I recently became a resident of the state of New Hampshire, which has brought up a whole host of questions for me. Like: Is Live Free or Die a vow, or a threat? How did the state become an anti-government island floating in a sea of New England liberalism? Is snowshoeing something you do for exercise, for a hobby, or just to take out the trash? No one has been able to answer this last one for me, and y’all, winter is coming.
But my primary question is one brought on by the state’s contradicting values, exhibited throughout its history. I can’t seem to pin it down: is New Hampshire so conservative that it might actually be progressive, much in the way that if you kept traveling westward you’d eventually reach the far East? Do the far right and the far left actually have a lot in common, and the center of that Venn Diagram is in New Hampshire? Are the state’s White Mountains where Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul meet, bonding over their shared love of winter sports?
And who better than a resident of three whole weeks to sum up a whole state’s values and people in a pithy blog post?
New Hampshire has a clear anti-government slant: It is the only state that doesn’t legally require residents to wear a seatbelt, and gave up $3.7 million in federal funding just to keep this civil “liberty.” Live free and die! In 2001, over 20,000 Libertarians pledged to move there, en masse, as part of a political migration called the Free State Project. And of course there is no sales or income tax. Live free and die waiting at the DMV!
But…I feel like they actually kiiiiind of love government.
The state has defended its spot year after year in hosting the first presidential primary. The town of Dixville Notch, NH, is the first place in the U.S. to cast a vote on election day, opening the polls at midnight so all twelve of the town’s residents can rush in to do their civic duty as politically engaged citizens. New Hampshire has incredible voter turnout, the fourth-highest in the country. And the state legislature is the third largest in the world. Like, in all of planet Earth, there’s British Parliament, then the United States Congress, and next up is little old New Hampshire State Legislature. And all of the legislators serve as volunteers! That’s why they call it the volunteer state. (They don’t.)
But don’t take it for granite. (They call it the Granite State).
Just because they’re civically engaged doesn’t really give a clue into how the state leans. New Hampshire seems to sit comfortably with the push-pull tension of having residents who are equally passionate about recycling and gun rights, about local co-op produce and their Ford F-150 trucks.
This odd political dichotomy is rampant in my particular corner of the state, right by Dartmouth College in the area known as the Upper Valley. Dartmouth itself has a complicated past in regards to progressive ideals: it was founded before the American Revolution by a minister named Eleazar Wheelock to teach Native Americans to become Christian missionaries. The land was granted on a charter from King George to create a college “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this land…expedient for civilizing & christianizing Children of Pagans.” Yikes. Not great.
Kind of a mixed bag there, in terms of enlightened thinking, and a rocky moral foundation on which to start an Ivy League school. But that didn’t really matter, because until the 1970s, in practice Dartmouth college was an elite institution exclusively for wealthy white English-descended men.
As you may have heard, history tends to repeat itself. Those same (however questionable) ideals that led Wheelock to (however narrowly) educate Native peoples became apparent again in 1835, when abolitionists from Dartmouth set out to create the second-ever racially integrated school in America, called Noyes Academy.
New Hampshire allowed slavery until 1857, but as of 1800 only 8 enslaved people remained in the state. Nearby New York, however, outlawed slavery in 1827, creating a much larger population of free blacks in the Northeast desperate for educational opportunities besides the limited resources and subpar quality offered in segregated schools.
Noyes Academy in Canaan, New Hampshire offered a high-caliber education open to all, but it meant trekking it out to the middle of the woods to attend. Black students from New York endured unbelievably difficult journeys to reach the school. If they could even gather the funds to travel, they came via steamboat, where they were not allowed to sleep in the cabin, only on the deck of the ship out in the elements. Some came via stagecoach where they had to sleep on top of the moving car. They often could not find anyone to house them or sell them food along their journey.
The four founders, Samuel Noyes, George Kimball, Nathaniel Currier and Nathaniel Peabody Rogers raised money and risked their reputations to create the school, and the students risked their lives to attend. School began in March of 1835, with 28 white and 14 black students in its inaugural class. The opening was covered in William Lloyd Garrison’s popular anti-slavery paper, The Liberator. A beacon of hope in the deep dark woods! A change for the better in America’s darkest hour! Vox clamantis in deserto — Dartmouth College’s motto — the voice of one crying out in the wilderness!
True to form, New Hampshire’s other side soon pushed back.
Townspeople of Canaan began to propagate fears that Noyes Academy would lead to more integrated schools, intermarriage and crime, and racist ideas took root. Five months into the school year, on August 10, 1835, tensions boiled over. 300 local men banded together in the middle of the day, and marched toward the school, which was full of students in classes.
The mob brought oxen and roped them together, chaining them to the schoolhouse itself. They dragged the building off its foundations, all the way down the road, where they left it as a pile of rubble and lumber. They then pulled the remains into a swamp.
Not content with mere architectural destruction, the mob pushed a cannon up toward the homes of the abolitionist founders, firing guns along the way. Most students and teachers escaped on foot, hiding out until the night when they fled for good.
Kimball later rebuilt the school in Alton, Illinois, but the battle in Canaan was lost. In ensuing years, each time the staff attempted to rebuild and reopen the school, protestors burned it to the ground. In its place a school did eventually stand — the Canaan Union Academy, a whites-only institution.
Oh, old New Hampshire. The jury’s still out. How can you be home to one of the first integrated schools, and also the racist mob that destroyed it? As I try to find due north on the state’s moral compass, and discover only an increasingly complex set of values and competing interests, I can at least count my blessings that I don’t live next door in Massachusetts. Or should I say, Taxachussetts, as we Granite Staters refer to it. (You better believe if I’m going to suffer through the winter in these frigid woods I’m going to lean into the culture wars).