Rhode Island, smallest state in the United States, located in New England; bounded by Massachusetts (N and E), the Atlantic Ocean (S), and Connecticut (W). Its official name is the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
Facts and Figures
Area, 1,214 sq mi (3,144 sq km). Pop. (2010) 1,052,567, a .4% increase since the 2000 census. Capital and largest city, Providence. Statehood, May 29, 1790 (13th of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution). Highest pt., Jerimoth Hill, 812 ft (248 m); lowest pt., sea level. Nickname, Little Rhody. Motto, Hope. State bird, Rhode Island red. State flower, violet. State tree, red maple. Abbr., R.I.; RI
Rhode Island is the smallest of the 50 states and except for New Jersey the most densely populated. The dominant physiographic feature of the state is the Narragansett basin, a shallow lowland area of Carboniferous sediments, extending into SE Massachusetts and, in Rhode Island, partly submerged as Narragansett Bay. The bay cuts inland c.30 mi (50 km) to Providence, where it receives the Blackstone River; it contains several islands, including Rhode Island (or Aquidneck), the largest (and the site of historic Newport); Conanicut Island, with the resort of Jamestown; and Prudence Island. The coastline between Point Judith and Watch Hill is marked by sand spits and barrier beaches, sheltering lagoons and salt marshes. Glaciation left many small lakes, and the rolling hilly surface of the state is cut by short, swift streams with numerous falls. Although more than half of Rhode Island is covered with forests, it is highly urbanized. Providence is the capital and the largest city; other important cities are Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, and Newport.
Rhode Island's coast is lined with resorts noted for their swimming and boating facilities, and windswept Block Island is a favorite vacation spot. Narragansett Bay is famous for its sailboats and yachts. The America's Cup yacht race has been held in Newport several times, beginning in 1930 and most recently in 1983. The state also has many historic attractions.
Rhode Island's traditional manufacturing economy has diversified and is now also based on services, trade (retail and wholesale), and finance. In spite of this, many of the products for which Rhode Island is famous are still being manufactured. These include jewelry, silverware, textiles, primary and fabricated metals, machinery, electrical equipment, and rubber and plastic items. Tourism and gambling are also important. Agriculture is relatively unimportant to the economy. Most of the farmland is used for dairying and poultry raising, and the state is known for its Rhode Island Red chickens. Principal crops are nursery and greenhouse items. Commercial fishing is an important but declining industry. Narragansett Bay abounds in shellfish; flounder and porgy are also caught. Naval facilities at Newport contribute to the state's income.
Government, Politics, and Higher Education
Rhode Island's present constitution was adopted in 1842 and has been often amended. The state's executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term and eligible for reelection. The bicameral legislature has a senate with 50 members and a house with 75, all elected for two-year terms. Local government is carried out on the city level; Rhode Island's counties have no political functions. The state sends two senators and two representatives to the U.S. Congress; it has four electoral votes. Rhode Island is solidly Democratic, but Lincoln Almond, a Republican, was elected governor in 1994 and reelected in 1998, and he was succeeded by another Republican, Donald Carcieri, elected in 2002 and again in 2006. In 2010 Lincoln Chafee, an independent, was elected to the office. Democrat Gina Raimondo was elected governor in 2014; she became the first women to win the office.
The state's leading educational institutions are Brown Univ. and the Rhode Island School of Design, at Providence, and the Univ. of Rhode Island, at Kingston.
Early Exploration and Colonization
The region of Rhode Island was probably visited (1524) by Verrazano, and in 1614 the area was explored by the Dutchman Adriaen Block. Roger Williams, banished (1635) from the Massachusetts Bay colony, established in 1636 the first settlement in the area at Providence on land purchased from Native Americans of the Narragansett tribe. In 1638, Puritan exiles bought the island of Aquidneck (now Rhode Island) from the Narragansetts. There they established the settlement of Portsmouth (1638). Because of factional differences, Newport was founded (1639) on the southwest side of the island, but the two towns later combined governments (1640–47). Another settlement, Warwick, was made on the western shore of Narragansett Bay in 1642.
In order to thwart claims made to the area by the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, Williams, through influential friends, secured (1644) a parliamentary patent under which the four towns drew up a code of civil law and organized (1647) a government. The liberal charter granted (1663) by Charles II of England ensured the colony's survival, although boundary difficulties with Massachusetts and Connecticut continued well into the 18th cent.
