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

By Elaine Forman Crane | Go to book overview
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FROM THE DREARY APPEARANCE OF THE TOWN in the 1780s few strangers would have guessed that before the war Newport was " 'one of the pleasantest places in the world.' " 1 No longer was the community a cultural haven whose very name was synonymous with elegance and urbanity. Instead of prosperity and conviviality a post-war visitor encountered a "reign of solitude... only interrupted by groups of idle men standing with folded arms at the corners of the streets, houses falling to ruin, miserable shops which present nothing but a few coarse stuffs or baskets of apples, and other articles of little value; grass growing in the public squares in front of the court of justice, rags stuffed in the windows." 2 The destruction of Newport seemed to extend to the very spirit of the people.

So many houses had been destroyed during the war that although the population had been reduced to half, a number of people were forced to live together in single dwellings. The 1782 census showed 5,530 people living in Newport. 3 Most of the names on the list were carryovers from pre-war days; some were new. Both English and French forces had occupied the town in the intervening years. With their departure, the curious mixture of whigs and tories was left to get on with each other as best they could. Not surprisingly, by 1782 the whigs had the upper hand. Their ascendancy began in the fall of 1779 when the British troops withdrew from Newport and the Rhode Island General Assembly passed legislation enabling the state to confiscate the property of any British sympathizer. At the same session the legislature deprived loyalists of the right to vote. Whig retaliation for real and imagined injuries reached its height in the summer of 1780 when the Assembly banished the leading tories from Rhode Island, presumably forever. 4

Forever turned out to be a somewhat shorter period of time than one would have expected from the passionate language of the legislative act. By November 1780 Stephen Ayrault's confiscated lands were reassigned so that he could collect rent on them. By 1783 this "principal and active tory," as Ezra Stiles had labeled him, had resumed his place among the


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