There is perhaps no better known expression from the American Revolutionary period than “no taxation without representation.” In July 1768, Silas Downer, a member of the Providence Sons of Liberty, delivered a fiery discourse on that very subject at the dedication of the town’s liberty tree. Downer argued that Parliament could “pass no laws” that could bind the colonies. Four years later, Providence sea captain Abraham Whipple and merchant John Brown, one of the richest men in the state, led a raiding party to burn the British revenue schooner Gaspee. The destruction of the Gaspee was a loud demonstration from Rhode Islanders that they were not going to consent to what they deemed to be unconstitutional taxation policies.
After the Peace of Paris was signed in 1783, bringing a formal end to the War of Independence, Rhode Island merchants, a class that compromised the bulk of the Revolutionary leaders, lost their access to the lucrative sugar trade with the British islands in the West Indies. No longer would Rhode Island vessels be able to carry fish, livestock, grain and clothing to the vast slave plantations in the Caribbean. This unfavorable balance of trade sent much needed hard currency out of the state and, as a result, debtors, mostly farmers, struggled to pay their loans. Holding a vast portion of their debt was the state’s powerful merchant class. The merchant-controlled General Assembly then raised taxes to a level not seen before. Many farmers lost their land to foreclosure. The former proponents of revolution now seemed, in the eyes of many in the agrarian areas of the state, no different than the British. As the situation worsened, many conservatives in Providence and other coastal towns feared a farmers’ revolt.
By 1785 annual interest payments on the state debt (totaling roughly £94,000) stood at £11,000. That same year, the General Assembly imposed a tax equal to the interest in order to pay down its debt. This tax was passed in compliance with the $3 million federal requisition set by Congress. As Rhode Island Historian Laureate Patrick T. Conley has argued, while the merchants controlled the General Assembly, “vigorous efforts were made to collect those taxes that had been levied to meet the interest on the continental debt.”
The profit that the Brown brothers and other merchants, including Jabez Bowen, stood to make from the 1785 requisition helps explain the vehement opposition it generated in the agrarian areas of the state. Nearly two-thirds of the requisition was to be used to pay off bondholders. Interest was to be paid on the face value of the war bonds, not the price speculators paid for them following the Revolution. A significant portion of this debt was bottled up in the hands of Providence merchants. Nicholas Brown, the older brother of John Brown, for example, acquired Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut and United States notes with a total face value exceeding £80,000.
By the middle of the 1780s, two hostile political camps were vying for control of Rhode Island. The merchant class (Town Party), which was largely dominated by residents of Providence, was pitted against the debtor-relief class (Country Party). The Country Party feared that greedy, moneyed interests in Providence and other seaport towns were undermining the economic independence and political rights of their humbler countrymen. Their fears resembled the grievances expressed by indebted farmers in western Massachusetts who were being organized by Daniel Shays, a former soldier in the Revolutionary War.
Leading the charge in support of the 1785 federal requisition was Providence’s David Howell and the Brown brothers. Ironically, Howell and the Browns were past opponents of federal imposts. In 1782, Howell actually entered into a war-of-words with Thomas Paine, author of the influential Revolutionary tract Common Sense, when the latter traveled to Providence to advocate for a proposed 5% federal impost. Rhode Island’s steadfast opposition to the impost killed the scheme and prevented the feeble Congress under the Articles of Confederation from raising revenue. By 1785, Howell and the Brown brothers, particularly John and Nicholas, had begun to sing a different tune. However, an electoral revolution ruined their aspirations for state-level cooperation with the federal requisition and their hopes of reaping a huge financial reward with their cache of war bonds.
By the spring of 1786, agrarian interests had orchestrated a political takeover, removing the mercantile interests from their seats of power and instituting a complicated scheme to issue paper money. The Country Party was committed to printing paper money that citizens could use to discharge their tax responsibilities and debts. When the legislature convened in June, it approved an issuance of £100,000 in paper bills, which was made available to those borrowers who had some type of security, namely landed property. The Assembly even passed a “force” act, which imposed criminal penalties on anyone who refused the paper as legal tender. When in 1786 Revolutionary War hero and cabinetmaker John Trevett tried to pay a bill owed to Newport butcher John Weeden with the new paper money, Weeden refused it, which led to the state’s most famous court case, Trevett vs. Weeden. Trevett’s complaint was dismissed on the ground that the law authorizing punishment without a trial by jury violated the state’s constitution.
