The Green Papers Commentary

Geography, Culture, Politics and the New Hampshire Primary

January 29, 2000

"The Green Papers" Staff

Very shortly after these words you will read have been written, we will be watching the returns from the voting in the Presidential Primary in New Hampshire (Tuesday 1 February). I thought it would be interesting to take a closer look at this state which will- no matter what the outcome among the Democrats or the Republicans this time round- have a significant impact upon the early shape of this year's pre-Convention campaign for the Presidency:

There once was a time, I would have to admit, when I did not know the Granite State well at all. "New Hampshire" was merely the location of a lake on which my family vacationed a couple of times during my childhood. In the summer when I was 15 years old, I was on a two-week bicycle hike through parts of New England- one sponsored by the YMCA and ending up in New Hampshire; at one stop, a number of us bike hikers- all from the Metro New York area- refused to cram into a small, crowded outbuilding where food was being cooked and served, even though there was a downpour outdoors. As we sat on the picnic benches to eat, a Granite State local came by and said to us: "You're the smart ones- of course, you're goin' to get your arse a bit wet!" and those of us getting drenched by the rain as we ate all laughed at this: after all, how quaint, how rustic, how "country"... how "hick"!

A few years later, while I was attending Boston University, those of us who were nurtured in the amniotic sac of "BosWash" (the "Boston-to-Washington" Northeast Corridor) would often sit in front of the TV in the common area of our dormitory- which could pick up the news out of Manchester, N.H. on Channel 9- and often laugh at the wild and wacky antics of then-Granite State Governor Meldrim Thomson as he would pull over out-of-state speeders while riding in the Governor's car or fly the American flag at half-staff over the New Hampshire State House on Good Friday (a state holiday) or seriously suggest that the state's National Guard be given access to tactical nuclear weapons should the Province of Quebec- to New Hampshire's north- successfully secede from Canada: after all, how provincial, how parochial, how "country"... how "hick"! And just who WERE all these morons only tens of miles north of where we sat in a B.U. dorm who had voted this clown into office? Northern New England in the mid-1970's appeared to have its own updated version of Huey Long!!

I would end up going on a few "road trips" to the Granite State in those days- but certainly not to look at the scenery or see the state's tourist sights! Usually it was a ride in a van which would be loaded up with hard liquor from a state-owned liquor store just on the other side of the border with Massachusetts for use at a dorm party that evening (generally speaking, you could use the same formula one would use to convert kilometers to statute miles to calculate the difference in price between liquor in Massachusetts and that in New Hampshire). I can't say that my travels to the state in my college days taught me anything more about it than what I already knew- and what I knew was very little, indeed.

That all changed in the 1980's: my brother started going out with and then attended college- in New Hampshire- with a girl he had met in New Jersey but who had substantial roots in New Hampshire; they married, settled in the Granite State and subsequently produced three lovely children- my two nieces and one nephew, all New Hampshire born and raised. Frequent visits to family functions over the better part of a decade made me much more familiar with a state that had once been little more than a cipher to me. When my other brother ended up in the Granite State as well in the early 1990's, so much more reason for me to travel around up there. The observations I will now share about the geography, culture and politics of New Hampshire are largely based on a decade and a half of an outsider learning about the state firsthand combined with more than two decades of my reading about its history and politics:

New Hampshire is a part of the Northeastern Uplands, a belt which stays fairly close to the Maine coast (no more than 20 miles inland, if that!) and then the shore of the Granite State itself- all 17 miles of it!- before swinging inland away from the flatter, yet still hilly, sections of the Atlantic Seaboard which form the northern half of the Megalopolis known as "BosWash" and heading across Vermont to a point where it stays roughly a hundred miles away from the coast, cutting a swath across the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, the Taconics and Catskills of New York State (separated from one another by the Mid-Hudson Valley) and on into the Poconos and Wyoming Valley (Scranton and Wilkes-Barre) of northeastern Pennsylvania before petering out at the valley of the Susquehanna, at which point the hills on the other side of that great river give way to the true Alleghenys and the northernmost portions of the backbone of the Appalachian Chain. The location of the Granite State a fair distance from the port cities which were the political centers of Colonial and Revolutionary America- while yet remaining close enough to them (even by the standards of 18th century transportation technology)- has been an important factor in the history and development of the state once the United States of America became a going concern and offers some clues as to how the state got to where it is today in terms of its culture and politics.

