pros and Cons
Prof. Daniell said it probably didn’t take long for New Hampshire citizens to “make up their minds whether they were for (the constitution) or against it.” Sentiment along the seacoast was largely for ratification. “Because that’s a commercial center, they would have greater power through the national government.” A second geographical group of constitution supporters came from northern frontier townships where the British enemy was still an element of worry. Thirdly, towns along the Connecticut River disliked the young New Hampshire government enough to threaten secession from the state; they also tended to favor the federal constitution as a preferable alternative.
“In the absence of that specific kind of logic, the tendency was to be against such a radical experiment,” said Prof. Daniell. He said opponents generally liked the state constitution, and in comparison to the federal document, there were two things that were particularly disagreeable.
“One was that in New Hampshire all elected officials had only one year in office. They could understand how you might have a term of two years for a representative [to Congress]. They sure didn’t understand why the President had to be there for four years. And the [U.S.] Senate they thought was kind of like the House of Lords with six years. So there was constant complaint about the terms of office.”
The second complaint in comparing the state constitution to the federal Constitution was that the former stipulated no one could hold public office in N.H. unless he was a Protestant. There was no such “Protestant clause” in the proposed U.S. Constitution, which caused a great deal of dissent.
Also factoring into public attitudes toward the U.S. Constitution was social status. “Those who were for the Constitution were far more aristocratic,” he said. “It was a very hierarchical society.” Delegates with high social titles such as General, Colonel, Reverand, Honorable (signifying a member of the state judiciary) and Esquire voted 33 to 13 in favor of ratification. Those with lower titles like Captain, Lieutenant and Mr. voted 27 to 16 against the Constitution. Ebenezer Smith from Meredith and New Hampton was a Colonel, a judge and a justice of the peace (esquire). “The higher you were in the pecking order in society, the more likely you were to be for the Constitution,” said Prof. Daniell.
His research found that a key measure of sentiment among the general public comes from instructions to delegates from 30 communities on how to vote at the ratifying convention. “Of those 30, 26 told their delegates to vote against the constitution. I think that’s pretty conclusive evidence that a good-sized majority at least initially were against the Constitution.” Among those receiving such instructions, he said, was Ebenezer Smith representing Meredith and New Hampton.
Copies of Ebenezer Smith’s “credentials” as a delegate to the Constitutional convention and minutes of the meeting which elected and instructed him were provided by the state archives following Prof. Daniell’s talk. There is no record from that time of a special Town Meeting in the old Meredith records on file at town hall, and records from New Hampton for the years before 1797 were, according to several sources, presumed destroyed in a fire. However, former state archivist Frank Mevers produced minutes from a meeting held February 5, 1788, at the home of Joseph Smith in the Winona section of New Hampton. According to this record, there were 26 voters present at the meeting, 16 of whom voted for Ebenezer Smith as delegate to the ratifying convention.
Another peculiarity from that meeting comes from the sequence and wording of warrant articles: first to choose a moderator; second to read the Constitution; third to agree to “chuse” a delegate; fourth electing Smith to the post; fifth to agree to form a committee to “Exammine the Constitution and make return of their judgment of the Same unto our Delegate”; sixth to name eight members to the committee, including at least four from Meredith; seventh voting “Not to Receive the New federal Constitution”; and eighth voting, “that we Like the Judgment of our Committemen Respecting the Constitution.” This clearly indicates the preference of the majority of the 26 attending freeholders to reject (i.e. “not to receive”) the proposed document.
One final oddity regarding the Meredith/New Hampton meeting of February 5, 1788. Ebenezer Smith wasn’t present at the meeting, nor was he in Meredith between that date and the opening of the February 13, 1788, ratifying convention. A scan of state papers shows he arrived for the winter session of the Senate in Portsmouth on January 28 and was recorded as present every day the Senate met (six days a week) through adjournment on February 13. His credentials and specific instructions from his townsmen must have been rushed down either by post or by messenger along the old Province Road from Meredith to Portsmouth.
Prof. Daniell noted that New Hampshire’s governor (then called president) John Sullivan received the U.S. Constitution just after a session of the state legislature had concluded in Charlestown. “I think he kind of tested the waters for a month and got worried. Suddenly in late November he called a special session of the Legislature. Although I can’t prove this, I suspect that he didn’t tell everyone.” He added that the reason for the special session was to “determine the nature of the ratifying convention.”
Double checking compiled state papers following his talk, Prof. Daniell found that State Senator Ebenezer Smith had been a member of the joint legislative committee to plan the convention.
Among the noteworthy decisions recommended by that committee during that special session was that the convention would be held in Exeter, “right in the heart of Federalist country,” said Prof. Daniell. “That tended to promote ratification.” The legislature also decided to waive the exclusion clause from the state constitution which stipulated that a person couldn’t hold two state offices simultaneously. “That, for example, allowed Ebenezer Smith to be chosen, because he was a state senator at that time.”
Even more important was the day the legislature chose to convene the ratifying convention—February 13, 1788, “supposedly the day after the legislature would stop meeting in Portsmouth.” As it turned out, the legislature was held an extra day, causing an overlap for many delegates. “If I were really paranoid or attracted to making these people more profound calculators than in fact they were, I could say they were already planning in advance.”
Information gathered by the Federalists during the legislative session in February, in the days before the ratifying convention, got them worried “as word came in from town after town of these negative instructions—all the opposition to the Constitution,” said Prof. Daniell. “I don’t know who, how many, how extensively or how many were involved in it, but a plot was clearly hatched.
