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Bar News - October 18, 2017

Digging into the Past: Research Sheds Light on History of US Attorney Office in NH


John Hale

On April 14, 1865, the socialite daughter of New Hampshire’s US attorney, a close friend of President Abraham Lincoln, had dinner in Washington, DC, with one of her many suitors, accompanied by her mother.

The suitor suddenly fell to his knees before her, recited a line from “Hamlet” — “Nymph, in thy orisons be all my sins remembered” – and fled. Hours later, he slunk into Ford’s Theatre, pulled out a small derringer and fired a single shot into the president’s head.

The young woman was Lucy Hale, daughter of Lincoln’s friend John Hale. The suitor was John Wilkes Booth, and the story is one of many little-known anecdotes recently unearthed by Stevan Tempesta Jr., an undergraduate who spent the summer as an intern in the US attorney’s office in Concord, researching the lives of past US attorneys for the District of New Hampshire.

“I wanted to be able to make a mark for this office,” says Tempesta, who was raised in Bedford and is now a senior at McGill University in Montreal, majoring in economics and political science. “This project was certainly a way to do that.”

It also introduced him to some unfamiliar history about his home state, helped him cement his career plans, and stirred sympathies toward one of America’s least popular presidents, New Hampshire’s own Franklin Pierce.

The project was the brainchild of former US attorney Emily Rice, who left office in March after President Donald Trump sought the resignation of 46 federal prosecutors who were holdovers from the Obama administration.

In preparing her speech for her swearing-in ceremony in January 2016, Rice looked to some of her predecessors for inspiration. Her interest was further piqued when she visited her colleague, then-US Attorney for Maine Thomas Delahanty II, and saw that his office included a wall of pictures of predecessors with short biographies under each. Rice, now the interim city solicitor in Manchester, decided a project on the histories of New Hampshire’s US attorneys would make a fine assignment for a summer intern.

“He’s regarded as one of America’s least favorite presidents because of his inability to keep the union together and his inability with legislation, but [Franklin Pierce] had an incredibly tragic story in the latter part of his career.”
Stevan Tempesta Jr.
Intern, US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Hampshire

Tempesta, she says, “was definitely the right man for the job… He took up the project with great verve and interest and came up with great stuff.”

Tempesta started his internship in June. His first order of business was to study the portraits of previous office-holders lining the wall leading to the US attorney’s office on the top floor of the John C. Cleveland Federal Building. In addition to the pictures, “they have a nice, framed piece of parchment paper naming all the former US attorneys and the years they served,” he says. “We assumed it was all correct, which wasn’t true. For example, the names of some US attorneys are misspelled on that piece of parchment paper.”

One possible reason? George Washington’s handwriting.

Tempesta discovered something Rice had also noticed – there were three different spellings for the first US attorney for New Hampshire – Sam. Sherborn Jr., John S. Sherbourn and the correct one, John Samuel Sherburne Jr., later to become the third judge for the district of New Hampshire on the federal court. He was appointed US attorney in 1789, soon after the Constitution was ratified, and Tempesta theorizes Washington was in such a hurry to get legal representatives of the government in place in each state that he wrote their names hastily when he sent them off to Congress.

Tempesta was also intrigued by another story from that time. Sherburne served as US attorney until 1793, served as a congressman from 1793 to 1797, then was reappointed US attorney by Thomas Jefferson in 1801. That second tenure as US attorney was cut short, Tempesta discovered, when Sherburne resigned in 1804 to participate in the impeachment trial of federal judge John Pickering, “who was suffering from alcohol and dementia, and people higher up decided he was unfit,” he says. “Sherburne’s testimony put it over the edge and Pickering was removed. Less than three months later, Sherburne was nominated by Thomas Jefferson to take his (Pickering’s) place. It was definitely a black mark.”

New Hampshire has had 45 presidentially appointed US attorneys, by Tempesta’s count (he does not know the additional number of acting US attorneys) and among his favorites is John Hale, the Lincoln confidant whose daughter was courted by Booth.

His research on Hale took him to the New Hampshire Historical Society where, with the help of reference librarian and archivist Malia Ebel, he went through 10 to 15 of the 22 boxes of Hale papers, which take up 12 linear feet of the society’s archives. The search involved “translating” hundreds of letters written some 150 years ago.

“He was reading original correspondence that isn’t transcribed, handwritten 1800s’ letters that are incredibly difficult to read and decipher, and he was really getting through it,” says Ebel. “It’s something that professional researchers really struggle with.”

