Rhode Island’s Path to Independence from Great Britain
Rhode Island was one of the 13 Original Colonies that declared independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. The colony started as the settlement of Providence, led by Puritan outcast, Roger Williams, as a haven for religious freedom. Over time, more religious dissenters found their way to Rhode Island and the settlements eventually merged together when Rhode Island received a charter from King Charles II in 1663. The charter gave the people of Rhode Island the right to govern themselves and it also guaranteed Religious Freedom. It said that a “flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained with full liberty in religious concernments.” The original charter served as the basis for government in Rhode Island and, as far as the people were concerned, justified their resistance to British policies that caused the American Revolution.
Quick Facts About Rhode Island and the American Revolution
- Events: Fort George Fires on HMS St. John, Gaspee Affair, Newport Stamp Act Riot, Providence Tea Party
- Stamp Act Congress Delegates: Metcalf Bowler, Henry Ward
- Signers of the Articles of Association: Stephen Hopkins, Samuel Ward
- Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery
- Signers of the Articles of Confederation: William Ellery, Henry Marchant, John Collins
- Ratification of Articles of Confederation: February 9, 1778
Coming of the American Revolution to Rhode Island
After the French and Indian War, France ceded most of its territory in North America — known as New France — to Great Britain. The agreement that ended the war, the 1763 Treaty of Paris, also made the Native American Indian tribes living throughout the Great Lakes Region subjects of the King. One of the Ottawa chiefs, Pontiac, coordinated an uprising with other tribes. In the spring of 1763, the tribes attacked British forts and settlements from Niagara to Detroit. King George III responded to Pontiac’s Rebellion by issuing the Proclamation of 1763, which reserved the Ohio Country for the Indians as hunting grounds. This upset American political leaders and colonists, who wanted to expand westward. In order to defend the new western frontier — and keep Americans from moving in — Parliament decided to establish a new standing army in North America. Unfortunately, the recent wars crippled the British Treasury and there was not enough money to pay for the army. Prime Minister George Grenville looked for ways to raise money from the colonies. Since the 1650s, Parliament had raised money through a series of laws that regulated business — the Navigation Acts. Under those laws, taxes were paid based on shipments of goods, however, thanks to an unwritten policy called Salutary Neglect, tax collectors ignored their duty and failed to collect taxes — as long as the colonies remained loyal to Britain. In 1762, Grenville decided it was time to make drastic changes to British policy regarding the colonies. First, he ended Salutary Neglect by ordering tax collectors and the Royal Navy to enforce the Navigation Acts. Then, in an unprecedented move, he devised a new bill — the Sugar Act — that levied taxes on the colonies for one reason — to raise money for the Treasury.
Rhode Island Opposition to the Sugar Act
After the French and Indian war, Rhode Island, like all of New England, suffered from an economic depression. In 1763, there were about 30 rum distilleries in Rhode Island. They depended on molasses, and their customers depended on their rum — and so did the Colonial System of Triangular Trade. Rhode Island merchants would be hit hard by the Sugar Act, which would increase their cost of doing business. The Rhode Island General Assembly sent a written protest to the Board of Trade before the bill was passed, but it was no use. The Sugar Act was given Royal Assent on April 5, 1764, and went into effect on September 29.
The colonists met the passage of the Sugar Act with resistance — not just because of economics — but because they believed raising revenue through taxes was unconstitutional. They believed it was a violation of their rights as Englishmen under the English Bill of Rights. Colonists started to openly protest against Parliament’s infringement on their business affairs. One of them was Stephen Hopkins, the Governor of Rhode Island.
Stephen Hopkins — Rights of the Colonies Examined
Hopkins questioned the constitutionality of the Sugar Act in “The Rights of the Colonies Examined.” He wrote, “. . . Have not the colonies here, at all times when called upon by the crown, raised money for the public service, done it as cheerfully as the Parliament have done on like occasions? Is not this the most easy, the most natural, and most constitutional way of raising money in the colonies? What occasion then to distrust the colonies—what necessity to fall on an invidious and unconstitutional method to compel them to do what they have ever done freely? Are not the people in the colonies as loyal and dutiful subjects as any age or nation ever produced; and are they not as useful to the kingdom, in this remote quarter of the world, as their fellow-subjects are who dwell in Britain?”
