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1853 Free Soil Convention

The Laker - October 10, 2017





By Barbara Neville Wilson

 (Photo, right:Daniel Pickering from History of Wolfeborough, NH.)

Here’s a mystery to ponder…

Fact: One hundred sixty-four years ago, on August 25, 1853, John Greenleaf Whittier reported a brief doubling of the population of Wolfeboro, “The Free Soil Convention, which met here yesterday, was a most spirited and successful demonstration. Early in the morning, the steamboats came in, heavily laden with passengers—a fine representation of the strength and beauty of the Free Democracy of New Hampshire…Hon. Amos Tuck, of Exeter, was president of the day, introduced Moses A. Cartland…who called out the enthusiastic cheers…by his eloquent and indignant denunciation of the Fugitive Slave Law. He was followed by Ex-Senator Hale, who, on rising, was greeted with cheer after cheer….”

Fact: Whittier and other reporters set the size of the crowd at between 2,000 and 3,000 people, a significant gathering in a town with a full-time population of 2,000 and without easy access by railroad or modern road.

Fact: A follow-up gathering just seven weeks later was held in Exeter, NH. There, it is said, 15 political leaders set the stage for the formation of the Republican Party, a party uniting all anti-slavery factions. It was the party that took Abraham Lincoln to the White House in 1860, which led to the complete abolition of slavery.

So how did Wolfeboro become the site of a huge gathering that changed the course of our nation’s history?

Was it at the suggestion of John Greenleaf Whittier, known more as an abolitionist and editor than a poet at the time of the Convention? Although he was from Massachusetts, he loved New Hampshire, especially its seacoast, mountains and the Lakes Region. His imprint is seen in how frequently his name is associated with landmarks in the area: Whittier Bridge, the Whittier Highway, and the slim statue on the lawn of the Melvin Village Church, for instance. He spent time at Ossipee Park, B.F. Shaw’s resort that preceded Thomas Plant’s Lucknow, now Castle in the Clouds, and enjoyed most of July 1890 at the Elmwood Inn in Wakefield…but that was long after the Convention of 1853. Perhaps Whittier introduced Wolfeboro as a location to his friend and fellow editor, Henry Wilson, who served in the Massachusetts legislature almost continuously between 184 to 1852, and who had joined with him to go to Washington, D.C. in 1845 to file Massachusetts’ protest against the annexation of Texas as a slave state. Did they lobby together for the Convention’s location?

It might have been an easy sell. Henry Wilson was born in Farmington, NH, and after apprenticing to a farmer for 11 years and earning a nest egg by shoemaking two more, he spent time at the Wolfeborough-Tuftonborough Academy (precursor to today’s Brewster Academy). A man of small beginnings, he earned the friendship of leaders in the community by his intellect, character and diligence. One in particular, Samuel Avery, so shaped his life that in his History of Wolfeboro, Parker quotes Wilson saying, “All that I am, I owe to Mr. Avery. His encouragement sustained me when I knew not which way to turn.” This is high praise that may have easily led to hubris in a less humble man than Samuel Avery, for when Wilson stated it, he was vice president of the United States under Ulysses S. Grant. Perhaps more importantly to the course of our nation’s moral compass, however, is the fact that Henry Wilson was a leader in abolition efforts, being an early spokesman for anti-slavery legislation and a founder of the Free Soil movement. He chaired the 1852 national Free Soil Convention, where New Hampshire’s John P. Hale was chosen the party’s presidential candidate. Later, as an advisor to Lincoln, Wilson is said to have been the one who pressed the president to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps Henry Wilson approached his old friend Samuel Avery about holding the Convention in Wolfeboro?

Samuel Avery, ancestor to the Averys of present-day Avery Insurance, was a successful merchant and small-scale industrialist in the town. His name appears on numerous rolls of projects that improved life for the region’s citizens, most notably the Wolfeborough-Tuftonborough Academy of which he was the prime stakeholder. He was also one of the board members who formed the Wolfeborough Bank in 1834. Interestingly, one of several Dover businessmen who joined Avery on the board was John P. Hale. Yes, it was the same John P. Hale nominated for U.S. President at the 1852 Free Soil Convention chaired by Henry Wilson, and the “Ex-Senator John P. Hale” mentioned by John Greenleaf Whittier in his article August 25th.

Is it possible Avery influenced Hale to hold the Free Soil Convention of 1853 in Wolfeboro? Or was it the other way around? Who can know, but perhaps we should remember that activists have to eat, too.

Many of the organizers of the August 24th Convention came from the seacoast of New Hampshire, notably Exeter and Dover. The Boston and Maine Railroad had just completed its tracks from the seacoast to Alton in 1851, and the Lady of the Lake steamship transferred train passengers from the Alton Bay station to ports around the lake. Perhaps organizers thought of Wolfeboro as a location for the Free Soilers to meet because they knew how convenient travel to this beautiful place could be, and thousands of happy attendees could give a good boost to marketing efforts.

At least one businessman in Wolfeboro may have been banking on just that scenario. Daniel Pickering, long-time owner of the Pickering House (now being brought back to life as an inn on Main Street by Peter and Patty Cooke of Wentworth Style), was a hugely successful merchant and manufacturer. He was co-grantor of land for the Wolfeborough-Tuftonborough Academy, was on the board of directors of the 1834 Wolfeborough Bank, held substantial stock in the Lady of the Lake steamer, and in 1850, he had built The Pavilion, the largest hotel Wolfeboro would ever see. It is easy to imagine how enchanted he would have been at the prospect of thousands of visitors coming to Wolfeboro, and especially if they were coming for a cause he appreciated. According to Parker, Pickering was an “Old Line Whig,” a branch of the party committed to abolition.

The telling of this still-unsolved mystery is only possible through research sources provided by Mark Lush of the Wolfeboro Historical Society, print histories of Wolfeboro and Carroll County by Benjamin Franklin Parker, Q. David Bowers and Georgia Merrill, respectively, and online archives of www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org, www.aaregistry.org, Henry Wilson’s obituary at www.infogalactic.com, and www.exeternhgop.org. 

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