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

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview

REFLECTIONS

In the end, what can be said about this rebellious city in an age of rebellious cities? What can be said about a community at loggerheads with Great Britain, other colonies, and itself? Above all, there is good reason to believe that the Revolution was fought for economic reasons which Newporters were able to translate into specific whig principles. The entire structure of the town was built and became dependent on an ever-expanding trade. By threatening this trade, the British threatened the very life of the community, as well as its prosperity. The Revolution, therefore, was of necessity a struggle to sustain that life and prosperity.

So desperate was their situation, in fact, that Newporters were left very little time for a consistent Revolutionary rhetoric. Each side claimed to be the true guardian of the British constitution and charged that the other had abandoned its sacred trust. At the same time, impartial observers insisted that both "whig and Torey Nostrums [have] ruined the Constitution." 135 Thus although the words "slavery," "liberty," and "equality" were frequently aired, they had no commonly acceptable definition since they were used by both whigs and tories. Newporters were uncomfortable with the concept of slavery in the 1770s. Because Newport was a community receptive to black slavery and reaping profits from the trade itself, townspeople could argue only awkwardly that they were fighting to prevent their own enslavement. Thus "slavery" was connected vaguely to any number of grievances. When Ezra Stiles spoke about "slavery," he was referring to domination by an Episcopal bishop who might not limit taxes to his own flock. William Vernon defined "slavery" as obedience to laws which threatened his commercial empire. A number of married women saw their confining lives as a kind of "slavery," and at the height of the controversy "eloped" from their husbands in record numbers. 136 "Liberty" was important to whigs because it was advantageous to commerce. It was no less important to tories, and they counterclaimed that they were being denied "that very liberty they [the rebels] are so loudly Bawling out to Preserve." 137 If rebellious Rhode Islanders sought to separate themselves from England's "poisonous Luxury and Venality," loyalists shrank from Newport's excessive "luxury and dissipa

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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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