Friday, October 4, 2013

Rhode Island: First to Rebel, Last to Sign

Another Great Share from Jo Ann Butler 
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Declaration of Independence signing
Did you know that Rhode Island was the first North American colony to sever ties with Great Britain – two months before the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4th, 1776?  However, Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the U.S. Constitution.  What’s up with that?
Roger Williams and Narragansetts
My immediate conclusion stemmed from the independent nature of Rhode Islanders.  The colony was settled by people who were either ejected from, or voluntarily abandoned Puritan Massachusetts after heated contention over – what else? – politics and religion.  Banished from Boston, Roger Williams beat it out of Salem ahead of the sheriff in 1636.  Anne Hutchinson, William Coddington, John Clarke and their compatriots comprised a mass exodus in 1638-39.  Religious and political tolerance were vital to these people.

Some of them had their idiosyncrasies.  Early Rhode Island was comprised of several towns circling Narragansett Bay, each led by charismatic leaders.  There were quarrels and dissension, but despite their ferocious independence, the various towns of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations united under a single government in 1647.

1663 Royal Charter
In 1663 King Charles II issued a new charter to Rhode Island.  The document reinforced Rhode Island’s freedom of religion, and granted them the ability to elect officers and enact laws – greater powers of self-rule than any other colony.

Gaspee burning
18thcentury Newport and Providence prospered as seaports, and Rhode Island became the northwestern linchpin of the Triangle Trade.  The colony had a reputation for shady shipping practices, smuggling, and harboring pirates.  In 1764 Great Britain’s Sugar Act strengthened trade regulations and raised the duty that Rhode Islanders paid for their molasses.  Resentment grew, and in July 1769 the sloop Libertywas sunk and burned in Newport harbor.  The ship had once belonged to John Hancock, but was seized by British customs a year earlier because it was once used to smuggle wine (though apparently not by Hancock).  In 1772 the Gaspee, a British customs boat, went aground and was burned near Providence.

Boston Tea Party
Boston’s Tea Party was on December 16th 1773.  In response, Great Britain’s Coercive Acts, known in America as the Intolerable Acts, soured relations further by closing Boston harbor until the tea was paid for, placing Massachusetts under direct royal governance, and quartering British troops in Boston homes.

The Intolerable Acts
On May 17th 1774 Providence’s leaders called for a general congress to resist Great Britain’s punitive policies.  Rhode Island’s General Assembly responded by electing Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward as delegates to an anticipated Continental Congress.  Providence held its own Tea Party on March 2nd 1775, and burned 300 pounds of India tea by “bringing in and casting into the fire, a needless herb, which for a long time has been detrimental to our liberty, interest, and health.”

A month later, after the battles at Concord and Lexington, Rhode Island’s government raised a navy of two ships, 24 cannons and swivel guns, crewed by 200 men.  At the same time, a 1500-man “army of observation” was also created, commanded by Nathaniel Greene.

Rhode Island state house
On May 4th in 1776, Rhode Island’s General Assembly met in the State House at Providence, and became the first American colony to renounce their allegiance to both Great Britain and King George III. Ten weeks later, on July 18, the Assembly ratified the Declaration of Independence.  Perhaps in an act of belated revenge, British forces invaded Newport in 1781, and seized the town’s land deeds, wills, and records.  The records were sunk in New York City harbor, creating endless frustration for historians and genealogists.

The British surrendered in 1781, and the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787.  Delaware was the first state to ratify the document in that year.  However, Rhode Island was slow to accept the Constitution, and did not sign until May 1790.  Why so slow?  I’ll get that post up soon!
Helpful links:
Rhode Island’s 1663 charter: USA State GEN
John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence:
Roger Williams and the Narragansetts: 

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