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Nathaniel Gorham



8th President of the United States
in Congress Assembled
June 1786 - November 13, 1786

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The First United American Republic
Continental Congress of the United Colonies Presidents

Sept. 5, 1774 to July 1, 1776

Peyton Randolph

September 5, 1774

October 22, 1774

Henry Middleton

October 22, 1774

October 26, 1774

Peyton Randolph

May 20, 1775

May 24, 1775

John Hancock

May 25, 1775

July 1, 1776

 Commander-in-Chief United Colonies of America
George Washington:  June 15, 1775 - July 1, 1776

 

The Second United American Republic
Continental Congress of the United States Presidents 
July 2, 1776 to February 28, 1781

 John Hancock

July 2, 1776

October 29, 1777

Henry Laurens

November 1, 1777

December 9, 1778

John Jay

December 10, 1778

September 28, 1779

Samuel Huntington

September 29, 1779

February 28, 1781

Commander-in-Chief United Colonies of America
George Washington:  July 2, 1776 - February 28, 1781

 

The Third United American Republic
Presidents of the United States in Congress Assembled  
March 1, 1781 to March 3, 1789

Samuel Huntington

March 1, 1781

July 6, 1781

Samuel Johnston

July 10, 1781

Declined Office

Thomas McKean

July 10, 1781

November 4, 1781

John Hanson

November 5, 1781

November 3, 1782

Elias Boudinot

November 4, 1782

November 2, 1783

Thomas Mifflin

November 3, 1783

June 3, 1784

Richard Henry Lee

November 30, 1784

November 22, 1785

John Hancock

November 23, 1785

June 5, 1786

Nathaniel Gorham

June 6, 1786

February 1, 1787

Arthur St. Clair

February 2, 1787

January 21, 1788

Cyrus Griffin

January 22, 1788

January 21, 1789

Commander-in-Chief United Colonies of America
George Washington March 1, 1781 - December 23, 1783 

Nathaniel Gorham was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts on May 27th, 1738 and died there on June 11th, 1796. He was the son of a small boat operator growing-up in a family of modest means. After receiving a public school education, Gorham worked in various small businesses in his birth­place of Charlestown. He was apprenticed in 1754 to Nathaniel Coffin, a merchant in New London, Connecticut where he learned the import and export business. He left Coffin's employ in 1759 and returned to his hometown establishing his own small business there, which quickly succeeded.

In 1763 he wed Rebecca Call, who was to bear the couple nine children. In 1770, Gorham launched his public career as a notary, soon winning election to the colonial legislature in 1771. He took an active part in public affairs at the beginning of the Revolution, as a strong supporter of the Whigs. He was then elected delegate to the Massachusetts' Provincial Congress in 1774 and served throughout 1775. During the war he was a member of the Massachusetts board of war from 1778 until its dissolution in 1781, which oversaw the State's military strategy, logistics and recruitment. He paid the price for the effective service in that office, as British troops ravaged much of his property during the occupation of Charlestown.

Nathaniel Gorham ALS - Stan Klos Collection

Early Nathaniel Gorham Autograph Letter Signed on legal folio, Charles Town, Nov. 5, 1772 to Philadelphia merchants John Reynell and Samuel Coates writing that

“…by Capt. Hinkley I wrote you desiring you to ship me 2 Tons Barr Iron which I take this opportunitiy to desire you to alter & in the room of it to send six Tons pig Iron & if you cannot get pig Iron then to send the Barr Iron as above mentioned…”

According to the Iron Act of 1750, iron manufacture was prohibited in the colonies and all pig and bar iron was to be shipped to Great Britain for finishing. Many Colonial merchants and manufacturers skirted these laws and future President Gorham’s business was no exception to circumventing these British Laws. While most of the arms used during the American Revolution were of European manufacture, some of the numerous New England iron furnaces did supply shot, shells and the occasional cannon. --Courtesy of the Author


In 1779 Gorham served as a delegate to the Massachusetts' Constitutional Convention. He was elected to the new Massachusetts' Upper House in 1780. In 1781 he was elected to the Lower House and served until 1787. In 1782, Gorham was also elected delegate to the United States in Congress Assembled, serving through 1783. He was re-elected in 1785 and served as a represen­tative of Massachusetts until 1787. On May 15, 1786 he accepted the Chair of Congress upon the resignation of John Ramsay and the absence of President John Hancock.