He criticized Parliament for passing a law that not only hurt colonial merchants, but also the British merchants. Hopkins asked why Parliament would pass a law, “to cramp the trade and ruin the interests of many of the colonies, and at the same time lessen in a prodigious manner the consumption of the British manufactures in them?”
Repeal of the Sugar Act
Parliament repealed the Sugar Act in 1766 but continued to pass laws that were intended to cut down on smuggling and bribery and force colonial merchants to pay shipping taxes. Parliament also passed laws like the Currency Act and Stamp Act, that increased taxes in other areas and increased its control over business and government in the colonies. All of this frustrated and shocked Americans. As Hopkins wrote in his pamphlet, “The colonies are at so great a distance from England that the members of Parliament can generally have but little knowledge of their business, connections, and interest…”
Fort George Fires on the HMS St. John
The Sugar Act affected Rhode Island because Rhode Island distillers were dependent on molasses to make rum. Merchants smuggled molasses to avoid paying taxes on their shipments. British ships were sent to patrol the waters off the coast of New England, to enforce the act and catch smugglers. The presence of the ships led to run-ins between the colonists and crewmembers, and one indecent led to shots being fired on a British ship, the HMS St. John.
In July 1764, the St. John was on patrol in Narragansett Bay. Some of the crewmembers went into Newport, Rhode Island, and caused some trouble. First, they were accused of stealing some chickens, and then they tried to force a man to join their crew, an act known as impressment. A fight ensued and the townspeople of Newport drove the crewmen off.
The local authorities wanted to arrest the crewmen, but their captain kept them on the ship and would not allow them to leave. This upset the townspeople, who then learned the crewmen were going to try to escape.
Fort George was located on Goat Island and guarded the passage out of Narragansett Bay into open waters. Orders were sent from Newport to the fort, ordering the St. John to be disabled if it tried to get out of the harbor.
The St. John set sail. When the Rhode Islanders at the fort saw the ship approaching, they tried to hail it, but the St. John ignored them and continued to sail by. One cannon, under the command of Daniel Vaughn, opened fire on the ship. 13 shots were fired toward the St. John. Some of them missed the mark, but others damaged the main sail. However, the damage was not enough to disable the ship and it sailed out of the harbor.
A historical marker on the island says:
By order of Governor Stephen Hopkins and members of the Rhode Island General Assembly, thirteen 18-pounder cannnon shots were fired from Fort George on this spot at the British Navy’s 8-gun schooner St. John on July 9, 1764 in order to protect Newport’s principal industry, smuggling. The St. John, moderately damaged, quickly sailed away from Newport. These were the first shots in resistance to British authority in America, leading directly to the American Revolution.
Stamp Act Crisis in Rhode Island
In 1765, Parliament followed the Sugar Act with another tax bill that was more upsetting to Americans — the Stamp Act. This new act required publishers and printers to use a special paper with stamps applied to it, for all legal documents and printed materials in the American colonies, including newspapers, pamphlets, and even playing cards. The Stamp Act is considered a direct tax because it affected more Americans than the Sugar Act. It affected nearly everyone — from farmers to lawyers. Anyone that conducted business would be forced to pay the stamp tax — if it was enforced.
The Stamp Act went into law on March 22, 1765, but did not take effect until November 1. Americans found out it passed in April. It was announced in the Boston Gazette on April 4. Americans had almost 7 months to take action to keep it from being enforced and have it repealed. The so-called Stamp Act Crisis had begun. It was marked by riots in the streets, violence against British officials, vandalism, and the rise of the Sons of Liberty.
Augustus Johnson, Stamp Agent for Rhode Island
Someone was appointed to distribute the stamped paper in each colony. For Rhode Island, the man was Augustus Johnson.
Rhode Island Stamp Act Resolves
On September 15, Rhode Island followed the lead of Virginia and passed its own set of resolutions against the Stamp Act. The Assembly argued:
- The inhabitants of Rhode Island had the same rights as natural-born Englishmen.
