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History of Providence County, Rhode Island

Edited by Richard M. Bayles.
In two volumes, illustrated. Vol. I.
New York:  W. W. Preston & Co., 1891.


The Town of Providence During the Revolution.
Chapter VI. pp. 171 - 191.

Meeting the Stamp Act. -- Arguments against the Action of Parliament.. -- The first Town to assert the Rights of the Colonists. -- Repeal of the Stamp Act.  -- Popular Rejoicing at the News. -- Second Attempt of Parliament to Impose a Tax.  -- Dedication of the 'Tree of Liberty'.  -- Non-importation Agreements and Action.  --  Concessions of Parliament.  --  Burning of the 'Gaspee'.  --  Town Action concerning Tea.   --  Bold Declaration of Rights.  -- Steps toward Convening a Continental Congress.  -- Sympathy with Boston.  --  Efforts to Maintain Public Order.  --  Committee of Inspection. --  Abstinence from the Use of Tea.  -- Military Companies Organized.  -- Erecting Fortifications.  -- Washington and  his Army pass through.  -- Declaration of Independence.  -- Troops Centered Here.  -- Capture of the Pigot.  -- General Sullivan is Succeeded by Gates.  -- Visit of Washington.  --  Barton's Capture of Prescott.  --  Close of the War.  -- Protection of Commerce.  -- Adoption of the Constitution.  --  Commercial Importance of Providence.  -- Last Visit of Washington.

The Revolutionary period, as might naturally be expected in a community drawn together and built up on the basis  of human freedom, more emphatically than any other community in the colonies of America, developed in Providence the strongest patriotism of and most determined opposition to any encroachments on the liberties of the people.  In anticipation of the arrival of stamped paper a special town meeting was convened on the 7th of August, 1765, to consider what steps were necessary to be taken.  A committee appointed at that time reported on the 13th instructions to their representatives in the general assembly, which were unanimously adopted.  These instructions opened with the following preamble:

'As a full and free enjoyment of British liberty and of our own particular rights, as colonists, long since precisely known and ascertained by uninterrupted practice and usage from the first settlement of this country down to this time, is of unspeakable value, and strenuously to be contended for, by the dutiful subjects of the best frame of government in the world, any attempts to deprive them thereof must be very alarming and ought to be opposed, although in a decent manner, yet with the utmost firmness.

'We conceive that some late resolutions of the Parliament of Great Britain, for taxing us without our consent, have a tendency to divest us of our most valuable privileges as Englishmen; and that the measures adopted by the ministry and the Parliament in this behalf, if carried into execution, will be a manifest infraction of our inherent rights as members of the British government and unspeakably injurious in the present distressed and involved state of the colony.'

The instructions then proceeded to deny that the colonies were represented in parliament by British members; and to declare that the refusal of that body to hear petitions against the stamp act, the enlargement of the admiralty jurisdiction and the burdening of trade, were great grievances to the people here, and directly against their rights as subjects.  The enlargement of the powers of the court of admiralty was declared to be in equal proportion a diminishing of their own natural rights.  The deputies of the town in general assembly were then recommended to use their utmost endeavors to procure the appointment of commissioners by the assembly to meet with the commissioners of the other colonies at New York in October following, to unite in a petition to the king for relief from the stamp act and other grievances.  They were also to use their efforts toward postponing the introduction of the stamp act until the colonies could be heard in self-defense;  and to procure the assertion by general assembly of the following facts in argument of their cause:  I.  That the first settlers of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations were English subjects and brought with them to this country and transmitted to posterity all their rights as such, and all such rights and privileges had descended to the petitioners.  II.  That by the charter of Charles the Second it was declared and granted that the heirs and successors of those to whom it was granted should have and enjoy all the liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects the same as though they were born within the realm of England.  III.  That this colony had heretofore enjoyed the liberty of controlling its own matters of taxes and internal police, and had never in any way forfeited or yielded up that right.  IV.  That the right to lay taxes upon the inhabitants of this colony lay in the general assembly, and any attempt to vest such right in any other person or persons was unconstitutional, and its tendency would manifestly be to destroy British as well as American liberty.  V.  That the inhabitants of this colony were not bound to yield obedience to any law or ordinance designed to impose internal taxation of any kind upon them other than by authority of the general assembly.  The deputies were further urged to advocate the passage of an act declaring that the courts of common law only, and not any court of admiralty rightfully have jurisdiction in all cases growing out of levying or collecting any internal taxes or in any way relating to that subject, and that all such cases should proceed as it relating to that subject, and that all such cases should proceed as it had been customary for them to proceed in the past, and that no decree of any court of admiralty in such manners should be executed in this colony.