Gorham was the antithesis of his predecessor Richard Henry Lee as he was conservative in gov­ernment and many history textbooks claim that he was "monarchy inclined." According to the Library of Congress:

"Historians were once fascinated with the idea of monarchical tendencies in the United States, seizing upon a number of statements and rhetorical flourishes gleaned from the correspondence of several founding fathers. As [Rufus] King and his col­league Nathaniel Gorham had been linked with such sentiments, Edmund C. Burnett discussed the issue at this point in his edition of congressional correspondence, explaining that 'King's remark is one among many indications that the idea of estab­lishing a monarchy in America was in circulation at that time, although perhaps only in whispers.' Burnett, Letters, 8:459n.3."

The research, however, indicates these claims to be unfounded especially of President Gorham who played a major role in framing the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1779. He also chaired, on frequent occasions, the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and signed the final document. The chief sources cited in this thesis can be found in Richard Krauel's, "Prince Henry of Prussia and the Regency of the United States, 1786."  

Nathaniel Gorham's Massachusetts Broadside ordering a State Constitutional Convention stating that "More than two-thirds of the towns … think it proper to have a new Constitution or form of Government and are of the opinion that the same ought to be formed by a convention of Delegates." This Broadside was Delegate Gorham's as evidence by the docket and the penning of his name on the verso. -   

Nathaniel Gorham, in 1786, was considered by many delegates an esteemed veteran of the United States in Congress Assembled serving 1782, 1783, and now in 1786. The year of his Presidency, 1786, had been the strangest session in the Articles of Confederation's Congress since its incep­tion in 1781.

John Hancock, the duly elected President since November of 1785, had not even made a passing appearance in New York to assert his position as the presiding officer of the unicameral federal government. David Ramsay, brother of Nathaniel Ramsey and a Delegate from South Carolina, had reluctantly agreed to serve as the Chairman of Congress while Hancock prepared his Boston household for the move to New York City. Six months later, Ramsay still found himself in the Chair and on May 15th resigned the office as his credentials as a Delegate of South Carolina had expired. The Delegates turned to Hancock's friend and fellow State representative, Nathaniel Gorham, to assume the duties of the Chairmanship of Congress. On his first May day in the Chair of Congress, Gorham received a letter from future U.S. President, James Monroe, resigning his judgeship over the New York/Massachusetts border dispute:

"As some circumstances will put it out of my power to act as a judge for the decision of the controversy between the States of Massachusetts & New York, I take the liber­ty to present thro' you my resignation to Congress. But at the same time that I with­draw myself from this office, it is with particular pleasure that I assure your Excellency, of the high sense, & grateful regard I bear to the States who have conferr'd this honor on me. I am with sentiments of greatest respect & esteem yr. Excellency's most obt. & most humble servant, Jas. Monroe"

Three days later, on May 18th, Nathaniel Gorham made the decision to postpone the September meeting of agents to negotiate a settlement to the Georgia-South Carolina boundary dispute. Chairman Gorham turned Congress, instead to the business of Connecticut's cession of their claims to the Northwest Territory. The abandonment of such state claims to the new federal real estate was paramount to the funding of the government through land sales with clear and mar­ketable titles. The debate over Connecticut's cession lasted until May 26th when the Unites States in Congress Assembled declared a conditional acceptance. Congress, also during May, took up the issue of coinage and the establishment of a mint. Unfortunately, the resolution failed as evi­dence by Gorham's letter to James Bowdoin on May 18h. 1786:

"Your Letter with the enclosures has been recd, and the Book delivered to Mr. Temple. Enclosed is the report of the Treasury Board on the subjects of the Mint. Congress have not yet taken any resolution upon it; but will do it in a few days When it is most probable that the American Dollar will be made exactly of the same value as the New Spanish Dollar. I have seen in the News papers that some person has made a pro­posal to the Legislature of Massachusetts relative to a Copper Coinage; but it is thought here that it will be attended with great inconveniencies if the States act in this matter separately. After Congress have agreed upon a plan which they will soon do; there may be a uniformity in the money; and Massachusetts & any other State may make a better bargain after they know the Terms on which the Board of Treasury conduct the business than they probably can now do. I am much obliged to your Excellency for the Books you were so good as to send to the Delegates…"

