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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: Exeter — The revolutionary capital of New Hampshire

May 17. 2017 9:44PM
The Ladd-Gilman House in Exeter, the home of patriot leader Col. Nicholas Gilman, is a National Historic Landmark operated by the American Independence Museum as a house museum. (1971 photo, courtesy of the National Park Service)

“No taxation without representation!” This slogan served as a call to rebellion for many American colonists after the British Parliament passed the infamous Stamp Act in March 1765.

This law taxed the paper used in the colonies for printing legal and business documents, newspapers, and even playing cards. It was the first direct tax on the American colonists, and was promulgated without the consent of the royal provincial assemblies. The colonists saw this measure as a clear violation of their rights as Englishmen.

On the day the law took effect, Nov. 1, 1765, Rev. Daniel Rogers of Exeter expressed the ire of his fellow citizens when he described it as “the infamous Stamp Act, abhorred by all the British Colonies.” Four days later, boisterous protests took place in many towns in New England, including in Exeter, where effigies of British officials were carried through the streets and then set on fire. The person assigned to administer the Stamp Act in New Hampshire quietly resigned from his post.

Although the Stamp Act was repealed in March, 1766, the British government continued to arouse the anger of the colonists by asserting that it had the right to impose taxes and other regulations without approval from the elected assemblies.

The Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770, when Bostonians and British soldiers clashed in a bloody skirmish, further inflamed emotions. In the following months, the government imposed taxes on tea imported from England, which led to the Boston Tea Party on Dec. 16, 1773, when colonists tossed a shipment of tea into the harbor. In the months that followed, the British passed a series of laws called the “Intolerable Acts” that punished Boston and the province of Massachusetts for this act of defiance.

On Jan. 3, 1774, the citizens of Exeter gathered to discuss the volatile situation in the colonies. Several resolutions were passed, including one that summarized the shared view of the assembled citizens, “That we are ready on all necessary occasions to risk our lives and fortunes in defense of our rights and liberties, professing to have as great a veneration for freedom as any people on earth.”

During this period, the Americans began to organize a shadow government that operated outside of the royal establishment. This included not only Committees of Correspondence that set up communication networks within and among the colonies, but also provincial congresses which addressed military, civil, and mercantile matters in an increasingly cohesive system of self-government.

New Hampshire established its first Committee of Correspondence in 1773, and the first meeting of the colony’s Provincial Congress assembled in Exeter (and not in the provincial capital of Portsmouth) on July 21, 1774. In addition, New Hampshire sent two delegates to attend the First Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774.

In 1775, Exeter had approximately 1,750 residents and, as the town’s historian, Charles N. Bell, wrote in 1888, it “had become practically the capital of the State, the seat of government, and the center of all civil and military activity in New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire’s Provincial Congress held several meetings there that year, which saw the beginning of armed conflict between the colonists and British army.

On Jan. 5, 1776, the delegates to the Provincial Congress adopted a constitution that established self-government in New Hampshire — the first constitution adopted by any of the 13 colonies.

On July 16, 1776, a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence, which had been approved by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, was carried into Exeter by courier. According to Bell, “As soon as its contents were ascertained, it was determined that the paper should be publicly read to the citizens, forthwith ... The tidings circulated through the town with lightning rapidity. Men, women, and children dropped their employments, and gathered around the court-house to listen to the words that made them free.”

The honor of reading the document was given to 22-year-old John Taylor Gilman, the son of a local patriot leader, Col. Nicholas Gilman.

This copy of the Declaration of Independence survived, and is held in the collection of the American Independence Museum in Exeter, which maintains the Ladd-Gilman House, the home of Col. Nicholas Gilman.

Next week: New Hampshire during the American Revolution—the story continues.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at

History Aurore Eaton