In many respects the movement to write a new federal Constitution in 1787, which prohibited state-issued paper, was rooted in struggles similar to the one that took place in Rhode Island in 1786. When it came time to vote on the February 1787 resolution to send delegates to Philadelphia for the constitutional convention, the Rhode Island General Assembly, now dominated by the Country Party, refused to even consider the measure. “Your unhappy deluded State still adds Infamy to Infamy, no new projects of Villainy are any where brought to such rare perfection as in your Political Assemblies,” wrote the Philadelphia merchant John Francis, who was engaged to John Brown’s daughter Abby.
At their February 1788 session, the General Assembly, in violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution, authorized a popular referendum on the document, which the Federalist towns of Providence and Newport boycotted. The Constitution was defeated by the lopsided margin of 2,708 to 237 in March. The Assembly continued to reject calls for the convening of a ratifying convention. In May 1788, Nicholas Brown wrote to Virginian Richard Henry Lee outlining a plan for “Newport, Providence, Bristol, Warren and East Greenwich to breakaway and join the Union on their own terms.” Brown did not acknowledge the fact that there was considerable opposition in the state to the Constitution’s explicit protections for slavery, including a provision that mandated that the international slave trade stay open for at least twenty years. Nicholas’s brother Moses had led the charge in 1787 to prevent state citizens from participating in the notorious trafficking.
In late June 1788, when New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify the proposed document that emerged from the Philadelphia convention, the required three-fourths majority was reached. In anticipation of upcoming Fourth of July celebrations, the Providence Federalists, who were in charge of organizing the event, decided to include a celebration of the new Constitution. A mass celebration complete with an ox roast was set to take place on Federal Plain (now Federal Hill). The situation turned dire, however, when Anti-Federalists showed up armed and ready for a fight. Peace was restored only after the Federalists agreed not to even mention the Constitution. In November 1789, North Carolina became the twelfth state to ratify, leaving Rhode Island as the only state now outside the Union. When President George Washington made a trip through New England, to the embarrassment of many in Rhode Island he intentionally avoided the state.
By mid-May 1790, the costal towns of Providence, Bristol and Newport were threatening to secede and enter the Union on their own terms. This plan actually received approval from John Adams, the Vice President of the United States. Finally, Newport Representative Henry Marchant managed to get a bill passed that called for a constitutional convention to convene March 1, 1790, in South Kingstown. It was just in time. Congress had plans to pass punitive measures to harm Rhode Island’s trade, but held off after receiving news about the convention. However, the convention could not finish its work and adjourned after agreeing to meet in two months in Newport.
A vote was finally taken on May 29, 1790, at the Second Baptist Church in Newport, with four opposition members absent. Itwas extremely close—34 for and 32 against—the slimmest margin of any state. The May 31 edition of the Providence Gazette spoke of a “discharge of thirteen cannon” and further “demonstrations of joy” that were expected to take place. Delegates also drafted 18 amendments and forwarded them to Congress. The ideas expressed in the second and third amendments focused on the power of the people, and they drew directly from Roger Williams’s 1644 tract, The Bloody Tenant, in which he wrote that “the sovereign, original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people.” The third amendment said that the “powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary.” In the early 1840s, during a major constitutional crisis, Providence lawyer Thomas Wilson Dorr invoked these ideas when he called for a change in the state’s archaic governing structure. In 1844, during his treason trial at the Colony House in Newport, Dorr reminded the court of the language in the third amendment. Unfortunately for Dorr, this history lesson did not save him from the state prison on Providence’s cove.
(Credit for banner image: Russell J. DeSimone)
Historian Patrick T. Conley’s Democracy in Decline: Rhode Island’s Constitutional Development, 1776-1841 (1977) has stood the test of time as the most detailed and authoritative discussion of the ratification debate in Rhode Island. See also Conley’s invaluable, An Album of Rhode Island History, 1636-1986 (1986). Recently, Conley served as consulting editor on the three volumes devoted to Rhode Island’s ratification story in the landmark series, The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, volumes 24-26 (2011-2013) edited by historian John P. Kaminski. In writing this article, the authors relied on Woody Holton’s magisterial, Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution (2007) and Charles Rappleye’s award-winning, Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade and the American Revolution (2006). Historian Pauline Maier’s Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 (2010) is the definitive narrative account of the ratification debate. Older, but still useful works include, Frank G. Bates, Rhode Island and the Formation of the Union (1967) and Irwin H. Polishook, Rhode Island and the Union (1969). See also Providence attorney Theodore Foster’s minutes from the March 1790 convention, which was edited by Robert C. Cotner in 1929, and Providence’s City Archivist Paul Campbell’s 1972 Master’s Thesis in the Providence College Archives.