June began with the amending of the rules of War and finally after six "leaderless months" John Hancock's resignation. This act required an new Presidential election as his term did not expire until early November. On Sunday Evening June 4th 1786, Rufus King wrote to Elbridge Gerry dis­cussing Hancock's replacement and cites, indirectly, the rotating custom of electing Presidents from the North and South regions of the United States:

"Mr. Hancock has sent his resignation as President and Tomorrow I suppose Mr. Gorham will be elected his successor. You understand the meaning of this Appointment as well as I can explain it; no State is here from New England except Massachusetts."

With the sparse representation from the north, Hancock's resignation with a half term remaining and the fact that Gorham was already sitting in the Chair of Congress, the natural Presidential choice to serve until November. It did, however, take some doing and scholars agree that it was Rufus King who championed Gorham's Presidency by mustering the necessary votes to have him elected.

The Journals of the United States in Congress Assembled reported on June 6th:

"Present, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia; and from New Hampshire, Mr. [Pierse] Long, and from Delaware, Mr. [William] Peery. Congress proceeded to the election of a pres­ident, and the ballots being taken, the honble. Nathaniel Gorham was elected."

Deficiency in the funding of the Federal government continued to plague the United States and the Presidency. The unsettled economic conditions were manifested in the people's distrust of socially prominent politicians. The laws passed by the "Carriage Class" were perceived as being grossly unfair to farmers and working people throughout a nation paralyzed by war debt. Hundreds of letters poured into Congress complaining about excessive taxes on property, polling taxes that prevented less fortunate citizens from voting, unjust rulings by the common plea courts, the soar­ing costs of lawsuits, and the lack of a stable currency all landing on the new President's desk. Ironically, nowhere was this anger more conspicuous then in Gorham's home state of Massachusetts.

The States were also in difficult debt positions attempting to raise capital by selling land. In the case of Gorham's home State of Massachusetts they were in a bitter dispute with New York as each party claimed the other was selling their State lands at the expense of each other's citizens. On June 17, 1786 the President Gorham wrote James Bowdoin:

“By this post your Excellency will receive a joynt Letter from the Delegates for the purpose of accompanying which I had procured a copy of the Taxes paid into the Continental Treasury from Nov. 1, 1784 to March 31, 1786. But having forgotten to send it with the joynt Letter I now enclose it by which you will see Sir that many of the States are very deficient and that Massachusetts does not hold that rank in her payments which she formerly did. Unless the States make great exertion the very appearance of the federal Government must cease; the civil list being without their pay for almost two quarters. Exertion is the more necessary as the collection of the outstanding taxes is the only dependence for every purpose.

New York having made their import [impost] Law upon such conditions as renders totally inadmissible consistent with justice to the other States and as they do not meet again until winter nothing further can be done in the import [impost] this year; it is, however, necessary that Massachusetts should determine wither they will grant the supplementary funds as Pennsylvania have made it a condition that their import shall not take place until all the States have granted those funds.

Yesterday & the day before N York sold a large quantity of Land at auction being part of that claimed by Massachusetts some of it brought 12 (shillings) / acre in final set[tle]m[en]ts. Your Excellency is the best judge wither our Government should not empower & direct their agents to make some advertisements to discourage those sales & perhaps to offer for sale the very lands which New York may again bring to view for a market; for I am told they intend soon to sell more; it may also be well to consider wither our supposing those sales to go on without objection may not be inju­rious to us at the time of trial. I consider this as a private letter to you Sir…"

To understand the seriousness of post war finances, let us take a paragraph or two and examine the facts behind the public debt of Massachusetts. In 1775 the Massachusetts Colonial debt amounted to approximately 100,000 pounds for 240,000 people who rebelled over the "high" British taxes levied to pay off the French and Indian war obligations. By 1786, under Nathaniel Gorham's presidency, the people's private debt of Massachusetts amounted to over 1.3 million pounds plus 250,000 pounds owed to the officers and soldiers of their State's militia. Additionally their State's proportion of the federal debt was estimated in 1786 to be at 1.5 million pounds.

