Why Has Rhode Island Forgotten Its History of Rebellion – and What Can We Do About It?

By Will Grapentine

By many measures, Rhode Island has always been a proud and patriotic state. Coming from Bristol – deemed “Most Patriotic Town” by travel websites and publications alike – Patriotism and American pride has always swelled through the state . Particularly the East Bay and Aquidneck regions, with such institutions as our longstanding Naval base in Newport underscoring our proud military history in the Ocean State. But before one celebrates national pride and patriotism, there is a great challenge many voters seem to forget: rebellion against the status quo.

As Young Republicans, conservatives or those generally right-of- center, it is easy to understand what being a rebel is about. But to some Rhode Islanders, there is a disconnect between our state’s proud history with fighting the system and applying it to modern issues today. Take State founder Roger Williams. Oftentimes ransacked by the political left for an atheistic agenda, History.com cites him as a man not only known for wanting to protect individual liberty, but being against pre-constitutional government confiscation of land. Furthermore, although deemed “radical” in his Christian views, his promotion of religious liberty helped pave the way for what made it a Constitutional protection in our Bill of Rights. With religious liberty always at the forefront of state and local issues, Williams was a prime example that freedom of religion is not freedom FROM religion – and that people have a right to express it.

Another key moment in R.I. history is that of the of the Gaspee Affair. Taking place on June 9 th 1772, after Lieutenant William Dudingston sailed HMS Gaspee into Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay to enforce customs collection and force mandatory inspection of cargo, resulting in increasingly aggressive searches, boardings, and seizures of Rhode Islander’s ships. But the anti-tax group The Sons of Liberty (led by R.I.’s own John Brown) rowed out to confront the ship’s crew until the vessel was burned to the waterline. This uprising against unfair taxation pushed by the British Crown (the then-governing body of Rhode Island) was seen as the fire that stoked the American Revolution, and is looked at as Rhode Island’s version of The Boston Tea Party (celebrated in Warwick every year with Gaspee Days).

Lastly there is the Dorr Rebellion. Taking place in 1841 – 58 years after the U.S. Revolution and 20 years before the Civil War – the Dorr Rebellion has an odd place in history but underscores R.I.’s fighting spirit. Although lasting only two months, not a single battle being fought, and the whole affair resulted in a single death—an innocent civilian shot by mistake, the purpose of the Rebellion was because Rhode Island did not have a state Constitution, instead keeping it’s old pre-Revolutionary charter. This encouraged a group of like-minded rebels to hold a constitutional convention and pass what came to be known as the “People’s Constitution” This was something not officiated by the then-government and left a “People’s Government” (lead by Thomas Dorr). Dorr organized around 300 men in Providence and began his campaign by robbing a small militia post of supplies. Eventually going into hiding, the Rebellion disbanded. Dorr, captured in 1843 and sentenced to life in prison for treason against Rhode Island, proved too popular to jail. As for Rhode Island? Rhode Island finally passed a new constitution in November 1842 and a strong fight against Rhode Island elites was won.

Now where are we today? Where are the Roger Williams? The John Browns ? The James Dorrs? True, although each of these past figures championed for very different issues than what Rhode Islanders face today, they all fought against the system. Regardless of party, institution, or personality, they struggled for things that were against the tide. Judging by voters today, it seems the only mantra is “More Government”. From a General Assembly that has had one-party dominance since the Great Depression, a continued history of taxing-and- spending its citizens, and many stories of corruption and incompetence (UHIP anyone?) you would think more voters could channel the founders of this state when they make it to the voting booth.

As the famous saying goes: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” As we continue to rightfully celebrate our state’s past accomplishments with parades, holidays, and patriotic exercises, let’s try and connect that thinking to voters and taxpayers today. Only by going against business as usual leaders do “We The People” apply the values R.I. was based on to a freer and more prosperous state tomorrow.

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