My historical novels Rebel Puritan and The Reputed Wife, Herodias (Long) Hicks Gardner Porter, colonial New England, travels, and whatever else seizes my fancy...

Monday, May 28, 2012

Rogue’s Island: Last to Join the United States

U.S. Constitution
On 4 May 1776, Rhode Island became the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain and King George III.  The British army surrendered in 1781, and the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787.  Ironically, Rhode Island was amazingly slow to accept the Constitution.  It took the threat of federal action to get them to sign on May 29, 1790.  Why so slow?

1663 RI charter
Rhode Island’s Royal Charter of 1663 gave the colony unprecedented self-rule.  King Charles II had no reason to love the Puritans, who had beheaded his father and seized control of the English empire for nearly twenty years.  Rhode Island had been founded on freedom of religion.  Perhaps dismayed by the abuse of Quakers by New England’s Puritans, or perhaps in vengeance, Charles underscored that freedom in his charter:

King Charles II
“Our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony … shall be anyway molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion … They shall have and enjoy the benefit of our late act of indemnity and free pardon, as the rest of our subjects in other our dominions and territories have; and to create and make them a body politic or corporate, with the powers and privileges hereinafter mentioned.”

The charter affirmed Rhode Island’s elections of governor and assistants, their right to defend themselves and their borders, and their right to fish, ship, plant, and build as they pleased.  Rhode Island also could “ship and transport all and all manner of goods, chattels, merchandises … yielding and paying unto Us, our heirs and successors, such the duties, customs and subsidies, as are or ought to be paid or payable for the same.”  All Rhode Islanders were assured free passage and trade with the other colonies.  No longer would New England’s Puritans be able to bar Quakers.

The 1777 U.S. Articles of Confederation was quickly signed by Rhode Island.  It bound the colonies together, but weakly.  Rhode Island, wary of dominance by more powerful states, must have liked the provision that “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence."

George Washington at Trenton
Taxes would pay for the Revolution, but according to the Articles, “Expenditures by the United States of America will be paid by funds raised by state legislatures, and apportioned to the states based on the real property values of each.”  Tiny Rhode Island would not owe nearly the tax levied on Virginia or the other states.  Also, the Articles did not provide any means for compelling the states to provide revenue or troops.  George Washington said that the primary problem with the Articles of Confederation was “no money.”

With the Revolutionary War concluded, the United States Constitution was presented to the new country in 1787.  This document authorized a far stronger central government, and Rhode Island was not pleased.  The state hadn’t even sent representatives to the Constitutional Convention, because it wanted no part of a strong central government.

Enslaved Africans boarding ship
The state was independently wealthy.  Agriculture was important, but the real money came from the deep water harbors at Newport and Providence.  Rhode Island was the Triangle Trade’s American capitol, and sugar, rum, molasses, and trade goods flooded through the merchants’ hands.  Though Rhode Island law ordered gradual emancipation of enslaved blacks owned by its own citizens, that state’s merchants controlled 60 - 90% of the U.S. slave trade (1).

Taxes and duties were owed on these goods.  Great Britain wanted her share, but enforcement was lax, and much of it could be dodged by shady reporting.  After the Revolution, the United States’ government stepped up to demand import duties.

The new Constitution required that: “All Duties and Imposts, laid by any State on Imports or Exports, shall be for the Use of the Treasury of the United States; and all such Laws shall be subject to the Revision and Control of the Congress.”

Rhode Island and its merchants were strongly resistant to those import taxes, and refused to ratify the Constitution.  It took threats of taxing Rhode Island’s exports like a foreign countries’ – and a potential trade embargo and port blockade – to make the state reconsider.

Rhode Island presented a long list of proposed amendments and a bill of rights, including a provision that Congress shall not “lay direct taxes within this state,” but it finally ratified the Constitution on May 29, 1790.

My sources include:
A list of Rhode Island’s modifications to the Constitution:


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