The population, meanwhile, had only increased to 270,000 people. The debt, therefore, had bal­looned from .42 pounds in 1775 to 11.30 pounds per person in 1786, a 270% increase! Additionally, inflation on both federal and state paper currency was rampant. The time was ripe, especially with John Hancock dashing their hopes for recovery by failing to take office in 1786, for rebellion.

The federal government's finances fared no better and the weak federal constitution provided nei­ther Gorham nor anyone else with power to rectify the situation. Maryland and Virginia, in an attempt to eliminate trade barriers and spur on entrepreneurship, held the Mount Vernon Conference in March 1785. This conference achieved an accord on the maritime use of the Chesapeake Bay, fishing and harbor rights, criminal jurisdiction, import duties, currency control, and boundary issues resolving many important issues but only between the two states.

The success of this interstate diplomacy prompted James Madison to draft a resolution, in the 1786 Virginia legislature, to invite all the States to 2nd conference dealing with domestic and foreign trade issues that were stifling any hope for a national recovery. It was Virginia's hope that such a conference would result in the empowerment of the federal government with the authority to improve commerce and levy reasonable tariffs to retire the mounting public debt. Despite the January call for a conference, the summer of 1786 saw no gathering of the States to address these dire issues. The War debt was the greatest drain on the federal government and the States' budgets. The former veter­ans, merchants and money lenders deluged Congress daily, in person and with letters, to be remunerated their back pay, money and goods "loaned" to Congress for conducting the successful war effort. Even former Presidents, as evidence by this letter from Richard Henry Lee to President Gorham, were unable to persuade Congress to pay debts, now five to ten years in the arrears, to patriots in dire need of reimbursement.:

“The enclosed papers that I have the honor of transmitting to your Excellency for the consideration of Congress I have but now received altho they are dated in the last year. I am perfectly satisfied that this demand of Mr. Schweighauser will be found, on due enquiry, to be right; and that this worthy Gentleman who has been long injuriously baffled of his honest demand plainly against the will of Congress, will now be fully paid by the effectual measures that Congress in their wisdom and justice shall direct.”.

 Mr. Schweighauser's five-year-old claim for 40,245 livre, for outfitting the Continental frigate Alliance under Capt. Pierre Landais, was given a fair hearing by The Board of Treasury. Due to a depleted treasury and a host of other unpaid claims this debt remained unpaid until the 19th Century.

The Nation was ripe for rebellion. The first open and organized measure to oppose the government was taken on the 22nd of August in President Gorham's home state. Shays' Insurrection, as it was called in the 18th Century, took the form of a convention of delegates from fifty towns in the county of Hampshire, Massachusetts. The citizens of this county met at Hatfield from the 23rd to the 25th and set forth, in great detail, what they believed to be the grievances of the post-war people. On the third day of the conference, the following articles were passed by the delegates "as unnecessary burdens now lying on the people":

1. The existence of the State Senate

2. The present mode of State representation

3. The officers of government not being annually dependant on the representative of the people, in General Court assembled, for their salaries.

4. All civil officers of government, not being annually elected by Representatives of the People, in the General Court Assembled.

5. The existence of the Court of Common Pleas, and General Sessions of Peace

6. The State Fee Table as it now stands

7. The present mode of appropriating the import and excise.

8. 8th The unreasonable grants made to some of the officers of government.

9. The supplementary aid.

10. The present mode of paying the government securities.

11. The present mode adopted for the payment and speedy collection of the last tax.

12. The present mode of taxation as it operates unequally between the polls and estates, and between landed and mercantile interests.

13. The present method of practice of attorneys at law.

14. The want of a sufficient medium of trade, to remedy the mischief arising from the scarcity of money.

15. The General Court sitting in the town of Boston.

16. The present embarrassments on the press.

17. The neglect of settlement of important matters between the Commonwealth and the United States in Congress Assembled, relating to monies and averages.

18. Vote, this convention recommended to several towns in this county that they instruct their Representatives, to use their influence in the next General Court, to have emitted a bank of paper money, subject to a depreciation; making it a tender in all payments, equal to silver and gold, to be issued in order to call in the Commonwealth securities.

