Happy 100th, NH primary

Concord event kicks off yearlong celebration

On Sept. 15, New Hampshire political notables gathered at the State Library in Concord for the kickoff of the New Hampshire primary’s 100th birthday party.

The group included NH Presidential Primary Centennial Advisory Commission members: former state Rep. Representative Jim Splaine, who has been a longtime devotee of the primary and wrote the statute that requires our primary to be held at least seven days ahead of any other “similar election,” former U.S. Rep. and Supreme Court Justice Chuck Douglas, former gubernatorial candidate Paul McEachern and other political junkies. 

The commission, which is chaired by St. Anselm College Institute of Politics head Neal Levesque, plans a number of activities commemorating the first primary. At the unveiling, where Governor Maggie Hassan joined former House Speaker Terie Norelli and other commission members in cutting the ribbon for the yearlong observation, UNH political science professor Dante Scala spoke about the history of the primary and former GOP Chair Jayne Millerick talked about its importance.

A “time capsule” was unveiled in the form of two ballot boxes that will be filled, not with ballots, but with thoughts about the primary, to be opened in 100 years by those looking back at the present.

Prominent in the discussion was the need to protect and preserve the primary and also speculation about whether it will still exist a century from now. 

The keynote speaker at the event was storyteller and television personality Fritz Wetherbee, who told the story of the derivation of the primary and its evolution.

New Hampshire’s progressive movement started around the turn of the 19th century, with the dominant Republican Party undergoing change and reform. The so-called “progressives” were motivated by the publication of a book by an American author named Winston Churchill.

Churchill wrote a book, “Coniston,” which was published in 1906 and sold millions of copies nationwide. 

“Coniston” is about a political boss in a New England state about the time Andrew Jackson was president. The book recounts the ascension of the political boss, named Jethro Bass, from a young tanner in a small town to the most powerful man in the state, able to dictate political results at the legislature and beyond.

It also recounts his unrequited love of a local beauty, his “adoption” of her daughter later in life, his struggles with those who would take over his power for ill purposes, and the evil of corporate dominance of the legislative process. 

Apparently, this book struck a nerve in New Hampshire, where the Legislature was “owned” by the Boston & Maine Railroad, according to Wetherbee, and the reform movement spawned by the book resulted in another Bass, Robert P. Bass, being elected governor as a progressive Republican, in 1910. 

Bass was a native of Chicago, born in 1873. Educated at Harvard, where he graduated in 1896, he worked to advance agriculture and forestry and entered New Hampshire politics in 1905, serving as a member of the New Hampshire House for four years. He was a member of the New Hampshire Senate from 1909 to 1910, when he was elected governor. His tenure included the support of child labor laws, a state public service commission, a bureau of labor and a workers’ compensation bill.

The progressive movement championed the idea of the popular election for president and the New Hampshire presidential primary was passed by the Legislature, with the first one occurring in 1916. This took the selection of delegates to the national conventions away from political bosses and gave it to the rank and file members of the two political parties.

The primary was not the first in the nation until 1952, when Richard Upton, a Concord lawyer, championed the bill that would make it the “first-in-the-nation primary,” and in 1952 it saw the popular Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower win the GOP primary over Robert Taft of Ohio, propelling Eisenhower to the presidency and cementing the importance of the primary. 

Jim Splaine and others have worked hard with New Hampshire Secretary William Gardner, to protect the primary and make sure it remains first.

After the celebration in Concord, I remembered that I had a copy of “Coniston” on the shelf in my house, among other old books, and I have enjoyed reading it. It is as good as Fritz Wetherbee said it was, and can be obtained, I understand, through Amazon.com. 

Certainly, the New Hampshire primary has changed New Hampshire and the nation. Happy 100th birthday! 

Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups.

Categories: Cook on Concord