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

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview

5
Dependent People,
Helping Hands

IF THIS HUMMING, COMMERCIAL SEAPORT provided the atmosphere in which an elite merchant class could thrive, it also made room for a growing number of poor. Most of the people at this end of the economic spectrum were either sailors or dependents of sailors. Others were unmarried women from lower-class families or simply tradespeople who had fallen on hard times. The urban poor are not easy to locate in the surviving records. They are rarely, if ever, taxed, and thus defy identification from the assessment lists. By boarding with a family or renting a room, they escape the census as well, becoming invisible members of the community. Paradoxically, they are rescued from obscurity in death because, even if they died intestate, inventories were usually made of their meager belongings. Although estate inventories are at best only a rough index of personal wealth, enough of them exist to reconstruct an approximate lifestyle of people whose poverty stands in sharp contrast to the easy affluence of those for whom they toiled.

The poor had few of life's amenities, even by eighteenth-century standards. At the extreme, a mariner might have died with no more property than his "sea cloths" and a few pounds in back wages. 49 With no furniture, he may have lived aboard ship, or in a furnished room when in port. His possessions might have included "an old sea chest" and "I gun or small arm." If a sailor had permanent quarters on shore, he might also have owned a bedstead, some "old chairs," andirons, and a "pot and kettle." Slightly more prosperity meant that an ordinary seaman's widow could inherit a few earthenware plates, a table, a couple of pillows, a quilt, and perhaps even a looking glass. With luck and bargaining skill, some could have acquired even table linens and a chest of drawers. The rare mention of such items as a razor, silver buckle, or curtains and the brevity of the inventories only serve to accentuate a dearth of worldly effects.

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

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Abbreviations and Short Titles vi
  • Editorial Note vi
  • Contents vii
  • Tables viii
  • Acknowledgments ix
  • Preface to the Paperback Edition xi
  • Introduction 1
  • Notes 6
  • I - A Good Voyage and Safe Return"" 9
  • 1 - Any Scheme of Trade"" 11
  • 2 - The First Wheel of Commerce"" 16
  • Reflections 34
  • II - An Interdependent People 47
  • 3 - A Mercantile Metropolis 49
  • 4 - The World of the Wealthy 53
  • 5 - Dependent People, Helping Hands 63
  • 6 - The Cruel Sea 69
  • 7 - The Black Community 76
  • 8 - A Lawless Rabble 84
  • Reflections 91
  • III - A Dependent People 107
  • 9 - Economic Arguments and Mob Rule 109
  • 10 - A Town at War with Itself 126
  • Reflections 141
  • Epilogue 157
  • Notes 166
  • Bibliography 169
  • Index 187
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