19. Voted, that whereas several of the above articles of grievances, arise from defects in the constitution; therefore a revision of the same ought to take place.

20. Voted, that it be recommended by this convention to the several towns in this coun try, that they petition the Governor to call the General Court immediately together, in order that the other grievances complained of, may by legislature, be redressed.

21. Voted, that this convention recommend it to the inhabitants of this county, that they abstain from all mobs and unlawful assemblies, until a constitutional method of redress can be obtained.

22. Voted, that Mr. Caleb Weft be desired to transmit a copy of the proceeding of this convention to the convention of the county of Worcester.

23. Voted, that the chairman of this convention be desired to transmit a copy of the proceedings of this convention to the county of Berkshire.

24. Voted, that the chairman of this convention be directed to notify a county convention, upon any motion made to him for that purpose, if he judge the reasons offered be sufficient, giving such notice, together with the reasons therefore, in the public papers of this county.

25. Voted, that copy of the proceedings of this convention be sent to the press in Springfield for publication

The county delegates directed that these grievances be sent to the counties of Worchester and Berkshire. They were simply seeking support from neighboring communities in the heart of Massachusetts hoping this "grass root effort" would expand statewide forcing the legislature and the Governor to adopt measures to satisfy their grievances.

Despite the call to "abstain from all mobs and unlawful assemblies", on the following Tuesday, 1500 insurgents assembled under arms at the Northampton Court House preventing the trial and imprisonment of debtors. The Governor of Massachusetts mobilized the militia "in the most feel­ing and spirited manner to suppress such treasonable proceedings." Little attention was given to the Governor's militia call and the counties of Worchester, Middlesex, Bristol and Berkshire were "set in flame and the tumult" threatening a general statewide rebellion.

In the succeeding week the Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace at Worchester were surrounded by three hundred insurgents. The judges, although admitted to the door, where prevented entrance by a line of bayonets. The chief justice rebuffed the rioters on the "madness of their conduct" but the court was forced to retire to an adjacent house where trials were conducted. The violence of the mob, however, soon forced the court to adjourn all togeth­er until the 21st of November. These actions were mirrored with a convention of delegates called from the towns of Middlesex County who proceedings "very near resembled to those of their brethren in Hampshire." The rebellion was gaining steam and the armed insurgents had formed a defiant militia led by Daniel Shays, a former Revolutionary Army Captain.

Meanwhile in Virginia, earlier that month, a positive and far reaching meeting was called to order by John Dickinson. This meeting would later be known as the Annapolis Convention as it met at the Maryland State House. In attendance were 12 delegates of the five States; Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. John Dickinson was elected Chairman and other notable attendees were Richard Bassett, Abraham Clark, Alexander Hamilton, William C. Houston, James Madison, Edmund J. Randolph and George Read. The Delegates were appointed from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and North Carolina did make the journey to Annapolis but arrived too late to take part in the Convention. Maryland, the host state, along with Connecticut, South Carolina, and Georgia did not make any appointments.

The meager representation was actually a blessing as the commissioners took no action on intrastate commerce as planned. Instead, the delegates turned to a brainstorming session on how to correct the defects in the failing Confederation government's constitution. Hamilton and Madison seized the lead in proposing that they should summarize their thoughts in a formal report to the United States in Congress Assembled. The other delegates agreed and submited a unanimously recommendation that a national convention be called to revise the ailing Articles of Confederation. This landmark report was drafted by Alexander Hamilton and culminated in the recommendation for the United States in Congress Assemble to call on the States to send their preeminent and most experienced representatives to Philadelphia on the second Monday of May in 1787. The 13 State conference's purpose would be to revise the 1st Federal U.S. Constitution, the Articles of Confederation.

In New York that same fall, President Gorham's September Congress selected judges for hearing on yet another State boundary dispute. This time it was between South Carolina and Georgia. On September 14th Congress accepted Connecticut's land cession of their portion of the Northwest Territory. A few days later, they agreed to bar payment of United States in Congress Assembled requisitions in paper money that "wasn't worth a continental". The action was followed with post­masters' orders "to receive no other money in payment for postage than specie." Not even the Federal Government had confidence in its own currency.

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