In many ways it had earned the nickname Rogue’s Island. Founded by Roger Williams when he had been expelled from Massachusetts colony for sedition and heresy, it had become the home of what many considered the most radical elements of the Puritans population in the colonies. While the colony itself had grown and prospered as a Mercantile hub, especially with the rise of the Transatlantic slave trade, the radical, rogue nature of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations had remained. By 1764 a group of Loyalists known as the Tory Junto, concerned with the revolutionary streak that ran through the Colony would go as far as to petition the Court of St. James to repeal the Colonies Royal Charter and replace it with Royal Government. In the end they would fail. They would be chased from Rhode Island. The colony, on the other hand, would remain largely unchanged, with many committed to the cause of Independence even in those early days.
That independent spirit that refused to relent to King and Parliament would become clear when, less than a decade later residents ran aground the HMS Gaspee, a British Custom’s schooner under the command of the increasingly zealous Lieutenant William Dudingston. While Admiral John Montagu, once a staunch defender of the unpopular Lieutenant Dudingston, had the commander sent back to England for Court Marshall, he found himself powerless to punish those who had burned the Royal Vessel in Narragansett Bay. Though charged with treason by a Royal Commission, it wouldn’t last as the matter was eventually dropped. Though it wasn’t the first or the last act of defiance by the Colony, it had demonstrated how far Rhode Island would go and the protection that its residents would be afforded by its Governor Joseph Wanton.
In that spirit of independence, the Rhode Island Legislature would meet on May 4th, 1776. It had been little over a year since the fighting had broken out at Lexington and Concord, since the first shots had been fired, engulfing the thirteen colonies in war, and violence and bloodshed, as they entered open rebellion against the British Crown. Rhode Island would eagerly send its troops. Merchants and privateers by trade, accomplished and creative sailors by experience, it would furnish the Continental Forces with the Commander-in-Chief of its Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, brother of former Governor turned Delegate to the Continental Congress. Samuel Hopkins. Now, as the Continental Congress met to discuss what this loose Confederation of Colonies would do, Rhode Island busied itself with its own future and the path to its own independence.
Drafted by Jonathan Arnold, who would go on to serve as a surgeon in the Continental Army before twice serving in the Congress of the Confederation, the preamble of the Resolution would read:
WHEREAS in all states, existing by compact, protection and allegiance are reciprocal, the latter being only due in consequence of the former:
And whereas George the Third, King of Great Britain, forgetting his dignity, regardless of the compact most solemnly entered into, ratified and confirmed, to the inhabitants of this Colony, by his illustrious ancestors, and till of late fully recognized by him—and entirely departing from the duties and character of a good King, instead of protecting, is 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, in order to compel us to submit to the most debasing and detestable tyranny, whereby we are obliged by necessity, and it becomes our highest duty, to use every means, with which God and nature have furnished us, in support of our invaluable rights and privileges; to oppose that power which is exerted only for our destruction.
In less than two hundred words they would lay out their case in the simplest possible terms, listing their grievances with the Crown and the Parliament, calling the policies of the Crown and Parliament to the forefront for their tyranny and oppression, before the resolution itself was read. Allegiance to the King was replaced with allegiance to the State, the courts were removed from Royal Authority and placed under home rule and the business of the government would no longer be conducted in the name of the George III or his heirs, it would be a government of Rhode Island.
With a stroke of the pen and a vote of the Legislature Rhode Island, long reputed as the most independent of the Colonies, would become the first of the thirteen to separate itself from the Crown and Mother Country, and declare its independence. No longer would it hold itself under the authority of a King in a far distant capital. No longer would it hold itself to the authority of a Parliament it was not represented in. Even as they closed that session of the Legislature, the feeling, the attitude and tone would be different for them as, instead of declaring, as they so often before had, “God save the King”, now they declared “God save the United Colonies.” Nicholas Cooke, elected to replace Governor Wanton in 1775, would write to General George Washington shortly after, “I also enclose a copy of an Act discharging the inhabitants of this Colony from allegiance to the King of Great Britain, which was carried in the House of Deputies, after a debate, with but six dissentient voices, there being upwards of sixty members present.”
Two months later, to the day, the Declaration of Independence, the great charter of American national freedom, would pronounce freedom across all Rhode Island’s sister colonies, finally breaking the ties that bound it to the British Empire, as sovereignty separate from the Crown rang through the colonies, and set these United Colonies on an irreversible course towards nationhood and republic. Proudly the delegates of Rhode Island would affix their names to the document. The signature of William Ellery would be second only to that of John Hancock, while Hopkins, now well advanced in years but still a force to be reckoned with, would seek to steady his palsied ridden right hand, declaring, “my hand trembles, but my heart does not.”
Once the war was over Rhode Island would become the fourth of the thirteen colonies to ratify the Articles of Confederation, that first charter of political freedom that governed the new United States, but it would, in that independent nature, initially refuse to take on the Constitution. It would only be when a Bill of Rights, declaring the rights and freedoms of the individual, was guaranteed that it would become the last of the original thirteen to adopt. Even then it would be reluctantly, having grown weary from those years of colonial rule of giving too much power and authority to a centralized government in a distant capital, in the hands of an Executive and Legislature removed from their daily lives.