An Interdependent People
From the beginning, Newport's relationship with the sea molded its form and substance. The town's link to commerce shaped its pattern and growth, and created the society that emerged in the pre-Revolutionary era. Confined to an island and forced to import the necessities of life, Newport became a community completely dependent on the sea for sustenance and livelihood. And because of this single- minded commitment to commerce, it was also a community where people were overwhelmingly dependent on each other for their mutual prosperity. The merchants who most enjoyed the fruits of commerce knew full well that their empires rested on unskilled seamen, spermaceti candlewick spinners, distillers, coopers, and dock workers--to mention only a few indispensable participants. In turn, the larger Newport community relied on the merchants for their well-being, which meant employment in good times and support in bad. From this dependency, symbiotic relationships developed--like that between a merchant and his captain. The employer-employee relationship notwithstanding, a shrewd merchant realized that in the end he had to trust the "discretion, Fidelity and Candour" 1 of his captain in order to maximize the potential success of a voyage.
Over a period of time the sea affected the people of Newport in other ways. It was more generous to some than to others, and because of this disparity, an economic hierarchy developed. Wealth was created, displayed, and sometimes lost. Conversely, while the sea enriched some, it denied anything more than a meager existence to others. To many it denied existence altogether, and Newport's census showed a disproportionate number of women--some widows, others single--the result of an unending number of ocean tragedies. At the same time, an ocean tragedy of Newport's own making--the slave trade--encouraged the expansion of the town's black community and the institution of slavery. Meanwhile, Britain's halfhearted attempts to restrict Newport's essential commerce--and the merchants' routine evasion of the navigation laws--created an atmosphere of lawlessness which affected the community more than anyone might have suspected.
All the developments mentioned above--and several that were not--evolved from some aspect of Newport's mercantile roots. This in itself would be reason