Then and Now

Rhode Island Independence Day


The General Assembly of Rhode Island decided on May 4, 1776 that it would repudiate its allegiance to the British king. Once again, Rhode Island, the home of the "otherwise minded," was going it alone. She became the first colony in the world to sever allegiance with England and did it a full two months ahead of the other 12 colonies. While some scholars may question if this act broke all ties with England, most Rhode Islanders feel that this "declaration of independence" added yet another first to her list of many.

The small colony had shown from the very beginning that it was going to follow a course of religious and political freedom, either with her sister colonies or alone if necessary. In 1663, Rhode Island obtained the first charter granting religious freedom along with a great deal of political liberty. Throughout the long colonial period she jealously guarded the liberties in her charter and felt that they were her rights and not privileges that could be taken away by a king or Parliament. Rhode Island opposed any action not in her best interest or which jeopardized her rights and her trade. By the latter part of the 18th century, Rhode Island had regarded her prosperous trade to be as much of a right as her political and religious liberty.

In July 1764, the first armed resistance against British rule in America occurred in Rhode Island when the Newport Council ordered the guns at Ft. George on Goat Island to open fire on the British customs schooner, St. John. In December 1764, the General Assembly published Stephen Hopkins' “Rights of Colonies Examined.” This gave Americans the philosophy behind the basic slogan of the revolution, "no taxation without representation." Rhode Island Governor Samuel Ward was the first and only colonial governor to refuse to swear that he would implement the Stamp Act. Stamp Act riots in Newport and Providence were not the first, but they were the most violent.

It was in Rhode Island that the first customs schooner, the Liberty, was burned and destroyed in 1769 and it was off the coast of Warwick, at what is now Gaspee Point, that the first blood of the Revolution was shed. This celebrated incident occurred when a group of Rhode Islanders led by Abraham Whipple shot the British captain, William Dudingston, of the Gaspee and turned that vessel on June 9, 1772. This overt act of defiance set in motion a series of events that led to a complete break between England and her colonies. Partially because of the fear of reprisals from the burning of the Gaspee, Rhode Island and Virginia started the first Committees of Correspondence in the colonies, an important propaganda tool that would make colonists aware of what was going on and would spread opposition to arbitrary British rule.

When the Continental Congress was called for in June l774, the small colony was the first to respond by selecting Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward as our delegates. When word reached Rhode Island of the armed resistance at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775 she immediately raised 1,500 troops to help Massachusetts. When her governor, Joseph Wanton, refused to sign commissions for officers for these troops, he was deposed by the General Assembly and replaced by Nicholas Cooke. Rhode Island troops were in Massachusetts as early as June 1775 and able to take part in the important battle of Bunker Hill.

In that same month, June 1775, Rhode Island established another first by creating the first colonial navy under Commodore Abraham Whipple. Whipple on his sloop, Katy, captured the British tender, Diana, and became responsible for the first naval battle of the Revolution. By August 1775, Hopkins persuaded the Continental Congress to create a navy, select a Rhode Islander, Esek Hopkins, as the commander-in-chief, and to take the Katy as one of its first sloops. In March and April this fledgling navy dominated by Rhode Islanders captured Nassau and two British warships, the Bolton and the Hawke.

With this kind of background it is no wonder that Rhode Island would surge ahead of the other British colonies in seeking independence. She had been sorely plagued by the British frigate Rose in her waters, and much of our actions had been directed against her. When the Rose left Rhode Island waters to be refitted at Halifax in April 1776, John Brown persuaded the General Assembly that this would be a good time to rid Rhode Island of whatever legal rights the Rose had. If Rhode Island were no longer a British colony, she would not have to suffer the indignities of the British fleet in her waters. Obviously, she realized that the British government would not allow this and that its wrath would descend upon the small colony, but nevertheless Rhode Island made her commitment to independence.

The General Assembly asked Colonel Jonathan Arnold to prepare a resolution that would dissolve our bonds with England. He did so, and his “declaration of independence” was passed by the Assembly on May 4, 1776. It stated, “Whereas...George the Third, King of Britain forgetting his dignity...and entirely departing from the duties and Character of a good King...sending Fleets and Armies to America...In order to compel us to submit to the most debasing and detestable Tyranny whereby we are oppose that Power which is exerted only for our destruction...An Act, entitled, An Act for the more effectual securing to His Majesty the Allegiance of his Subjects in his Colony and Dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, be and the same is hereby repealed….”

With this act, Rhode Island repudiated her allegiance to the King of England and in effect declared her independence. Two months later, the Continental Congress voted to adopt Thomas Jefferson’s magnificently worded Declaration of Independence and Rhode Island delegates, Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery, immediately signed it. By the July 18 the Rhode Island General Assembly ratified it. When Rhode Island assumed independence she kept her Charter of 1663 intact, except to change the word “colony” to “state.” The feeling was that independence was but a continuation of the freedoms and liberties that she had enjoyed in the past, and as a free state she did not require a new constitution. Practically all of the 55,000 inhabitants of Rhode Island cheered the event and the General Assembly officially appointed Nathanael Greene, one of the most remarkable generals of the century, as the commander-in-chief of the state’s militia to defend her new independence.

Rhode Island proved again and again that she would not bow to tyranny no matter what the pressures of the times dictated.


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