Historic Amherst

Celebrating Fourth of July – 200 Years Ago

Third County Courthouse in Amherst, N.H. (built 1823) with single-story wings (added 1828), depicted c. 1870. In 1824, a 4th of July dinner was held here for the citizens, with the Governor in attendance. It became Amherst Town Hall in 1871 although also still functioned as a county courthouse until 1879.  


      Alas, in the year 2020 there will be no public Fourth of July celebration in Amherst, due to the nasty corona virus crisscrossing the country and the globe. It will be a sad day for me, having enjoyed our Town’s annual superlative multi-faceted program for kids of all ages for the past quarter of a century. In my neighborhood at least, there’s bound to still be firecracker noise – not my favorite but actually the most “historically accurate” (if I may be facetious) of Amherst’s modern celebratory activities.  

      Anniversaries can help us understand and remember history:  This year’s Fourth of July is the 200th of a special, unique event in Amherst that affected those who enabled the Independence we now enjoy. The day was surely chosen by the County or State for its symbolism.

Revolutionary War Veterans Gather in 1820

      On the Fourth of July, 1820, in Amherst, the shiretown for Hillsborough County, N.H., “although there was no public celebration, the day was honored by the assembling of the Revolutionary Soldiers, to attend the Court of Common Pleas, which convened here on that day to receive their applications for Pensions.” About 140 veterans made applications, “subjected to a disgraceful oath of poverty” (in opinion of newspaper editor Boylston) that was required by Congress. “The grotesque appearance of these veterans and heroes of the Revolution ... bowed down with age and infirmities, pinched with poverty … awakened the sensibility of all who beheld them.” Many of them had been companions in the army but had not seen each other for years so during the days of the sitting of the Court, they were seen in groups, “fighting their battles o’er again.” Between the sittings of the Court, at noon on the Fourth of July, nearly 100 veterans marched around the Common, to the music of a drum and fife played by some of their own number. “Feeling impressed with a sense of obligation to their Representative in Congress, for his endeavors in procuring for them the pittance allowed by that body to cheer and comfort their remaining days,” they marched to the dwelling of Hon. Clifton Clagett (at 135 Amherst Street), accompanied by “Gen. Pierce” (being Benjamin Pierce (1757-1839), himself a Bunker Hill veteran, county sheriff and future governor of N.H., who had married an Amherst girl and was father of 15-year-old Franklin) and “Judge Darling.” A designated veteran, a Captain from New Ipswich, addressed Clagett on the veterans’ behalf and Clagett graciously responded; then Pierce and Darling made toasts. On that same 4th of July, a similar event occurred in Keene, the shiretown for Cheshire county, where 116 soldiers of the Revolution attended court “to prove their poverty,” and then about 70 of them paraded afterwards. (Farmers’ Cabinet, Amherst, N.H., 8 & 15 July 1820.)

      Some background:  Although the Continental Congress had been quick to provide pensions to soldiers disabled in the war and to soldiers’ widows, the first legislation that granted pensions to Revolutionary War veterans for service from which no disabilities resulted, was an act of the U.S. Congress of March 1818:  Officers and enlisted men in need of assistance, who had served in a Continental military organization or in the U. S. naval service for 9 months or until the end of the war, were eligible for pensions for the rest of their lives. Financial difficulties and charges that applicants were feigning poverty to obtain benefits caused Congress to enact remedial legislation in May 1820. The new law required every pensioner receiving payments under the 1818 act, and every would-be pensioner, to submit a certified schedule of his estate and income to the Secretary of War, who was authorized to remove from the pension roll those persons who, in his opinion, were not in need of assistance. Within a few years the total of Revolutionary War service pensioners was reduced by several thousand. An act of Congress in March 1823 resulted in the restoration of pensions to many whose names had been removed under the terms of the 1820 legislation, but who subsequently proved their need for aid. Congress passed another service-pension act in May 1823, which granted full pay for life to surviving officers and enlisted men of the Revolutionary War who were eligible for benefits under the terms of the Continental Congress resolution of May 15, 1778, as amended. (Taken nearly verbatim from “Pensions Enacted by Congress for Revolutionary War Veterans” on rootsweb.com, where it is attributed to the American Revolution message board for genealogy.com posted as message #3250 by Ed, a historian on the American Revolution.)

      During this period (not quite four decades after the end of the Revolutionary War), the Fourth of July was definitely remembered as the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, but Amherst and other New Hampshire towns in general did not yet have traditions of public celebration and no particular annual customs. To get a sense of typical commemorative customs, let’s take a look at the year preceding and the year following. 

      In 1819, in Milford, “a number of respectable citizens” gathered on Monday July 5th in front of the meetinghouse in company with part of the Milford Light Infantry and Cavalry, to hear a short but patriotic address, followed by dozens of patriotic and benevolent toasts, each “accompanied with the firing of a small field piece.” “In the evening the people were entertained by a display of sky-rockets, which ascended with a beautiful appearance.” The newspaper correspondent concluded: “During the whole scene, perfect harmony prevailed among the citizens, and not the least wrangle or dispute was heard from anyone.” (Does this emphasis on a peaceful gathering strike you as odd? My bet is that it was meant as a contrast to the most popular annual event of the time, militia musters, at which inebriation of participants and spectators was common.)

