What would happen when the tea landed in Portsmouth? Would a mob gather at the wharf? Would violence erupt? New Hampshire Governor John Wentworth pondered these questions when he learned, on June 25, 1774, that the mast-ship Grosvenor was sailing up the Piscataqua River and carrying cargo that included 27 chests of tea.
Just a few months earlier, on the day of the Boston Tea Party in December 1773, Patriot-leaning residents of Portsmouth had held a public meeting and adopted a resolution declaring that if East India Company tea were brought to Portsmouth, the inhabitants would use “every necessary method to prevent it being landed or sold.”
As a Royal Governor appointed by the Crown, Wentworth owed his first allegiance to the King. He was troubled by the resistance to Parliamentary acts in places like Boston, even if he didn’t support Parliament’s decisions. And he didn’t like the fact that British troops were stationed in Boston. Now, a cargo of tea was coming into his town, and he didn’t want trouble.
This June day was a critical moment for Wentworth, the 37-year-old nephew of the first royal governor, Benning Wentworth. The King had appointed the younger Wentworth as Governor 10 years earlier, and, up until the time of the Revolution, John Wentworth had earned the respect of most New Hampshire inhabitants for his thoughtful and creative solutions to governing the colony. Not everyone always agreed with him, but most would concede that when Wentworth made a decision or proposed an idea, his primary goal was to serve the public welfare rather than his own.
Time and again, Wentworth had proven to be the ultimate diplomat, adept at compromise, negotiations, and at coming up with solutions. For example, in 1771, the King’s tax people were demanding the quitrents due for lands granted in the backcountry. Wentworth knew he had to enforce the quitrent collections. He also knew that landowners would resist paying these taxes. So he proposed that instead of going into the royal treasury, the quitrent funds should be used to develop roads from the interior to the coast. The road-building project would help farmers get their goods to market, and generally benefit the backcountry regions of the New Hampshire. This economic development, in turn, would ultimately generate more revenue for the Crown. All parties bought into this win-win solution.
This sort of maneuver characterized much of Wentworth’s dealings: how to come up with a compromise in political or other disputes in which all parties felt as if they had gained something in the solution. Now, with the Grosvenor approaching Portsmouth, the Governor had to think fast to avoid a confrontation that, in his mind, would serve no good purpose in Portsmouth.
Wentworth quickly made arrangements for a message to be delivered to the captain. Two days later, on June 27, he rode to Dover to spend the day, so as to present the appearance that nothing was afoot. While he was gone, the tea was landed and brought to the custom house before anybody knew of its arrival. Within a few hours, residents found out about the tea and assembled in a public meeting to discuss how to handle the situation, at which point Wentworth returned to town and joined the meeting. The crowd decided that as the cargo had already been off-loaded, a committee would take up the matter with the merchant to which the tea had been conveyed. Ultimately, the committee and the merchant came up with a solution: the controversial duty on the tea was paid, but the merchant agreed to export the tea to Halifax, Nova Scotia and the residents of Portsmouth agreed not to interfere with its transport. Though imperfect, the agreement satisfied all parties: the duties were paid, but the tea wouldn’t be sold or consumed in Portsmouth. Most importantly, violence was averted.
In December of 1774, when locals led by John Langdon and John Sullivan raided the cache of powder at Fort William and Mary, Wentworth acted with characteristic restraint. Instead of having the raiders rounded up and arrested – a scenario likely to result in a mob uprising – he met with leaders and asked them to return the power, on the promise of a full pardon extended to all involved. The meeting ended cordially, but the instead of returning the power, a group of men led by Sullivan returned to the fort that night to carry off 16 cannon and other arms.
What Wentworth wanted most, it seems, was to preserve public order, to keep the peace. But by the end of 1774, his authority had eroded and he was running out of options. The Patriots had convened their own assembly and government in nearby Exeter. By the spring of 1775, rebel militia had begun to fortify Portsmouth. But even then, Wentworth continued his efforts to diffuse the situation.
In the harbor, the HMS Scarborough had begun to impress local fishermen and to seize supplies for British troops in Boston. Wentworth intervened, and Captain Andrew Barclay agreed to release the fisherman.
But by this time, the Governor was such in name only. Only a few months earlier in January 1775, Portsmouth had greeted the birth of his first and only child, Charles-Mary, with booming cannons and celebrations. The festivities likely concealed the extent to which Patriot fever had taken hold in New Hampshire. Just a few months later, on June 13, 1775, Wentworth looked out his window to see a cannon pointed at the front door of his Pleasant Street home.
The cannon wasn’t specifically aimed at the Governor. A mob had gathered in front of his Pleasant Street home to demand the surrender of his friend Colonel Fenton, who had stopped by for a social call on route to his temporary home on board the Scarborough. Fenton, a once-popular Assembly member, had been voted out of office after Lexington and Concord, after angering his constituents by publishing a letter urging them to stay on their farms rather than join the rebellion. Once Fenton surrendered, to be escorted to Exeter, Wentworth decided to leave as well. Along with wife Frances and baby Charles, he fled to a damp and decrepit house at Fort William and Mary in Newcastle. In August, the family left town on the Scarborough, staying first in Boston, and then sailing to England (John stayed behind in Boston and then in British-occupied New York, but eventually he joined his family in England). After the War, the Wentworths landed in Nova Scotia, where John served for many years as lieutenant governor.
Today some might applaud Wentworth for his integrity and loyalty to the office to which he had been appointed. Others might say that he was a member of the established elite trying to resist changes that might challenge his social and economic standing. Still others might call him a waffler unwilling to take a firm stance one way or the other.
In the end, Wentworth’s compromises and negotiations didn’t stop the Revolution. He lost all of his property (except for his family portraits and furniture, which Portsmouth’s residents reserved for him) and had to flee the city of his birth, a place that his family had called home for more than a hundred years.
But in characteristic Wentworth fashion, the Governor’s losses, in a round-about way, served to benefit the public welfare. Although New Hampshire sent many men to fight in the Revolution, the war never came to New Hampshire. Aside from that non-violent skirmish at the fort in December, 1774, no battles were fought in its towns. No cities were burned, bombed or blockaded. British soldiers were not quartered in local homes. Life was harder for all during the war, especially for those families who had sent their men off to distant battlefields, but at night, the residents of Portsmouth and other New Hampshire towns slept in peace. John Wentworth may have lost all of his authority and his property, but he still managed to leave a valuable legacy for New Hampshire.
NOTE: John’s son Charles-Mary Wentworth eventually returned to live in Portsmouth, where he had many Wentworth relatives, whose numerous descendants take up a couple of columns in today’s phone book. I’d especially love to hear from any Wentworths who might have other interesting information to share about John Wentworth.
Mayo, Lawrence Shaw John Wentworth, Governor of New Hampshire: 1767-1775. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921. Mayo’s biography, which is full of interesting details about Wentworth’s life and times, presents a largely flattering and at times worshipful view of Wentworth. Although I’m sure Wentworth had his flaws that a more objective biographer might highlight, Mayo’s book tends to confirm other bits and pieces I’ve read about Wentworth and how he governed.