The early settlers were mostly of English stock. Many were drawn to the colony by the guarantee of religious freedom, a cardinal principle with Williams, confirmed in the patent of 1644 and reaffirmed by the royal charter of 1663. Jews settled in Newport in the first year of Williams' presidency (1654), and Quakers followed in large numbers. All the early settlers owned land that, following Williams' practice, was bought from the Native Americans. Fishing and trade supplemented the living won from the soil. Moreover, livestock from the Narragansett county (South County), especially the famous Narragansett pacers, figured largely in the early commerce, which developed rapidly in the late 17th cent.
Because of the colony's religious freedom, it was viewed with mixed loathing and fear by the more powerful neighboring colonies and was never admitted to the New England Confederation. However, it bore its share of the devastation caused by King Philip's War in 1675–76. Between 1750 and 1770 there was bitter strife between Providence and Newport over control of the colony.
The Coming of Revolution
Until the American Revolution, Newport was the commercial center of the colony, thriving especially on the triangular trade in rum, slaves, and molasses. Rhode Island, like other colonies, objected to British mercantilist policies and consistently violated the Molasses Act of 1733 and the Navigation Acts. Narragansett Bay became a notorious haven for smugglers, and the British revenue cutter Gaspee was burned (1772) by patriots in protest against the enforcement of revenue laws.
After the start of the American Revolution, Rhode Island militia under Nathanael Greene joined (1775) the Continental Army at Cambridge, and on May 4, 1776, the province renounced its allegiance to George III. British forces occupied parts of Rhode Island from 1776 to 1779, when they withdrew before the arrival of the French fleet. The Revolution won, Rhode Island, jealous of its independence, refused to sanction a national import duty; it therefore deprived the Continental Congress of a major source of revenue and became one of the states responsible for the failure of the Articles of Confederation. Rhode Island did not send delegates to the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia and resisted ratifying the Constitution until the federal government threatened to sever commercial relations with the state; even then, ratification passed (1790) by only two votes.
The post-Revolutionary era brought bankruptcy and currency difficulties. Shipping, which continued to be a major factor in the state's economy until the first quarter of the 19th cent., was hard hit by Jefferson's Embargo Act of 1807 and by the competition from larger ports such as New York and Boston. However, this post-Revolutionary period also marked the beginning of Rhode Island's industrial greatness. Samuel Slater built the first successful American cotton-textile mill at Pawtucket in 1790. An abundance of water power led to the rapid development of manufacturing, in which merchants and shipping magnates invested their capital.
With the growth of industry the towns increased in population, and Providence surpassed Newport as the commercial center of the state. Since suffrage had long been restricted to freeholders, Rhode Island's increased urbanization resulted in the disenfranchisement of most townspeople. Frustrated in repeated attempts to amend the constitution, many Rhode Islanders joined Thomas Wilson Dorr in forcibly establishing an illegal state government in Providence in 1842. Dorr's Rebellion, though abortive, resulted in the adoption of a new constitution (1842) extending suffrage; however, the property qualification was not abolished until 1888. Antislavery sentiment was strong in Rhode Island, and the state firmly supported the Union in the Civil War.
Mill Towns, Discontent, and a Changing Economy
Until well into the 20th cent. Rhode Island's political and economic life was dominated by mill owners. (Nelson W. Aldrich was a power in the nation as well as the state.) The small mill towns, with their company houses and company stores and their large numbers of foreign-born residents, were important elements in the social fabric. English, Irish, and Scottish settlers had begun arriving in large numbers in the first half of the 19th cent.; French Canadian immigration commenced around the time of the Civil War; at the end of the 19th cent. and the beginning of the 20th there was a large influx of Poles, Italians, and Portuguese. Politically, Rhode Island was generally controlled by Republicans until the 1930s, when the Democrats' insistence on reapportionment of representation (which tended to favor small towns over urban areas) helped bring their party into power.
Sporadic labor troubles in the 19th cent. had little effect on the state's economy. However, after World War I there was a long textile strike, centered in the Blackstone valley; this, together with the gradual removal of the mills to the South—the source of the cotton supply where labor was cheaper—led to a continuing decline in the cotton-textile industry. Nevertheless, the manufacture of textile products is still carried on in the state today and new industries such as high-technology electronics have been introduced. Since the 1970s the overall shift in the state's economy has been away from manufacturing altogether and toward the service sector. This shift has coincided with major suburban growth.
See P. J. Coleman, Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790–1860 (1963); F. G. Bates, Rhode Island and the Formation of the Union (1967); W. G. McLoughlin, Rhode Island: A History (1978); M. Wright and R. Sullivan, The Rhode Island Atlas (1982); P. T. Conley, An Album of Rhode Island History, 1636–1986 (1986).