The Granite State is basically divided into three different major regions- the Coastal Region, a swath of the so-called "New England Secondary" and a large chunk of what is referred to as "Yankee Northern New England". The southeasternmost of these regions (as well as the smallest geographically) is the Coastal Region, basically only eastern Rockingham County- with the industrial seaport of Portsmouth and the beach towns of Rye, the Hamptons (no, NOT the famous "Hamptons" of Long Island!) and Seabrook, all of which is really part of a northern finger of the Northeast Corridor ("Megalopolis") extending up from Boston and its North Shore suburbs into the vicinity of Portland, Maine (I have often argued- over the last two decades- that the old late 1950's/early 60's moniker "BosWash" should be replaced by the more modernistic "NorPort"- which could stand for both "North[east]ern Ports" and "Norfolk [Va.] to Portland [Me.]"). The region to the west of New Hampshire's Coastal Region is made up of the Merrimack Valley (the south central portion of the state- from around Concord down through Manchester to Nashua) and the Monadnock Region (the southwestern part: against the borders of Vermont and Massachusetts- centered around Keene), which together make up New Hampshire's part of the "New England Secondary"- a semi-industrial/semi-rural belt extending from the Valley of the Kennebec in Maine down through this part of New Hampshire and on into the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts.

You might well ask: "Secondary", however, to WHAT? Answer: to the Megalopolitan reaches of Southern New England below the New Hampshire-Massachusetts line. In their 1961 tome, Economic Areas of the United States, Donald Bogue and Calvin Beale described this "New England Secondary" as a region having "a fairly high degree of urbanization and specialization in manufacture without having large concentrations of population". Little has changed in the nearly four decades since: it is not by simple coincidence or mere accident that it was this part of the Granite State which would- as the 1970's turned into the 1980's- become the home of high-tech-oriented "clean industries" [read: "such as computer technology"] around places like Peterborough and Jaffrey. Those who would people these more contemporary versions of "specialized manufacture", often as not, tended not to be native New Hampshiremen but, rather, those the established Northern New England Yankee likes to refer to as "flatlanders" (those who do not come from the hilly Uplands, but were born and raised in the lower-lying districts closer to the Ocean- read "Megalopolis": read "New York City" or even [Heaven Forfend!] "Massachusetts"!!).

Therefore, the growing population of New Hampshire's part of the "New England Secondary" in the state's southern sections has tended to be seen as a threat to the traditional values the old-time Granite Stater would most like to preserve and the woods and lakes the local environmentalist (who is not ashamed of reminding the visitor that "every newcomer to the Granite State means the loss of yet another acre of New Hampshire forest") is trying to save. This, however, is nothing new and, perhaps to some extent, inevitable (to again quote Bogue and Beale who noted back in 1961 that the economy of the "New England Secondary" "is both an old and independent development as well as partly the product of the outward diffusion of activity from the major centers to the south"); the Granite State is destined to always be something of a slave to its proximity on the map to a place like Boston.

This geographical slavery is most apparent in the southern and central sections of the last (and largest in area) region of the state, the Yankee North- which consists of the Lakes Region, the White Mountains and the North Country. The Lakes Region is first encountered as one travels northward into the vicinities of such waters as Sunapee Lake about halfway between Concord and the Connecticut River, Newfound Lake near Bristol and the massive (and famous) Lake Winnepesaukee; the White Mountains rise beyond the Lakes Region- capped by the Presidential Range and Mount Washington. These regions are those which tend to attract more tourists and vacationers than any other part of the state and, between boating and fishing in the summer and skiing in the winter, these areas are often lousy with flatlanders- who bring along with them Ray Charles' "just little pieces of paper coated with chlorophyll" which help fuel the local economy. It is in this area of the state that one is most likely to encounter visiting flatlanders (outside of the quadrennial visits by same in the months leading up to the state's presidential primary, of course!)- and the flatlanders themselves are here largely because the Granite State is not all that far from Boston or even New York City.

