A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island in the Revolutionary Era

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview

4
The World of the Wealthy

THE ABUNDANT EVIDENCE pointing to a mercantile community bound together in common interest also suggests that this economic interdependence took place within a structured society: a society in which one was identified by rank. Much like other eighteenth-century communities, the town of Newport was host to four basic groups: "the genteeler sort," the middling group, the "poor part of the Inhabitants," and, at the bottom of the ladder, indentured servants and slaves. 13 Distinct classes were perpetuated in part because, according to newspaper announcements and church records, marriages did not ordinarily cut across class lines. 14 Caty Malbone discouraged a young man "not possest with riches and honnours" because, as she sadly admitted to her brother, "my Friends didn't think him a proper match for me." 15

Commerce created opportunities for great wealth, and the merchants were recognized as "the Support of this Sea-port Town," a belief that evolved from fact. 16 Furthermore, the merchants were becoming more supportive as the years went by. Although the total number of taxpayers continued to increase through the early 1770s, wealth was becoming concentrated in the hands of fewer people. 17

The rest of the community may not have realized that they were accumulating a smaller share of taxable assets, but they surely were aware that the great merchants enjoyed a disproportionate prosperity. Their splendid town houses were matched by magnificent country seats a few miles away from Newport. Indeed, the ghosts of New England's Puritan ancestors must have stood aghast at this show of opulence unparalleled--according to contemporary accounts--anywhere in the colonies.

Godfrey Malbone, for example, who in 1740 was recognized as "the most considerable Trader of any here to the Coast of Guinea," 18 epitomized the lavish lifestyle of eighteenth-century Newport merchants. Known for his scintillating soirees as well as his fabulously furnished home, he--so

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