Hale was a staunch abolitionist and the chief political rival of his Bowdoin College classmate Franklin Pierce, and the two had a number of spirited debates throughout New Hampshire.

Hale was appointed US attorney in 1834, but was removed on party grounds by President John Tyler in 1841. He was then elected to Congress as a Democrat, serving from 1843 to 1845. In 1844, Hale publicly opposed his party’s – and the New Hampshire Legislature’s – support for annexing Texas on anti-slavery grounds. As a result, his name was stricken from the 1845 Democratic ticket.

Thus began what was known as the “Hale storm of 1845,” according to Tempesta. “He went throughout the state debating anyone over the merits of slavery,” he says. “On June 5, 1845, the Old North Church of Concord was filled to capacity when Hale debated then-US Attorney Franklin Pierce over the merits of slavery… He won over the entire crowd.”

“If things have come to this condition,” Hale argued, “that conscience and a sacred regard for truth and duty are to be publicly held up to ridicule, and scouted at without rebuke, as has just been done here, it matters little whether we are annexed to Texas or Texas is annexed to us. I may be permitted to say that the measure of my ambition will be full, if, when my earthly career shall be finished and my bones laid beneath the soil of New Hampshire, when my wife and children shall repair to my grave to drop the tear of affection to my memory, they may read on my tombstone, ‘He who lies beneath surrendered office, place, and power, rather than bow down and worship slavery.’”

Tempesta says Hale was “the only person ever recorded to have won a debate with Franklin Pierce” and he went on to serve as speaker of the New Hampshire House and as a US senator, becoming close friends with Lincoln and campaigning for him. Pierce, however, may have gotten the last laugh, at least politically. Pierce was elected president in 1852 when Hale was running against him as the candidate for the anti-slavery Free Soil Party.

But Tempesta’s research also altered his opinion of Pierce.

“He’s regarded as one of America’s least favorite presidents because of his inability to keep the union together and his inability with legislation,” he says. “But he had an incredibly tragic story in the latter part of his career.”

Two months before his inauguration, Pierce, his wife Jane and their 11-year-old son Bennie were on a train traveling through Andover, Massachusetts, when the train derailed, killing Bennie and practically decapitating him before the eyes of his parents. Their two other sons had already died young – Franklin Jr., in infancy, and Frank Robert, at 4, of typhus.

Jane “was in an acute depressive state after that,” says Tempesta. “She wouldn’t come to Washington for two years. Multiple times, Pierce begged her to come. Because they were in such an unfortunate situation, he deserves more of a break than history has given him.”

It is an analysis with which Ebel agrees.

“We have several really poignant letters in the Pierce collection from him to his wife imploring her to write to him because she had gone into this incredible depression,” says the archivist, who also holds a law degree. “That gives you a different side of Pierce… He doesn’t fall on the right side of history in terms of slavery and abolition, but when you see his personal correspondence, you can see his struggles with it and why he made the decisions he did. He wasn’t actually evil. He was making a decision he thought was best for the country. It was the wrong one, but it was not a thoughtless one.”

Ebel says she was also impressed with Tempesta’s research on Lucy Hale, whose suitors included not only Wilkes Booth, but also members of European nobility and Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s oldest son. The fact that Lucy’s father, the US attorney, “did not push her toward any of them for his own political gain says something about him,” she adds. “A lot of men in his position at that time would have pushed their daughter into an early marriage with the president’s son.”

Both Tempesta and Ebel note there is little on paper linking Lucy Hale with Wilkes Booth. “Given her father’s relationship with the president, and Booth’s assassination of the president, any correspondence was probably destroyed, for the family’s well-being as well as for Lucy’s,” Ebel says. “It would have tarnished her reputation significantly.”

Tempesta presented his findings to fellow interns and staff members of the US attorney’s office and invited guest Emily Rice on Aug. 4.

“It was just fabulous,” says Rice. “Some people were skeptical of this project, but I think they were all converted. The work he did exceeded my wildest expectations, plus the stories are so great.”

Tempesta says the project broadened his knowledge of his home state because in his earlier education “none of the history we got was truly New Hampshire-specific… It was really this project that connected me with some of the lawyers and politicians of New Hampshire who really made a difference.”

He adds that he had been flirting with the idea of going to law school after graduation from McGill, “but I wasn’t certain about it. Having done this internship, I’m absolutely sure.”

Kathie Ragsdale is a freelance writer based in Chester, NH.

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