- The right to levy internal taxes belonged to the Rhode Island Assembly.
- Parliament did not have the constitutional authority to levy taxes on Rhode Island.
Newport Stamp Act Riot
On August 27, effigies of Augustus Johnson, the Stamp Agent for the colony, and two supporters of the Crown, Dr. Thomas Moffat, and Martin Howard, were hanged from a gallows in front of the Colony House. That night, a crowd gathered and the effigies were cut down and burned. The next day, the houses of all three men were attacked and vandalized. All three of them fled from town and boarded HMS Cygnet, which was in the harbor. On the 29th, Johnson went back to shore where he was met by the mob. He was forced to sign a paper that said he would not carry out the duties of the stamp distributor.
Rhode Island and the Stamp Act Congress
On June 8, 1765, the Massachusetts Assembly sent a circular letter to the legislatures of the other colonies inviting them to send delegates to a congress in New York to “consult together on the present circumstances of the colonies.” From October 7 through October 25, 1765, delegates from 9 of the 13 colonies met in New York to discuss a unified colonial response to the Stamp Act. The Stamp Act Congress was unique because it was called for by the colonies, not British authorities.
- Only the colonial assemblies had a right to tax the colonies.
- Trial by jury was a right, and the use of Admiralty Courts was abusive.
- Colonists possessed all the Rights of Englishmen, which were laid out in the English Bill of Rights.
- Parliament could not represent the colonists, because the colonists had no representation in either house.
The Congress also wrote letters to the King and both Houses of Parliament that explained their objections to the Stamp Act. By the time the letters were sent to Britain, Parliament was already discussing the repeal of the Stamp Act.
When Bowler and Ward returned to Rhode Island, they submitted the Declaration of Rights and Grievances to the Rhode Island Assembly. The Assembly accepted and approved the document.
On March 18, 1766, Parliament repealed the Stamp Act, primarily due to complaints from British merchants that it was hurting their ability to do business in the colonies. However, on that same day, Parliament passed the Declaratory Act, which declared its ability to pass legislation to govern the colonies.
Silas Downer and the Providence Sons of Liberty
During the Stamp Act Crisis, groups calling themselves the “Liberty Boys” or “Sons of Liberty,” started to form. A group formed in Providence, and one of the members was Silas Downer. Downer was a lawyer who served as the clerk for the Rhode Island Assembly. Downer was the secretary for the Providence Sons of Liberty. Downer was responsible for setting up a correspondence with Sons of Liberty groups in Boston, Newport, Norwich, New York, and Philadelphia.
William Ellery and the Newport Sons of Liberty
In 1766, Captain William Read deeded a plot of land to William Ellery and the Newport Sons of Liberty. Ellery was a lawyer from Newport and helped found Rhode Island College in 1764. Ellery was one of the leaders of the mob that forced Augustus Johnson to resign his position as Stamp Agent.
Rhode Island and the Townshend Acts
After Parliament gave itself the authority to tax the colonies, it passed the Townshend Acts, which levied taxes on various goods and products that were popular in America, including tea. The Townshend Acts also established the American Commissioners of Customs in Boston to help increase compliance with trade acts.
Silas Downer Speaks at the Providence Liberty Tree
On July 25, 1768, a Liberty Tree was dedicated in Providence. Silas Downer gave a speech and disputed the authority of the Declaratory Act and Parliament. He summed up his opposition to British policies by saying, “I cannot be persuaded that the Parliament of Great Britain have any lawful right to make any laws whatsoever to bind us, because there can be no fountain from which such right can flow…we must be governed by our own parliaments, in which we can be in person, or by representation.”
Repeal of the Townshend Acts
Enforcement of the Townshend Acts led to the Boston Massacre in March 1770. Soon after, most of the taxes that were part of the Townshend Acts were repealed, but the enforcement of the Navigation Acts continued. The only tax that remained was the tax on tea, and that was for the purpose of helping the British East India Tea Company stay in business.
