History of the Executive Council

The Governor and Council form of government is unique to the State of New Hampshire. No other state in the nation has two governmental branches as accountable to its citizens as New Hampshire.

New Hampshire has the third largest legislative body in the English-speaking world. Only the US House of Representatives and the British Parliament have more representatives than New Hampshire. We pride ourselves on our "citizen" legislature as the 400 members of our House of Representatives and the 24 Senators receive a salary of only $100.00 per year. The New Hampshire Governor and Council form of government has stood the test of time. It is by far the most unique and open form of state government in our nation. The New Hampshire Executive Council holds the distinction of being the first and the last of its kind in the nation. It is a vestige of the Colonial era and a public reminder of the continuing indication of the basic distrust Granite State citizens have for dictatorial government.

In the Executive Branch, the five Executive Councilors are also from the "citizen body" as none are full-time professional politicians. They are truly "citizen representatives" to the Executive Branch similar to our "citizen" legislature. The five Councilors are elected separately from the Governor, though their terms are for the same two years.

The Council had its beginnings in 1679. A 3,438 word Commission was issued by King Charles II on September 18, 1679 (the original document is stored in the State Archives building). Through this Commission, King Charles II separated the territory of New Hampshire from Massachusetts and directed that a new government be organized. The King appointed a President and Council from the 4,000 settlers of the seacoast area and required that they take office by January 21, 1680. John Cutt, a wealthy Portsmouth merchant became the first President of this unwanted government. A nine-man Council represented the four towns of Portsmouth, Dover, Hampton and Exeter which at that time comprised the new Province of New Hampshire. The first official chore of this pioneer President, (later called Governor) and Council, as expressed in the Royal Commission, was to create a legislative body, then called an Assembly, to raise taxes and vote public conduct laws. All of the appointees had become Puritans from their long association with the Boston government and several had served in the Puritan Legislature at Boston. Some of the designated Council members were so firmly opposed to this new government that they gave thought to refusing to serve. But when an ultimatum was presented, that less desirable men would replace them, they all relented and took the oath of office on January 21, 1680. The men obtained listings of property owners in the four towns, from which freeholders, or voters, were posted in each town, for the election of representatives to the Assembly, which convened on March 16, 1680.

This pioneer Legislature, all of whom were quick to express their opposition to the directives of the royal command, promptly enacted a law that New Hampshire's property owners' titles, as granted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony over the years, would continue as valid, regardless of King Charles' ruling. These pioneer legislators also joined with President John Cutt and his Council in voting an apology to the Bay State for having been torn from their jurisdiction, and expressed special thanks for the favors they received through the 38- year affiliation. The Council's chief "political" responsibility at that time, however was to report on the activities of the Governor to the King, especially if he strayed the least bit from the crown's dictates.

The Council officially became the upper branch of the Assembly, and this policy continued through the ensuing 95 years of royal rule over New Hampshire.

After being the only one of the 13 original colonies of the United States, which was forced to have its own government, New Hampshire's forefathers wrote their own constitution during the Revolutionary War years of 1775-1783. On January 5, 1776 it created a first free constitution of this nation. This wartime government abolished the position of Governor, and retained the Council, who were to be elected by the people, as the upper branch of the Legislature. The New Hampshire people had become so unhappy with self-serving royal Governors, that they no longer even tolerated that title. So the 1784 Constitution labeled the Chief Executive as "President", and the Council was shifted from being a part of the Legislature, to becoming a check on the highest office.

Our forefathers, in writing their own constitution, showed their distrust of executive authority that their ancestors had experienced under the rule of the English Kings, by including a "check and balance" on the activities of the state's chief executive officer.

Under the 1784 New Hampshire Constitution, the Chief Executive and the council were granted veto authority against each other, and no executive business became effective unless approved by the President (the title became Governor in 1792) and a majority of the Council, then set at five members. While the Executive Council cannot act independently of the Governor, it has the constitutional authority to negate gubernatorial actions or nominations.

New Hampshire's Governor and Council combination has become without equal in the nation. This sharing of executive authority, as a curb on autocracy, was once popular throughout New England but now it continues in full force only in the Granite State.

New Hampshire's Governor and Council, all elected by the people, has become the most democratic form of executive government in the nation, or elsewhere in the world. All state business, as ordered and ordained by the Legislature, is voted in public, and no other state enjoys such open accountability between its Executive Department and its citizens.

Granite State citizens have long appreciated their Governor and Council method of supervision of state affairs. Only once in the 13 state Constitutional Conventions since 1784 have delegates questioned the Council's value, and asked the voters for their opinion about it. The 1850 convention, headed by Franklin Pierce, recommended the abolition of the Council, but the citizens polled a resounding 27, 910 to 11,299 vote against the proposal.

Under the Constitution, the Governor alone invokes sessions of the Governor and Council, and the latter cannot convene itself. The Constitution spells this out as follows:

"…The Governor shall have full power and authority to convene the Council from time to time, at his discretion, and, with them, or a majority of them, may and shall, from time to time, hold a council, for ordering and directing the affairs of the state, according to the laws of the land." (Full NH Constitution)

A few historic decisions that have affected the Council over the years are:

  • In 1913 the Governor and Council, in a closed secretive session, appointed a Councilor to a paid position to the Superior Court.
  • In 1915 when the Legislature convened, it quickly passed a law that permanently barred councilors from any paid state appointment during his term of office, except for Notary Public, and Justice of the Peace. To this day a Councilor cannot even resign to get a political appointment.
  • In 1933, Governor John G. Winant opened the Council meetings to the public and with a few brief periods of exception, they have remained so ever since.
  • In 1966 an amendment to the State Constitution sharply increased the responsibilities of the Governor's office. The Governor was required to supervise and enforce the conduct of all the executive officials and agencies.
  • In 1979 the Legislature voted to put members of the Governor's Council on salary for the first time.
  • Councilor James Hayes initiated the policy of having the Governor submit nominations and let them be viewed by the public, before asking for Council action. This development met with such general public approval that it has been continued since its introduction in the late 1960's.
  • In 1985 Governor John H. Sununu named the Executive Council to a special commission and charged them with overseeing the state's transportation infrastructure long-range planning.
  • In 1986 the legislature established by statute "The Governor's Advisory Commission On Infrastructure" and required their active participation in prioritizing state highway projects. Councilor Bernard Streeter from Nashua was named the GACIT's first chairman.
  • In 1996 the legislature enacted a statute requiring the Executive Council to hold public confirmation hearings on all judicial nominations.
  • In 2013, the longest serving member of the Executive Council in the history of the state, Councilor Raymond S Burton, died in office after serving the North Country for 34 years.