With its endless web of personal relationships, and intertwining network of economic interests, pre-Revolutionary Newport was a society where rank and status mattered--and was likely to remain so for what to Newporters was the foreseeable future. The rich perpetuated themselves by intermarriage and by clinging tenaciously to the seats of power through the electoral process. By the eve of the Revolution they had cornered an increasingly disproportionate share of the city's wealth, and there was no sign that this would change soon. The growing number of poor might aspire to the perquisites and pleasures of the upper class, but it was unlikely that many would join that select group. Although upward movement was possible, downward movement was not unknown. Since the poor were more likely to leave the community than the affluent in the Revolutionary era, it may have appeared to those who did remain that the ladder of success was an easy climb.
What is perhaps most striking about Newport is the close dependence of one group of people on another. Despite the consuming interest in profit--or perhaps because of it--one senses a degree of cooperative effort that somehow would evaporate in the complexities of modern industrialized society.
The picture that emerges from the depths of two hundred years is of a small group of people, self-seeking and self-perpetuating, to whom the rest of the community turned for sustenance and direction. Not only did the merchants provide jobs both directly and indirectly for the rest of the townspeople, but it was their tax contribution--far out of proportion to their numbers-which provided support for the growing number of people unable to support themselves. It was in their homes that youngsters from outside the immediate family were educated and it was to them that the Town Council looked for assistance in providing for the needy. Merchants may also have influenced the behavior of other members of the community.
In turn, the merchants depended on Newport's skilled and unskilled laborers to provide those services without which no merchant could carry on business. Merchants may have supplied shopkeepers with laces, apothecaries with medicines, and teachers with books, but every merchant who owned a vessel needed people to build, load, and sail it. Moreover, he needed