The Gaspee Affair
In Rhode Island, merchants continued to smuggle goods and the Royal Navy responded by sending more ships to patrol the waters of Narragansett Bay to help enforce the shipping laws. One of the ships patrolling the area was the HMS Gaspee, under the command of Lieutenant William Dudingston. Dudingston had a reputation for harassing colonial ships, even if they passed inspection by customs officials.
Hannah Pursues the Gaspee
On June 9, 1772, the Gaspee attempted to stop and search the packet sloop Hannah as it left Newport, Rhode Island, bound for Providence. When the crew of the Gaspee saw the Hannah, they chased after it, but the ship refused to stop. Its captain, Benjamin Lindsey, intentionally sailed into the shallow water around present-day Gaspee Point. The Gaspee followed and ran aground. The Hannah sailed on to Providence.
Sons of Liberty Attack the Gaspee
When the Hannah reached port, Lindsey told some people, including members of the Sons of Liberty, about the Gaspee. John Brown and Joseph Bucklin held a meeting at a local tavern, where they came up with a plan to destroy the Gaspee before it could escape.
Early the next morning, a group of men, led by Abraham Whipple, sailed to the Gaspee and ordered the British to evacuate the ship. Dudingston refused and shots were fired between the crew of the Gaspee and the Whipple’s men. Dudingston was shot twice and badly wounded. The British evacuated the ship and Whipple and his men proceeded to set it on fire. It burned until the flames reached the ship’s gunpowder — and then it exploded.
Investigation Into the Gaspee Affair
British officials were outraged and launched an investigation. However, no one came forward to identify the men who attacked the Gaspee. Stephen Hopkins, who was the Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court, ruled that Dudingston’s action against the Hannah was illegal. On June 23, the investigation into the Gaspee Affair ended.
An Important Moment in the American Revolution
The outcome of the Gaspee Affair was a significant moment during the American Revolution. Regardless of what their intentions were, the attack showed Americans were willing to take violent action against the British.
The Intercolonial Committees of Correspondence
The Gaspee Affair raised concerns in the other colonies, because of how the investigation was handled. In March 1773, the Virginia House of Burgesses set up a Committee of Correspondence for the purpose of communicating directly with the other colonies.
Rhode Island responded by setting up its own committee. The members were Stephen Hopkins, Moses Brown, Henry Marchant, and Henry Ward.
Tea Act and the Tea Crisis
By 1773, the British East India Company was in financial distress due in part to the colonial boycott and access to smuggled tea. The company had a large surplus of tea it needed to sell. In order to help the company sells its surplus tea, Parliament passed the Tea Act. The bill gave the company a monopoly on the sale of tea in America, and it also maintained the British position that Britain could tax the colonies without granting them representation in Parliament.
The Tea Act of 1773 led to the Tea Crisis — a series of demonstrations and protests throughout the colonies. In some ports, the ships that brought tea to the colonies were not allowed to land and were sent back to Britain. However, in Boston, Governor Thomas Hutchinson allowed the ships into the harbor, but the Sons of Liberty blocked the crews from offloading the cargo. This led to the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773.
Although there were similar Tea Parties in other colonies, things were quiet in Rhode Island. Most likely due to the fact that it had only been a year since the Gaspee Affair. In many towns throughout Rhode Island, colonists simply refused to drink tea.
Parliament Unleashes the Coercive Acts
Parliament responded to the Boston Tea Party by passing a series of laws known as the Coercive Acts — or Intolerable Acts. The laws were mostly meant to punish Boston for the Tea Party, but when news of the first law — the Boston Port Act — reached America, it was clear that any colony could suffer the same fate as Massachusetts. Boston asked for the other colonies to join them in a “Solemn League and Covenant” and boycott British goods. However, some of the other colonies were unsure of how to proceed. Virginia suggested holding a meeting of representatives of all the colonies, in order to discuss a unified response. By the time the colonies agreed and the delegates were elected, news reached the colonies of three more acts intended to punish Boston and Massachusetts and a fifth act that dramatically altered the boundaries and laws of the Province of Quebec.
First Continental Congress
The Rhode Island Assembly agreed to send delegates to the meeting, which is known as the First Continental Congress. On June 15, 1774, the Assembly selected Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward to go to Philadelphia.