“The governor, in cooperation with the speaker of the house, agreed to keep the legislature in session an extra day, February 13. They would announce that far enough in advance and spread the word that nothing much was going to happen [at the separate ratifying convention] in Exeter until the 14th. Then they sent out the word to all people they knew were for the Constitution and had been chosen [as delegates] to get there [Exeter] on the 13th. On the night of the 12th, seven legislators snuck over. Of those seven, six ended up voting for the constitution. So they got over there, and the whole idea was to get temporary control of the ratifying convention on the first day. And it worked to a T.”
Records of the convention, he said, cryptically indicate there were “about 50” delegates attending on that first day. “Want to bet there were probably about 25 or 30?” quipped Prof. Daniell. Crucial among the decisions made that day was appointment of a Committee of Procedures and Credentials composed of three staunch supporters of the Constitution, including Samuel Livermore of Holderness, chief justice of the N.H. Supreme Court. And one of the procedures advanced by the committee was that a motion for adjournment would take priority over any other motion. Although this was a standard legislative rule, it played a vital role in the Federalists’ “plot” to save the Constitution.
“They got that done on the 13th and went to bed,” continued Prof. Daniell.
Scene Shifts to Exeter
“I love to imagine what happened the next day—the 14th. The Legislature had just passed an important piece of legislation. Everyone was celebrating—big parties over in Portsmouth on the night of the 13th. So people came kind of straggling in [at the Exeter ratifying convention] on the 14th. The guys already there all get up early and approve the procedures. And all these other guys coming back from the legislature now, some of the early ones about 11:30 in the morning, the late ones about 2 in the afternoon. They come in and they’re already debating the Constitution (and say), ‘Ooops. I’m sorry. I’ll just sit down quietly in the back of the room here.’ ”
By the afternoon, said Prof. Daniell, all 105 delegates were present in Exeter and the brief pro-Constitution majority was gone. After debating the document for a week, “the people who were counting votes for ratification only had 45 votes.”
The history professor cited a letter from a Federalist organizer to Jeremy Belknap (after whom Belknap County is named) saying, “There are 11 people who had negative instructions came to me and said they would be willing to vote for adjournment even though they wouldn’t vote for the Constitution.”
Prof. Daniell said, “I’ve been able to identify those 11 people. Among them is Ebenezer Smith. “There is only one person among those 11 people with the stature to have pulled this all together—Ebenezer Smith. I know he was for the Constitution because he was listed as uncertain and doubtful despite his negative instructions. He was a state senator, a colonel in the militia. My suspicion is that Ebenezer Smith was more responsible than any other person for finding out who among the negatively instructed were willing to consider adjournment.” The only other person with sufficient “stature” to organize the 11 was Ebenezer Webster, father of Daniel Webster. However, said Prof. Daniell, “He became a senator at the next session. He wasn’t a senator at the time.”
“I really think there is a very high probability that Ebenezer Smith played a very critical role in the process by which adjournment was finally won,” said Prof. Daniell. Newspaper reports from the time recorded the adjournment vote as 56-51, but with only 105 delegates present, the vote could have been as close as 54-51 for adjournment. “Two votes the other way, adjournment would have failed, and in all likelihood those who were against the Constitution would have moved rejection, and that would have been it. So it happened here in Meredith.”
Skin of Their Teeth
Following the adjournment vote, the convention arranged for another session in June at Concord. “This time there wouldn’t be any hanky-panky,” said the professor. “But they had three months for a lot of politicking. There was politicking on both sides, but the Federalists, those who were for the Constitution, were much more aggressive.”
In the interim, Maryland ratified the Constitution on April 28, and South Carolina on May 23. Only one more state’s approval was necessary when New Hampshire reconvened its ratification convention in June.
There was little further debate other that a committee to ponder a possible “Bill of Rights” group of amendments, a committee on which Ebenezer Smith served. On the second day of the session, when the Federalists thought they had a majority of one vote among the now 108 delegates in attendance, they moved for approval of the Constitution. Prof. Daniell said they might have miscounted because his tally showed a vote of 54 who would vote in favor and 54 who, through personal preference or local instructions, would vote against.
However, the pro-Constitution side received three surprise votes. “No one had predicted it,” he said. “I can’t tell you why those people changed their minds.” In addition, four delegates, including Meredith’s Ebenezer Smith, abstained from the vote.
“So you take the 54, subtract three (surprise votes), subtract four (abstentions), you’ve got 57-47. So it looks like a close, but not terribly close, vote in New Hampshire. It was in fact by the skin of their teeth from the beginning,” he said.
“My reading of what is likely to have happened if New Hampshire had voted against the Constitution, which they almost did, the Constitution would not have been ratified. What would happen after that is anyone’s guess. I think the most likely scenario is we would be part of a nation which includes Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the New England states.”
Instead, of course, New Hampshire’s approval on June 21, 1788, as the ninth state made the new U.S. Constitution the law of the land. Virginia quickly followed with its ratification vote on June 25, and New York on July 26. Holdouts North Carolina and Rhode Island finally voted approval in November 1789 and May 1790, respectively.
“Ebenezer’s vote in this was exceedingly important,” said Prof. Daniell in reference to the adjournment vote of February 1788. “I’ll go out on a limb. I can’t prove this, but I’d say that if Ebenezer had not been the delegate from Meredith and New Hampton in the ratifying convention in New Hampshire, there is a good chance we would have no federal Constitution today.”