This dependency on the kindness of barely tolerated strangers in much of the Granite State is a singular fact of New Hampshire culture, particularly in the state's relationships with the rest of the Union- and especially its relations with the Bay Commonwealth on its southern border. As one of my Massachusetts native/resident friends- but one who is quite familiar with New Hampshire through family ties as well as his frequent winter and summer vacationing in Northern New England- once said to me: "You have all these people driving around with 'Live Free or Die' on their license tags, but- at the same time- many of them are surviving largely because people from Massachusetts and similar states in the Northeast are willing to travel up there and spend time- and money- among them. They are largely economically dependent on the Northeast Corridor and they hate it: it really ticks them off! And so they are becoming more and more annoyed and resort to calling Massachusetts 'Tax-a-chusetts' and wear 'Things could be worse! I could be from Massachusetts!!' T-shirts; yet, of course, this does nothing to change the fact that they are largely working poor to lower middle class and Massachusetts working people are generally wealthier by comparison, even with the Bay State's often oppressive taxation. It's like those guys who fly the Confederate flag down South- but, of course, doing so doesn't put any more food on their families' table, doesn't grow their bank accounts and certainly doesn't better educate their kids!"

Taxation, of course, is THE key to New Hampshire politics. No one is elected Governor of the state without having first taken "the Pledge"- a term borrowed from the Women's Christian Temperance movement of the late 19th/early 20th century but, in the Granite State, applied to a gubernatorial candidate promising NEVER to impose a state sales tax or income tax: said promise being made, of course, in order to win crucial votes among the state's electorate- and no one survives in the Governor's chair if they should ever subsequently violate it (and considering proposing- or even merely suggesting- a new tax is considered a violation of "the Pledge"). The use of this particular term- "the Pledge"- is, in itself, telling: it well illustrates the New Hampshireman's mind set- for why would an inveterate drunk take "the Pledge" in the first place? Not to keep himself from having an alcoholic drink but, rather, to keep himself from having SEVERAL alcoholic drinks at one sitting! To most Granite Staters, allowing even one less than desirable tax (but, then again, what kind of tax IS desirable?) will surely lead to a drunken orgy of taxation by the state's politicians; the irony is that, the longer New Hampshire remains, more or less, out of step with how their fellow constituents of the Union raise revenue, the more likely it becomes that this "drunken orgy of taxation" will be necessary should the Granite State find itself put into the position of having to play "catch-up" with its sister states. A healthy chunk of New Hampshire politics is rooted in the finding of new- and, in some cases, ingenious- ways of once again postponing having to play "catch-up".

Yet "catch-up" has begun to be played by New Hampshire, like it or not. Recently, the state had a rather fierce political battle over whether to publicly fund Kindergarten, an issue with which most of the rest of the country had already dealt (and in the affirmative) one or two generations ago! Think about it: here was a state in which Kindergarten- through the late 1990's, no less- was viewed the same way most other states currently view pre-K or Nursery School!! My younger niece up in New Hampshire, only two or three years ago, attended a Kindergarten funded privately (with associated financial outlay by my brother and his family); four DECADES ago, I was able to attend a publicly-funded Kindergarten in Connecticut- a Kindergarten which was part of the local school system (and, hence, required no outlay- apart from taxation- by my telephone company worker Mom or my gun factory worker Grandpa, with whom my Mom and I were living after her divorce)!

