One would think, given New Hampshire’s status as the first in the nation Presidential Primary state, that there would be any number of sitting Presidents who had visited Hampton. But the reality is quite different. As far as I know, there have been only two sitting Presidents who have ever been in Hampton, and they were both just passing through on their way to Portsmouth. Any number of Presidential candidates have been to Hampton, and you can read about many of their visits on our website. But once in office they have not come back. I imagine you’ll be surprised to hear that one of the two who did make it to Hampton was none other than George Washington.
An entire book has been written about Washington’s visit to New Hampshire in 1789. He crossed into New Hampshire from Salisbury and traveled up what is now Route One to Portsmouth, passing through Hampton along the way. After staying a few days in Portsmouth he returned south through Greenland and Stratham to a stop in Exeter, and finally out of the state through Kingston and Plaistow.
It was just twelve days after his inauguration as our nation’s first President that Washington, in writing to James Madison, questioned “Whether, during the recess of Congress, it would not be advantageous to the interests of the Union for the President to make the tour of the United States, in order to become better acquainted with their principal characters and internal circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might give him useful information and advice on political subjects?”
Washington left New York, which was then the seat of government, and headed northeast into New England on October 15, 1789. After a stay in Newburyport his party passed into New Hampshire on the last day of October. As you can probably imagine his visit to our area caused a great deal of pomp and circumstance. Four hundred Massachusetts cavalry had escorted Washington to the border where he was met by New Hampshire General John Sullivan of Durham, several state dignitaries, and another seven hundred mounted horsemen. After the President had greeted the dignitaries and passed all the troops in review, he dismounted from his horse and climbed into a chariot. And as he himself later wrote in his journal, “With this cavalcade, we proceeded and arrived before three o’clock at Portsmouth.”
Unfortunately the President did not make record in his diary of his ensuing journey through the Seacoast to Portsmouth, so we are left to wonder what he made of our small town, which at the time hosted a population of less than 900 souls. Joseph Dow, in his history of Hampton, states that the people “gathered at Toppan’s Corner [the intersection of Winnacunnet Road and Route One] to see him pass, and that he bowed pleasantly to right and left.” But we can imagine that the crowd likely stretched all the way up and down the road, perhaps not in the same numbers as we have recently seen in a very different procession through our town, but a cavalry of over 700 mounted soldiers and dignitaries would likely bring out everyone in the vicinity. Hampton was just a sleepy little country town in those days, and this was probably one of the biggest events in its history to date.
The other President to visit Hampton was James Monroe in 1817, but Dow in his History makes no mention of the visit. Other sources do mention stops in Newburyport, Hampton Falls, Greenland and Portsmouth, so we can assume that he had to pass through Hampton along the way. John Adams was said to have visited Portsmouth because he had relatives who lived in Newington, but there is no mention of whether he passed through Hampton on his way there. Later Presidents who visited the area usually went to Portsmouth, and arrived by sea or train, bypassing Hampton.
So it has been a long time since a sitting President has been in our little town. Are you reading this President Obama?
[Note. Guest registers of Cutler's Hotel, a popular resort in late 19th century Hampton Beach, record Presidents Pierce, Garfield, Harrison and Cleveland, but their visits were likely after their terms in office were over. Other ex-Presidents have likely visited as well.]