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

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview
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III
A Dependent People

I know not why we should blush to confess that molasses was an
essential ingredient in American independence. Many great events
have proceeded from much smaller causes. 1

JOHN ADAMS

If Newport was marked by an underlying harmony of interests, this does not mean that the community was without fracture lines. If Newport's network of integrating relationships was central to its character, this does not deny that certain tensions and stresses were often present. Some of these were of long standing; others can be attributed more directly to the agitations and recurrent crises that marked the Revolutionary era. The last chapters will show that unrestricted trade provided the only setting in which interdependence and harmony could flourish. They will also explain how British policy ultimately determined Newport's fate as the community was forced to resist both imperial policy and the people who spoke for that policy.

As a heterogeneous community, Newport hosted a variety of religious and political viewpoints. Up to a point, the town coped remarkably well with the conflicting opinions and dissenting ideas these factions spawned. But this toleration was not necessarily a positive force. It bordered on indifference and was, perhaps, an extension of an apathy toward community life in general. Newporters were as willing to tolerate lawlessness as ethnic or religious diversity. They were apathetic toward voting, unresponsive to appeals for charity. Cooperation was in their self-interest only as long as ships sailed and profits mounted. In a different economic environment, both religious and political differences could produce tensions which, although usually submerged, lay close enough to the surface to break the calm from time to time. Because the pre-Revolutionary decade was a time of growing strain, tension was expressed more often in episodes of religious and political strife.

The ultimate challenge to the community was the new set of British commercial restrictions and taxes. Enforcement of the measures meant inevitable conflict because the people of Newport recognized their dependence on the sea and unre

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