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

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview

9
Economic Arguments
and Mob Rule

SUBTERFUGE WAS A WAY OF LIFE in Newport, and until the last year of the French and Indian War, there was a modus vivendi between the community and Britain's program of trade regulations. The laws were on the books, the customs duties were calculated, and both were evaded. If His Majesty's customs officers were foolish enough to confiscate an illegally imported cargo, they might find themselves facing a hastily organized mob bent on retrieving the merchandise. As early as 1719 complaints reached the Board of Trade in England about mobs in Newport which made a habit of repossessing confiscated cargo in a "riotous and tumultous manner." 4 As long as the customs officers closed their eyes and opened their palms, they and the people of Newport got along amicably. But once the restrictions were enforced, and new regulations promulgated, there was no hope of an alliance, however uneasy. Newport's survival, no less its prosperity, depended on trade. The townspeople were, they readily admitted, "a dependent people," 5 forced to import the necessities of life, and to export in order to pay for those necessities.

With merchants relying on the West India trade, the Molasses Act of 1733, supported by the British sugar planters, caused a flurry of excitement in Newport. Rhode Island's agent in London, Richard Partridge, vigorously opposed the bill, but to no avail as Parliament held strong for its favorites, the sugar colonies. As one British pamphleteer put it: "The least sugar island we have is of ten times more consequence to Great Britain than all of Rhode Island and New England put together."6 In terms of profit he was right, and it was in Britain's interest to keep the Caribbean merchants happy.

Those merchants had several objectives in mind which could be achieved by the passage and enforcement of the Molasses Act. First, if the British

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