Christopher Toppan

A Biographical Sketch by William Plumer

Reprinted from NH State Papers, v.22, pp. 854-857

William Plumer, U.S. Senator from N.H. and later a New Hampshire Governor, was also one of the founders of the New Hampshire Historical Society and wrote many biographical and historical items relating to New Hampshire. This sketch of Christopher Toppan of Hampton is one of many brief biographical sketches he wrote on several persons participating in the government of the state in the post-Revolutionary period.

Col. Christopher Toppan
Col. Christopher Toppan

His grandfather was the Reverend Christopher Toppan, of Newbury, Massachusetts. His father was Edmond Toppan, a physician, and his mother was a daughter of Colonel John Wingate, of Hampton, New Hampshire. She was much esteemed, and lived nearly a century. The doctor purchased the house of Colonel Wingate, and settled in Hampton as a physician. The subject of this memoir was the only son of his father, and was born in Hampton, January 18 1735.

His father died when he was only six years of age. His mother placed him in the family of her brother-in-law, the Reverend Nathaniel Gookin, minister of North Hampton, by whom he was fitted for college. His friends, and his instructor in particular, urged him to enter Harvard College, and prepare himself for one of the learned professions, but he declined.

Immediately after he left his uncle, he commenced business as a trader in his native town; and at the age of eighteen he completed a vessel, and sailed in her himself to Halifax. When he arrived he found a British admiral there with his squadron, which enhanced the value of his cargo, and rendered the voyage profitable. But the severe gales of wind and the rough seas he encountered made the voyage so hazardous that he ever after declined trusting himself to the ocean.

He entered with zeal, and all his means, into the business of fishing, and the trade to the West India Islands. He annually built his ship yard at Hampton, until the commencement of the Revolutionary War, one or more square-rigged vessels. During that war he discontinued the business of trade and ship-building, and devoted his attention to the improvement and cultivation of his lands. Soon after the establishment of peace he again returned to ship-building, and built several brigs and ships, but finding it less profitable than formerly he abandoned it.

He married Sarah Parker daughter of the late Judge William Parker, of Portsmouth, and sister of the late Judge William Parker of Exeter. By her he had one son and several daughters. His wife and his children survived him.

Before he was twenty-one years of age he was, by the town of Hampton, elected their representative in the General Assembly of the province, and was afterwards repeatedly re-elected. He was by the Governor, under the authority of the British king, a justice of the peace, a lieutenant colonel of one of the regiments of the miltia, and just before the commencement of the Revolutionary War, a judge of the court of common pleas for the county of Rockingham.

His education and habits of reasoning, his connections, friends, and the offices he held under the crown, induced him, like many other honest men and friends of their country, from principle, to oppose the Revolution. But the great mass of the people, being zealous in its support, his opposition was that of a prudent, cautious man. At the first he reasoned calmly with his townsmen and acquaintances against the Revolution, representing the danger and hazard of the undertaking and the improbability of its success. But soon finding his arguments unavailing, and the people determined, he conversed very little upon the subject, except with those who tho't as he did. He avoided company, places of resort, and public meetings ; but living peaceably and inoffensively at home, he escaped the hatred, threats, and censure of the people.

In September, 1783, the definitive treaty of peace was made between the United States and Great Britain. At the first election which followed that event he was chosen a representative to the state legislature. This was proof of the confidence his townsmen reposed in his integrity and talents, notwithstanding the part he had taken in the late war. It is also a proof that popularity is sometimes the reward of honorable conduct, tho' too often it is the effect of flattery, artifice, and time serving measures. The first is a blessing which follows virtuous and useful actions, but the last is the price of servility and meanness -- is temporary, and often attended with evil.

The House of Representatives appointed him on some of the most important committees they raised. The second year he was speaker pro tempore. For a number of years after he was representative, Senator, or Councillor. More than thirty years he was a member of one or the other of those branches of the government.

In February, 1788 he was a member of the New Hampshire convention which ratified the constitution of the United States. No member was more decidedly in favor of its adoption. In 1791 and 1792 he was a member of the convention which revised the constitution of the state.

He was a man of sound, discriminating judgment, and of great firmness and decision of character. He did not form his opinions of men or measures hastily, but, when formed, he steadily adhered to them, until he was convinced they were erroneous. Tho' his acquaintances were numerous, his friends were select and few, and to them he was always constant and faithful. As he had more judgement than imagination, his measures were practical and useful. He was cautious and prudent, universally esteemed for his honesty, integrity, and punctuality. He was eminent for his industry, and remarkable for his habits of frugality and economy. Indolent men who lived on the money of others, and those who preferred the character of being generous to that of being just, accused him of parsimony.

In every situation and office in which he was placed, he was distinguished for his integrity and usefulness. The town of Hampton was deeply indebted to him for his unremitted attention to their pecuniary affairs. A considerable donation in real estate was made to the town by Mr. Dalton, their early minister. The colonel, when real estate was high and stock in the funds low, prevailed upon the town to sell the land and vest the money in three per cent stock, by which he very much augmented its income.

As a member of the legislature, tho' he was not eloquent, yet when he spoke he commanded the attention of the House. It was his invariable rule to take no part in a subject he did not understand, and to be concise and clear in his statements. The principles he advocated, and the facts he stated, were usually sound and correct. His long experience in legislation and his particular observations of men and measures afforded him a rich fund of information. He had acquired such a perfect command of his passions that when he was wantonly or passionately accused of being influenced by inproper motives, his reply was so mild and effectual as ashamed, and often mortified, his opponents. When successful he did not exult, and when defeated he did not despond. He never abandoned a measure he tho't necessary, so long as he had ground to hope for success. He acted in strict conformity to his own judgment. His only enquiry was, Is the measure right -- is it attainable -- will it be useful? The same spirit of frugality and economy, which governed him in the management of his own affairs, he carried into whatever related to the public interest. He was uniformly opposed to high salaries and to the unnecessary expenditure of public money.

As a Councilor he was a good judge of men, and knew their characters. He considered no man qualified for office who did not possess the talents, integrity, and temper of mind that is requsite for the office in question.

In the house in which he was born he lived, and in the same house he died on the 28th of February, 1818, in the eighty-fourth year of his age.

See also Joseph Dow's chapter on Christopher Toppan.