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:


Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rhode Island: First to Rebel, Last to Sign

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
18th century 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 Liberty was 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:

John Trumbull’s Declaration of Independence:
Modern old State House:

Friday, May 4, 2012

There be Witches Too Many

Witches in 1493
I recently had a book signing for my novel, Rebel Puritan, and I was asked whether my historical fiction is based in Salem during the witchcraft frenzy.  Though my novel takes place in 17th-century New England, it occurs mostly in Rhode Island several decades before the Salem tragedy.  However, I get many such questions.

I am now writing the sequel to Rebel Puritan, and my real-life protagonist, Herodias Long, apparently lived until 1705.  I admit that I searched through Rhode Island’s records for a case of witchcraft to use in Herodias’ story.  After all, fine Salem witchcraft tales, such as Kathleen Kent’s The Heretics Daughter and The Afflicted Girls by Suzi Witten, have attracted many readers.  Why not borrow some for my sequel? 

Rhode Island let me down.  Though there was a 1647 death penalty for witchcraft in Rhode Island, there were no executions.  There was not a single trial.  Not even an accusation!

Bringing a witch to justice
Witchcraft is as old as humanity, but I confine this account to colonial New England.  The Pilgrims brought Europe’s beliefs with them, and when they wrote a code of laws in 1636, one of the five crimes for which a person would be put to death was “forming a solemn compact with the devil by way of witchcraft.”

Puritans arrived ten years after the Pilgrims, and they also had stern witchcraft laws.  In spring 1647 John Winthrop, governor of Massachusetts, wrote in his journal, “One ___ of Windsor [CT] was arraigned and executed at Hartford for a witch.”  One year later, three Massachusetts women were convicted and executed.  As John Palfrey wrote, “These cases appear to have excited no more attention than … any other felony, and no judicial record of them survives.”

A Puritan witch
Margaret Jones was one of the executed women, and Governor Winthrop described some of the deathly evidence against her.  She had a “malignant touch” and persons whom she “stroked or touched with any affection or displeasure … were taken with deafness, or vomiting, or other violent pains or sickness.”  She used herbal remedies such as aniseed, which should have been harmless, yet had “extraordinary violent effects.”  And thirdly, Margaret told people that if they did not use her remedies, they would never be healed, and her predictions often came true.  Considering that doctors of the day used such dubious ingredients as mercury and snails, and relied on bloodletting, it’s amazing that anyone survived.

John Josselyn’s book, New England’s Rarities Discovered, was published in 1672.  He comments that in the region there be witches too many … that produce many strange apparitions if you will believe report.”  Notice the date: Josselyn’s book appeared two decades before the Salem witchcraft accusations.

Bridget Bishop's 1692 hanging
Witchcraft accusations, trials, and hangings occurred in the Puritan colonies of Massachusetts, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Hampshire on a near-yearly basis.  The accusations came to a horrific climax in 1692 when 160 persons were charged with witchcraft.  Nineteen were hanged, and one was crushed to death in a futile attempt to make him plead guilty.

It didn’t take much to be suspected.  In 1656 Ann Hibbins was hanged in Boston, Massachusetts as a witch (contrary to popular belief, witches were not burned in America).  She met a pair of neighbors, and accurately guessed that they were talking about her.  Incredibly, that was enough to get her tried and executed.

Ann Hibbins’ husband died a year before she was tried.  That alone imperiled Goodwife Hibbins.  A goodly proportion of accused witches were middle aged women or elderly widows.  Festering ill-will often broke to the surface after a quarrelsome woman’s husband died.

Accusers and accused: witchcraft was a peculiarly female provenance.  Out of 116 persons on a list of accused witches, 37 were male.  79 of them were women, most of them elderly or middle-aged. Witchcraft accusations gave women a public voice they rarely possessed.  They accused and gave depositions, and acted out their possessions in court.  Ministers, governors, and judges treated them with respect, sometimes with deadly results.

A Monstrous Birth
Puritans were superstitious folk, and they examined every unusual event for its divine meaning.  An earthquake, bad storm, or a deformed newborn was a sign that God was very displeased.  It was up to them to figure out why.  If a witch was the reason for God's wrath, she would be dispatched, and quickly.

In contrast, look at Rhode Island, which was not Puritan.  Though over 300 persons were accused of witchcraft in17th century New England, only 3 of them were Rhode Island residents!!  Those three accusations weren’t even made in Rhode Island.

The 1640 accusation against Anne Hutchinson and two men of “Aquiday Island” widely cited online is merely a slanderous suspicion. John Winthrop, Massachusetts’ Puritan governor, wrote in his then-private journal that a Mr. Hales was so taken with Mrs. Hutchinson’s heresies that “it gave suspicion of witchcraft.”  If Rhode Island’s government was aware of Winthrop’s notion it took no notice.

So, why was Rhode Island immune to the witchcraft hysteria?  The people who lived there in the first 70 years were the same Englishmen who lived in Puritan Massachusetts and Connecticut.  They grew up with the same belief system and superstition brought over from England.  Where were Rhode Island’s accusations?

Anne Hutchinson's heresy trial
I suspect that the reason lies in Rhode Island’s origins.  Providence was first settled in 1636 by Roger Williams and a handful of followers who were ejected from Massachusetts as heretics and troublemakers.  In 1638-9 an influx of refugees arrived after Anne Hutchinson was convicted of heresy in Boston.  She was excommunicated and banished.  Several of her followers were also ejected, and many opted to escape Puritan persecution.  Nearly all went to Rhode Island, where they founded the towns of Portsmouth and Newport.

Rhode Islanders knew what it was like to experience baseless accusations and discrimination.  Tolerance was not just a notion – it was a way of life.  Quakers, Jews, Catholics, and Hugenots were welcomed in Rhode Island.  There certainly were disputes between neighbors in that tiny colony.  Thankfully they did not erupt into deadly accusations of witchcraft and Satan-worship.

Here is an incomplete list of witchcraft investigations from 1651 well into the 20th century:

History of New England  John Palfrey 1878
The Witchcraft Delusion in Colonial Connecticut  John M. Taylor
Entertaining Satan  John Putnam Demos 1982

Images from:

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