Neal Peirce, in his 1976 work The New England States made the following observation about New Hampshire's tax system, noting that it all "adds up to a tawdry effort to
    (1) fleece visitors to pay for internal functions, and
    (2) trick the state's citizens into thinking they have a good deal."
But Peirce went on to note that this had created a situation in which "local property taxes are at an almost confiscatory level, and a poor New Hampshire citizen pays twice as high a percentage of his total income in taxes as does a rich one." Again, little has changed since (except, perhaps, for an increase in local awareness that this situation is becoming more and more untenable- a political climate which may have helped lead to the Democrats in New Hampshire not only holding on to the Governor's chair in this largely Republican bailiwick in 1998 but also taking control of the State Senate for the first time since Woodrow Wilson was first elected President back in 1912. Yet, even Governor Jeanne Shaheen, now in her second term, cannot abandon "the Pledge"!). I myself am very familiar with the financial pressure put on the average homeowner which is engendered by a state depending too heavily on property taxes in the raising of governmental revenue: my own state of New Jersey- in which I am a homeowner- has been involved in an ongoing political battle, for well over a quarter century now, over the Garden State's over-reliance on local property taxes for the bulk of the support of its public schools; however, at least here in New Jersey, property taxes aren't expected to pay for EVERYTHING! We also have a state sales tax and a state income tax, which- for all their inconvenience and all the griping and complaining by we Garden State taxpayers- have created something of a balance (uneasy though it might be from time to time) among the various means of raising state and local government revenues.

I shudder to think of the nightmarish scenario of having only property taxes (along with other bizarre means of raising revenue: such as the state-owned liquor stores of my B.U. days or the imposition of a meal tax- really a sales tax in very thin disguise- in restaurants [on the theory that out-of-state visitors tend to eat out as much, if not more often, than the locals themselves do, therefore it would be more of a sales tax on non-residents]) as the primary- if not the sole- means of paying for the services (or lack thereof) of state and local government, even were these to be kept to a minimal level. But state and local government in New Hampshire is not just kept to a "minimal" level; it is often kept to a "threadbare" level by the state's tax system- and to what end?

For money is ALWAYS rather tight in New Hampshire: this salient observation has led to a widespread system of barter in the mostly poorer and/or more rural sections of the state; it is a system which has- in many parts of the state- boosted the concept of "neighbor, may I borrow a cup of sugar?" into a full-blown economy of scale! In addition to- say- the trading of one's chopping and delivering a cord of firewood for the baking of a child's birthday cake, a fair number of people work their daily jobs "off the books" for cash only- none of which is reported to Uncle Sam (which, much as many New Hampshiremen resent it, DOES have power of taxation- primarily through the hated Federal Income Tax- over the Granite State); there have been New Hampshire businesses of 20 or 30- or even as many as 50- employees in which, as far as the Feds are concerned, only the relative handful of owner-operators are actually working! The business stays afloat by such "money-under-the-table" methods; but this also means it stays afloat by, of course, not offering its employees health insurance or profit-sharing or even a retirement plan. "Off-the-books", of course, means that an employee must remain COMPLETELY "off-the-books"!! Live Free or Die!!!

These scenarios caused, at least in part, by the Granite State's antiquated tax system, primarily effects only those areas of the state I have touched on so far. For it is only once you get north of "the Whites" that you encounter an area of the state still little touched by much of what is going on to its south: the so-called "North Country", which makes up the bulk of Coos (pronounced "koe-ahss") County. This is the last vestige of old-time Yankee New Hampshire left relatively unchanged by the Megalopolitan Civilization pushing into the state's southern reaches; it is up here that one finds places such as Dixville Notch, a little hamlet in which all the voting citizenry assembles just after Midnight come Election Day so as to become the first precinct in the Nation to report their returns (under Granite State law, once everyone on a Town's voting rolls has been officially reported as having voted, the polls can be shut down for good and the votes then counted and officially reported to New Hampshire's Secretary of State: in townships such as these, with single-, or at most low double-, digits of registered voters, things can be organized ahead of time so as to have the voting completed within a few minutes of the start of Election Day Eastern Time). Traveling past Berlin, the last sizable population center just north of U.S. Highway 2 cutting across the state through Gorham and Lancaster, brings the long-time resident of Megalopolis into areas uncomfortably removed from the Atlantic Seaboard-based culture so familiar to him; any fantasies about someday lighting out to American locales such as Alaska- or even Wyoming- are dashed upon the rocks of the realization that, if one could not imagine successfully living in New Hampshire's North Country, how could one even THINK of surviving in those other places just named?