Congress adopted the Suffolk Resolves, discussed a plan of union, and produced a document called the Declaration and Resolves that was sent to King George III. Congress decided to implement a trade boycott and informed the King the boycott would go into effect if the Coercive Acts were not repealed.
In order to enforce the trade boycott, Congress formed the Continental Association. Congress also made one final critical decision — to reconvene in May 1775 if the Coercive Acts were not repealed.
Rhode Island’s delegates signed the Articles of Association that set up the Continental Association.
Providence Tea Party
Rhode Islanders finally joined in the protest against British tea when some tea was burned in Market Square in Providence. On March 2, 1775, the Town Crier reported that tea would be burned and all “true friends of the Country, Lovers of Freedom and Haters of Shackles and Hand-cuffs, are hereby invited to testify their good Disposition, by bringing in and casting into the Fire a needless Herb, which for a long time hath been highly detrimental to our Liberty, Interest and Health.” Two days later, it was reported that 300 pounds of tea were destroyed in the fire.
Second Continental Congress
By the time the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia on May 10, 1775, the American Revolutionary War was almost a month old. The Battles of Lexington and Concord took place on April 19, and the Siege of Boston was underway. While the members of Congress were taking their seats, a colonial militia force, led by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, was celebrating the capture of Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York. Within 6 weeks the Battle of Bunker Hill took place. American troops lost in the field of battle, but won a moral victory — and inflicted heavy casualties on British forces.
Rhode Island’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress were Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward.
The Olive Branch Petition
Congress made one final attempt to reconcile with Britain. On July 5, 1775, it approved the Olive Branch Petition and sent it to the King on July 8. Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward signed the document, which was rejected by the King.
Rhode Island Declares Independence — May 4, 1776
On May 4, 1776, the Rhode Island Assembly passed an act that declared the colony an independent state. The Assembly accused the King of “endeavoring to destroy the good People of this Colony, and of all the United Colonies, by sending Fleets and Armies to America, to confiscate our Property, and spread Fire, Sword and Desolation, throughout our Country…”
William Ellery Replaces Samuel Ward
Samuel Ward contracted smallpox and was too sick to continue to serve as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. The same day Rhode Island declared independence, the Assembly voted to have William Ellery replace Ward. Ward went to Philadelphia and took his seat there on March 16. Unfortunately, Ward, an icon in Rhode Island politics, died on March 26.
Declaration of Independence
On June 7, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced a resolution that called for the colonies to declare independence from Great Britain. The motion was seconded by John Adams of Massachusetts and then approved on July 2, 1776. The Rhode Island delegates voted in favor of the resolution and then approved the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson. In August, Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery signed a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
Articles of Confederation
As the delegates to the Second Continental Congress were drafting the Declaration of Independence, they were also developing a plan for unifying the thirteen colonies. A Committee of Thirteen was appointed, with one delegate from each colony, that drafted the Articles of Confederation. Stephen Hopkins represented Rhode Island.
The Articles of Confederation were adopted by Congress on November 15, 1777. William Ellery, Henry Marchant, and John Collins were Rhode Island’s delegates to Congress at the time, and they signed the document.
The Articles were sent to the state legislatures for review. Rhode Island ratified the document on February 9, 1778. On February 2, 1781, Maryland was the last state to agree to the Articles.
The United States started operation under the Articles of Confederation — the nation’s first constitution — on March 1, 1781. The first session of the Congress of the Confederation was held on March 2.
Rhode Island’s delegates at the first session of the Confederation Congress were Ezekiel Cornell, William Ellery, Daniel Mowry Jr., and James Mitchell Varnum.
End of the American Revolutionary War
On September 3, 1783, the United States and Great Britain agreed to the Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. The primary provisions of the Treaty of Paris established the independence of the United States and ended hostilities between the two nations. The Congress of the Confederation ratified the treaty on January 14, 1784.
This article is part of a series of entries about the Rhode Island Colony. The focus is on Rhode Island’s role in the significant events of the American Revolution that took place from 1763 to 1781. It is not intended to provide a comprehensive look at the Colony and other important topics, such as Native American Indian Tribes, Slavery, or the colony’s role in the American Revolutionary War.