2007-06-07 / Editorial

"First in war, last in peace"

By Bruce Sundlun

When I left the governorship in 1995, I did not know Rhode Island history, but I now have been studying, lecturing and teaching it at URI for twelve years. It is by far the best history of the original thirteen colonies, especially in the beginning years.

Rhode Island was founded in 1636 by Roger Williams and four others, including Anne Hutchinson who founded Pocasset (Portsmouth) in 1638, the only woman in early American history; William Coddington founded Newport in 1639, William Arnold founded Pawtuxet in 1640, and William Gorton founded Warwick in 1646. They were all "banished" from Massachusetts. Rhode Island's charter from England in 1663, provided "political power shall rest in the people, and a form of government as the people may choose," plus "freedom of religion"- two worldwide firsts.

Militarily, Rhode Island was "First in War, and Last in Peace," for all the right reasons. Everyone knows about Paul Revere and Lexington and Concord, in Massachusetts, but that was in 1775. Before that date, Rhode Island in 1749 had sunk the British ship Liberty, with its stamps for the Stamp Act, and in 1772 captured the Gaspee and burned it at the water's edge. Esek Hopkins had attacked Fort Mason in Nassau in 1773 and stolen its gunpowder, muskets, and cannon, thereby arming Rhode Island well, and General Prescott, the British Commander in Newport, had been captured in his mistress' house, and paraded through downtown Providence in his underwear.

Every colony signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, Rhode Island included, but we "terminated our allegiance" from England 60 days earlier, on May 4. That date is still Rhode Island Independence Day.

The Yankee farmers in Kingston and mariners in Newport each refused to fight the British, who had invaded Newport, and planned to burn Providence (thereby cutting-off and iso- lating Massachusetts), so the 1st R.I. Regiment, the Black Regiment, composed of slaves bought with state money at market prices, plus a promise of their freedom if they fought, was formed and they won the Battle of Rhode Island in 1788. When Massachusetts was fi- nally invaded by the British, General Nathanael Green (who went on to be George Washington's best general) arrived with 1,000 Rhode Islanders to defend them.

1790 was our big year; we ratified the Constitution when Moses Brown decided under pressure it was better to have a state that could fight for abolition of slavery, rather than no state at all. James Madison had come to Rhode Island and threatened military dismemberment of Rhode Island if the Constitution was not ratified within 60 days. The Country Party and the abolitionists united and got it done. Moses Brown, a Yankee Congregationalist turned Quaker, headed up the abolitionists, and Stephen Hopkins was leader of the Country Party. They debated for three days, and then ratified by a vote of 34-32, when three abolitionists failed to show up on the fourth morning.

After ratification, because of Rhode Island's influence, the United States added paper money, a western boundary for the original colonies at the Appalachian Mountains, and a bicameral legislature and the Senate.

In 1790 Samuel Slater, an English technician, built the Slater Mills, with Moses Brown providing the money, thereby starting the Industrial Revolution. Rhode Island became rich as a state, or at least the mill owners got very rich. The textile trade sustained us through the 1920s, despite the Dorr Rebellion in 1842.

The Republicans ran the state politically until 1932, by excluding mill workers from voting through a $135 property tax qualification for voting, and malaportionment of the legislature. For example, Hopkinton, with a few residents had three representatives and Providence with 175,000 had four. In 1932 Democrat Theodore Francis Green was elected governor in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt landslide, and in 1935 the Bloodless Revolution straightened us out politically, and gave us a good cabinet-style government, which continues today. The Quinn-O'Hara Race-Track war attracted national attention in 1937. Since 1935 we have been relatively normal, 16 governors, five quite good, the others not worth too much comment, except one convicted and imprisoned. The Irish got to vote sooner because they enlisted and fought alongside the Yankees in the Civil War.

Eventually, over the years, Thomas Wilson Dorr's objectives of terminating the property qualification for voting and malportionment were eliminated by legislation, and in 1920 women got the right to vote

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