      In 1821, in Amherst, again no arrangements were made for a public celebration, but about 50 people, “without distinction of party,” made an excursion to Baboosic where they “partook of an excellent chowder and fry from the products of the pond” and celebrated with patriotic toasts and songs. After the return of the company to the Village, a salute was fired, and “the whole scene was harmonious, pleasant and without rebuke.”  In Mont Vernon, by contrast, there was an organized program with a procession to the accompaniment of instrumental music to the meeting-house, where an oration was given, followed by toasts accompanied by discharge of artillery and cheers. Among the Mont Vernon crowd were some “heroes” of Bunker Hill and York Island.

Big Celebration in 1824

      In 1824, another unique commemoration of the birthday of the nation took place in Amherst, this one a big-deal organized public event. This was as yet not quite half a century since the Declaration of Independence – but only a few months after the county’s voters had renewed Amherst’s function as the county seat, a huge relief to the citizens of Amherst and an additional cause for celebration in town. Bigwig politicos were present – the Governor of New Hampshire and the sitting first territorial governor of Arkansas, both of whom were born in N.H., as well as the N.H. Adjutant General, and Generals Benjamin Pierce and Joseph Low. Citizens from neighboring towns were invited to participate, “without distinction of party.”      A cavalcade on horseback rode off from the Village at 8 o’clock to meet Gov. Morrill of N.H. at the residence of Hon. Wm. Fisk on Old Manchester Road, and escorted him the three miles back to the Village, where they were met by Capt. Richardson’s militia company of infantry amidst the firing of cannon by Capt. Burns’ company of artillery. The procession continued across the Common to Ray’s Hotel (at 101 Boston Post Road) where “were assembled the officers of the day, distinguished citizens, Gen. [Gov. James] Miller [of Ark.], and several aged patriots of the revolution” on the piazza. Richard Boylston, newspaper publisher,

gave a florid welcome speech (which he reproduced in his newspaper) and His Excellency made reply. After a meet-’n-greet in the hotel between the Governor and the officers of the day and invited guests, another procession proceeded at 11:00 to the meeting-house (now the Congregational Church) where the ladies had already taken their seats in reserved pews. The processions were led by Timothy Danforth, at that time proprietor of a new livery stable and blacksmith business, who acted as chief marshal for the day. 

     The exercises in the meeting-house comprised: reading of the Declaration of Independence by Edmund Parker, lawyer and Amherst’s rep. to the N.H. Legislature; prayer; oration by Charles G. Atherton (who just turned 20 on that very day but in future would become a prominent N.H. legislator); and choir music. 

      The day concluded in the new brick courthouse (now Town Hall), where about 200 persons of both sexes and all parties, who had paid $1 per ticket, partook of a good dinner catered by Eber Lawrence, proprietor of the village’s other inn (long gone). The toasts included what you would expect (to the Birth Day of Freedom, the memory of Washington, the Patriots of the Revolution, the Constitution, the U.S. Army and the Militia, the State of N.H., the flag, and the gentlemen toasting each other) but also two surprising ones:  “the Lancasterian system of education” by Hon. Charles H. Atherton, a lawyer and register of probate and representative to the General Court in 1823, who had been chosen as president of the day; and “May slavery be abolished and the rights of man understood ...” by Calvin Stevens, Esq. (1753-1833) of Mont Vernon, Revolutionary War veteran and civil magistrate known for his correctness and integrity.

      The list of organizers and officers in 1824 included the following men of Amherst in addition to those mentioned above:  Ephraim Blanchard, furniture maker; Capt. Daniel Campbell, “an octogenarian widower”; Thomas M. Dickey, saddle and harness maker; Capt. Daniel Hartshorn, future proprietor of stove foundry; David M’G. Means, merchant; Robert Means Jr., lawyer; Lt. Luther Melendy, farmer; Capt. Robert Read, merchant and town clerk; Capt. John Secombe, farmer and selectman and county treasurer; Andrew Wallace, lawyer and new clerk of the Court of Common Pleas; E. F. Wallace, lawyer and clerk of the court. 

      The next big, day-long public event on the Fourth of July in Amherst was held on the Centennial, 1876. As far as I can tell, that is the first time Amherst had a fun parade, as opposed to a solemn dignified procession or militia parade, namely a parade of “Antiques and Horribles” which was intended to be comical.

      Although Amherst citizens always commemorated the Fourth in some way or another – typically with annual ringing of the Town’s bell (the one in the steeple attached to the Congregational Church, which still belongs to the Town) and other noise, such as boom of canon; sometimes (often?) with lawless mischief; often with group picnics at the lake; occasionally with a concert (e.g., 1855) or fireworks (e.g., 1870) – there was no regular organized public program of celebration in the 19th century. 

      Sources: For information and quotations about historic Fourth of July activities in Amherst and neighboring towns, Farmers’ Cabinet newspaper, which was published in Amherst, N.H.

Katrina Holman welcomes comments to HistoricAmherstNH@juno.com