In the North Country, the issue of taxation is as important- if not more so- than in the rest of the Granite State; in fact, no area of the state would most turn on a Governor who might have the audacity- if not the unmitigated gall- to abandon "the Pledge" than the North Country. But this is primarily because the North Country remains the only area in the state where local government can still pretty much run itself in the way local government once ran itself over a century ago (and, in many cases, has fooled itself into thinking it can STILL run itself) in almost all the rest of the state. The populations of the North Country's townships remain, for the most part, small and their socioeconomic/ethnic demographics remain very much what they were generations ago- for the same families who lived here long ago still inhabit the North Country with very little influx of flatlanders all told. And so, the local schools, law enforcement and other township governmental institutions- still small and quite accessible to the townspeople- still carry on in much the same way they did a generation or so previously and the local taxes, collected in much the same manner as anyone now living can remember, are applied with little appreciable difference from their application many decades before. The tax crunch is, therefore, somewhat more bearable up here than elsewhere in the state- primarily because the pressure to provide local services in the townships of the North Country is not altogether much more than it was decades before.

Together, the North Country, "the Whites" and the Lakes Region form the last of the three major regions of the Granite State: the New Hampshire portion of authentic "Yankee Northern New England" (an area which goes northeast to southwest from the Aroostook Country of northern Maine [a wilderness-dominated region about which the comment "Shot a moose once up in Township 10, R 8" would not be out of place] across this area of northern and central New Hampshire and onward to the west to make up most of Vermont [all except that state's northwestern sections around Burlington and Saint Albans, which- thanks to Lake Champlain- is really an American finger extending south from out of Canada's Saint Lawrence Valley ]). The geographical differences in the political climate of New Hampshire (which only become apparent to the Nation at large every four years around this time and then only for a few weeks of pre-N.H. Primary campaigning at best) are largely due to the differences between these three major regions which divide the state: the Coastal Region has found itself being sucked into the vortex of Megalopolis for a few decades now- there is, after all, no longer any escape from the influence of, first, U.S. 1 and then I-95; New Hampshire's "New England Secondary", meanwhile, has been forced to- more or less- accommodate its proximity to the Megalopolitan Civilization lapping at its borders (some of its residents do so willingly, others reluctantly, still others rather begrudgingly- if not kicking and screaming!), while the still Yankee Northern New England strongholds- even with the influx of, and dependence on, flatlanders in its southern and central portions- struggles valiantly to continue its resistance to that same Megalopolitan push and pull. It is the battle between the "accommodationists" of southern New Hampshire and the "resisters" of the state's central and northern sections that play a major role in the state's politics and even in its quadrennial presidential primary.

The fault line between these two zones would best be seen in a place which functions as, more or less, a "border town" at the frontier of the "New England Secondary" as it begins to give way- as one travels northward- to the marchlands of "Yankee Northern New England": a place such as New London, New Hampshire- a relatively cultured place (at least by New Hampshire standards) with a small college [Colby-Sawyer] and a Playhouse in a typical New England town setting, albeit one surrounded by all the accoutrements of Megalopolis [pizza places, ice cream parlors]. There is a strip as one leaves the center New London along what once was State Highway 11 north and west toward I-89 and, beyond that superhighway, the Sunapee Region as the gateway to the Lakes Region- a strip which contains a mall of small shops, a fairly large supermarket and a family restaurant as an island in what is a massive (again, by New Hampshire standards) parking lot.

If I didn't know I was actually in the Granite State, I might think I was not too far removed from where I myself live back in a Metro New York suburb nestled well inside Megalopolis- I could very well be looking at a strip-mall/shopping center along New Jersey Highway 10: all that's missing is the concrete divider (and, of course, the traffic). But- while the supermarket certainly serves the locals and the family restaurant keeps itself somewhat busy in the lull in between skiing and boating seasons, I get the impression that this whole complex would not be here were it not for the flatlanders driving by here on a fairly regular basis at various times of the year, including a great many who rent or own vacation homes nearby- a multitude accentuated by the shopping center's proximity to an Interstate and a large lake known for its summer activities and a ski area on a mountain at the southern end of that same lake for the winter fun crowd.

In the end, as we enter the 21st century, New Hampshire is no longer as unlike much of the rest of America as many of its own citizens- or, for that matter, those who decry its "first-in-the-nation" presidential primary- might like to think it is.

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