As our community prepares to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the 1772 burning of the HMS Gaspee, I have been reflecting, as I do many years, about the importance of time and place.
I think often of the late U.S. Senator John Chafee who, in his last formal address before his death, noted, “Every so often, there occurs an event so cataclysmic, so egregious, that it sparks a demand for national action.”
Certainly, there were many acts of rebellion that culminated in the Revolutionary War and the founding of our nation. But, could our country’s “First Blow for Freedom” have occurred elsewhere? It has been noted that the two most important requirements for great success are being in the right place and the right time, and then doing something about it. When the Gaspee ran aground, colonists took their opportunity.
Lt. William Dudingston, dispatched to Rhode Island in 1772 by King George III to enforce trade laws and thwart smuggling efforts, angered colonists by continually harassing ships and frequently delaying without cause vessels that had passed inspections in Newport.
The shores off Narragansett Parkway provided the right place and the right time for a courageous group of men whose anger at the king spurred them to action. The subsequent investigation to determine the culprits’ identity – and the silence that met the crown’s efforts – unified colonists and shaped the sense of place – of independence and freedom – upon which our country was founded.
Senator Chafee also said, “Different places on the face of the earth have different vital effluence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality.”
In Pawtuxet Village, the oldest of all New England communities, there is an extraordinary spirit of place. We sense the generations that have come before us, are affected still by actions and words of so long ago, and appreciate how each person has collectively shaped this place we are in now. Here, the spirit of freedom, of personal responsibility, of rebellion, of family, God and country, forged hundreds of years ago, is with us still.
Thomas Moore said, “Sometimes, the spirit of a place is so strong, you may think you see its face and glimpse it gamboling over a field or peeking out of a forest. This spirit we sense in each locality would once have been described as the scintilla or spark of its soul, the pearl in the oyster. It accounts for the magic of a region, and, without it, an acute sense of place dissipates into a vague and lazy feeling of nowhere … It’s when we lose a vivid sense of region and locality that the spirits of the place crawl back into hiding and human life becomes pale with the loss.”
And so, all of us who enjoy Gaspee Days must thank the dedicated members, past, present and future, of the Gaspee Days Committee. Throughout nearly five decades, they have given generously of their talent and sacrificed thousands of hours to make sure this celebration continues. Their determination and enthusiasm have ensured that the remarkable acts of brave defiance in 1772 are remembered and that their effects reverberate into the future.
President Lincoln said, “Honor to the Soldier, and Sailor everywhere, who bravely bears his country's cause. Honor also to the citizen who cares for his brother in the field, and serves, as he best can, the same cause – honor to him, only less than to him, who braves, for the common good, the storms of heaven and the storms of battle.”
This weekend, as we enjoy the fireworks, parade, Colonial encampments and time with family and friends, I ask you to recall not only those valiant men who rowed under cover of darkness toward the shore and those who protected their identities, but to remember as well all the men and women, who, since our nation’s founding, have sacrificed to assure for all of us the freedoms we cherish.