May 18, 1652: Rhode Island Bans Slavery

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More than two centuries before slavery was abolished in the United States, Rhode Island passed the first anti-slavery statute in the English speaking colonies on May 18, 1652:

 

 

Whereas, it is a common course practiced amongst English men to buy
negers, to that end they have them for service or slave forever: let it be
ordered, no blacke mankind or white being forced by covenant bond, or
otherwise, to serve any man or his assighnes longer than ten years or until
they come to bee twentie four yearsof age, if they be taken in under
fourteen, from the time of their cominge with the liberties of this
Collonie.
The Act limited the time to ten years for whites and blacks being held as indentured servants.  Unfortunately, the Act quickly became a dead letter, and by the middle of the Eighteenth Century slaves constituted eleven percent of the population of Rhode Island.  The permanent abolition of slavery did not begin until the Rhode Island legislature passed a plan for gradual emancipation in February 1784.  All slaves born after March 1, 1784 were to be freed, girls at age 18 and boys at age 21.  By 1800 there were 384 slaves remaining in Rhode Island.  In 1840 these numbers were down to 5 quite elderly slaves, twelve years prior to the 200th anniversary of the first attempt to abolish slavery in Rhode Island.

 

Published in: on May 18, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 18, 1652: Rhode Island Bans Slavery  
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May 4, 1776: Rhode Island Renounces Allegiance to King George

 

 

 

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On May 4, 1776, the Rhode Island legislature passed an Act of Renunciation, renouncing allegiance by Rhode Island to King George III:

 

WHEREAS in all states, existing by compact, protection and allegiance are reciprocal, the latter being only due in consequence of the former: And whereas George the Third, King of Great Britain, forgetting his dignity, regardless of the compact most solemnly entered into, ratified and confirmed, to the inhabitants of this Colony, by his illustrious ancestors, and till of late fully recognized by him—and entirely departing from the duties and character of a good King, instead of protecting, is endeavoring to destroy the good people of this Colony, and of all the United Colonies, by sending fleets and armies to America, to confiscate our property, and spread fire, sword and desolation, throughout our country, in order to compel us to submit to the most debasing and detestable tyranny, whereby we are obliged by necessity, and it becomes our highest duty, to use every means, with which God and nature have furnished us, in support of our invaluable rights and privileges; to oppose that power which is exerted only for our destruction.

BE it therefore enacted by this General Assembly, and by the authority thereof it is enacted, that an Act entitled, “An Act for the more effectual securing to His Majesty the Allegiance of his Subjects in this his Colony and Dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” be, and the same is hereby, repealed.

AND be it further enacted by this General Assembly, and by the authority thereof it is enacted, that in all commissions for offices, civil and military, and in all writs and processes in law, whether original, judicial or executory, civil or criminal, wherever the name and the authority of the said King is made use of, the same shall be omitted, and in the room thereof the name and authority of the Governor and Company of this Colony shall be substituted, in the following words, to wit: “The Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations:” That all such commissions, writs and processes, shall be otherwise of the same form and tenure as they heretofore were: That the courts of law be no longer entitled nor considered as the King’s courts: and that no instrument in writing, of any nature or kind, whether public or private, shall in the date thereof mention the year of the said King’s reign: Provided nevertheless, that nothing in this Act contained shall render void or vitiate any commission, writ, process or instrument, heretofore made or executed, on account of the name and authority of the said King being therein inserted.

Rhode Island thus became the first colony to declare independence from the British Crown.  The date is commemorated as Rhode Island Independence Day in Rhode Island.

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Published in: on May 4, 2016 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on May 4, 1776: Rhode Island Renounces Allegiance to King George  
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The Dorr Rebellion

One of the major developments in American history in the first half of the Nineteenth Century was the extension of the franchise to all adult white men.  By 1841, Rhode Island was the only state that had not removed the property requirement for voting by adult white men.  Years of frustration in failed attempts to remove the property requirement through legislation burst out into one of the more unusual rebellions in US history.  Led by Thomas W. Dorr, a so-called People’s Convention was held in October 1841 which drafted a new constitution for Rhode Island.  The convention had not been authorized by the Rhode Island legislature.  Opponents of Dorr and his followers in the state legislature drafted a new constitution for Rhode Island which they designated the Freeman’s Constitution.  This constitution made some concessions to broadening the franchise.  It was defeated in the legislature by followers of Dorr.

A statewide referendum called by Dorr approved the constitution which had been drafted by the People’s Convention.  In 1842 Rhode Island witnessed two sets of election with two competing legislatures and two governors: Thomas W. Dorr and Samuel W. King.

The Dorr forces attempted an attack on the arsenal in Providence on May 19, 1842 and were routed, most, including Dorr, fleeing the state.  The Rhode Island legislature approved a new Constitution which was approved by a referendum.  The new constitution extended the franchise to all adult white men who could pay a poll tax of $1.00.

In the case of Luther v. Borden, 48 US 1, the United States Supreme Court declined to rule on which of the competing Rhode Island governments had been the legitimate government, holding that such a decision was a political one and not subject to judicial determination: (more…)

Published in: on June 20, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Dorr Rebellion  
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The Real Stephen Hopkins

One of my favorite scenes from the musical 1776 is in the above video where Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island introduces Benjamin Franklin to his insult cards.  In the musical Hopkins is portrayed as a lovable drunken rogue, but a font of common sense when big issues are afoot.  When his vote is decisive on debating independence his comment is to the point:  “I’ve never seen, heard, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes, I’m for debating anything!”

The actual Stephen Hopkins bore little resemblance to his portrayal in 1776.  Born on March 7, 1707, in Providence, Rhode Island, he was the oldest man in Congress in 1776, except for Ben Franklin.  From a prominent Rhode Island family he early developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge, reading voraciously, and training himself in surveying and astronomy.  He became a Justice of the Peace at 23, embarking upon a career in Rhode Island politics.  He swiftly became a justice on the Inferior Court of Common Pleas while serving as Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Deputies.  He made his fortune through an iron foundry and his activities as a merchant. (more…)

Published in: on May 21, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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