The sentiments of the town of Providence, thus expressed, found response in the assembly and were in substance passed by that body, and in most respects similar resolutions were soon passed by others of the American colonies.  Providence may claim the proud honor of standing in the front ranks of the patriot towns of America, if not a little in advance of others in asserting the rights of the colonists.  The repeal of the stamp act followed in March, 1766.  This was the signal for a general expression of rejoicing in the colonies.  Providence was not behind her sisters in such jubilant demonstrations.  The birthday of the king was chosen as the occasion of public expression of rejoicing.  The day was ushered in by the ringing of bells and firing of cannon on the Parade.  The court house was beautifully ornamented with flags, and at a given signal the shipping in the harbor flung their colors to the breeze.  A general mass meeting convened on the Parade at eleven o'clock, whence they marched in order with drums beating and trumpets blowing and flags waving, to the Presbyterian meeting house, where appropriate religious services were conducted, including a prayer of thanksgiving and a discourse by Reverend Mr. Rowland, from the words, 'The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.'  After the hearty rendering of an appropriate anthem the line of march was taken up on the return to the Parade, where his majesty's health was drank by many hundreds under a royal salute of twenty-one cannon.  At four o'clock in the afternoon the people assembled and drank 32 of the most loyal, patriotic and constitutional toasts, amidst the firing of cannon.   A grand pyrotechnic display followed in the evening, which included 108 sky-rockets, a 'bee-hive' containing 106 'serpants', and other kinds of fire-works.  At nine o'clock a boiled collation (modernly called a 'chowder') was served, and feasting continued until 11 o'clock, when the company retired.  A grand ball took place on the night following, at which a narrator at the time declares 'there was the most brilliant appearance of ladies this town ever saw.'  The anniversary of this jubilee day was celebrated in a similar manner for several years thereafter.  It occurred on the 18th of March.

In answer to the attempt of parliament to lay import duties on certain articles of common use, in 1767, a town meeting was held in Providence on the 25th of November, at which time it was determined to ask the people to subscribe to an agreement not to import or use certain specified articles, upon which the duty had been laid, after the first day of the following January, and to discountenance the excessive use of certain articles which could be manufactured in America, and to encourage home manufactures and the raising of wool and flax.  The signing of these articles of agreement was almost, if not quite unanimous.

In July, 1768, the 'Sons of Liberty' were called upon to attend the dedication of the 'tree of liberty'.  Almost every town then had either its liberty tree or its liberty pole.  The liberty tree of Providence was a little north of the north side of Olney street, in front of a public house kept there by Captain Joseph Olney.  The house was a large, old-fashioned, low studded house with a wing giving it an L shape.  In the large front yard stood one of the largest elm trees ever seen hereabout, and up into this elm, about 20 feet from the ground, a perch and seat large enough to accommodate ten or twelve persons was adjusted upon four branches which put out from that part of the trunk.    The seat was reached by a flight of wooden steps.  The tree was appropriately dedicated on July 25th, 1768, an oration on the occasion being delivered by Silas Downer.  After the oration the following dedicatory words were pronounced by the speaker, the people on the elevated perch meanwhile laying hands upon the tree.

'We do, in the name and behalf of all the true sons of liberty in America, Great Britain, Ireland, Corsica, or wheresoever they may be dispersed throughout the world, dedicate and solemnly devote this tree to be a tree of liberty.  May all our councils and deliberations, under its venerable branches, be guided by wisdom and directed for the support and maintenance of that liberty which our renowned forefathers sought out and found under trees and in the wilderness.  May it long flourish, and may the sons of liberty often repair hither, to confirm and strengthen each other; when they look toward this sacred elm, may they be penetrated with a sense of their duty to themselves and their posterity; and may they, like the house of David, grow stronger and stronger, while their enemies, like the house of Saul, shall grow weaker and weaker.  Amen.'

Meetings were held from time to time, by the Sons of Liberty as well as by the town, to consider means for more effectually carrying out the popular sentiment against importing goods upon which the obnoxious duty was laid.  In October, 1769, a town meeting was held to consider action in regard to an expected arrival of forbidden goods.  It would appear that several merchants of the town, notwithstanding they had subscribed to the non-importation agreement were now expecting such goods by a vessel soon to arrive from England.  What arguments or means of persuasion were used we are not told, but these merchants, it is said, cheerfully agreed to deliver up to a committee of three men appointed by the town meeting, all the expected dutiable goods, for those men to hold in safe keeping until the duty tax should be removed.

Seeing the determined opposition of the colonists to the duty on imports, Parliament repealed the obnoxious acts in part.  This encouraged those whose greed of personal gain was greater than their patriotism to engage in the importation and traffic in all the goods which had been under the ban of refusal.  By the popular prejudice against these importations such articles had become somewhat scarce, and among those whose respect for the principles at stake was small there was a demand, to supply which was a tempting bait to the cupidity of mercenary dealers.  So the charges of breaking the non-importation agreements were frequently made against the merchants of this and other cities of the colonies.  The promulgation, discussion and investigation of these charges kept the patriotic spirit alive with frequent agitations.  The non-importation agreements were revised to meet the conditions of the new modification of the act of parliament.  Thus matters continued for several years.

The burning of the schooner 'Gaspee' was one of the events of national importance, which have ever stood in bold relief among the historic remains of that eventful and interesting period.  In attempting to put a stop to the illicit trade, which had long been carried on in  the different ports of this country, armed vessels had been placed in Narragansett bay, as well as in other waters adjacent to the ocean.  The vigilance of the customs officers in this work had resulted in serious riots.  Vessels suspected of being engaged in illicit trade had been seized by the customs officers and confiscated with their cargoes.  The scene of the marine operations was mostly in the lower part of the bay.  In 1764 the schooner 'St. John' was stationed in the bay for the purpose mentioned.  In 1769 the sloop 'Liberty' was commissioned in these waters for the same purpose.

The acts of the British commanders of these vessels were exacting, oppressive, and very obnoxious to the people who fell under their tyrannical surveillance.  Their acts called forth decided outbursts of indignation, which arose sometimes to actual demonstrations of violence, and indeed were ominous as to the possibilities of what continued acts of the kind might bring about.  In the early part of 1772, his majesty's schooner, the 'Gaspee', carrying eight guns, and commanded by Lieutenant Dudingston, was stationed in Narragansett bay, on a similar mission.  He stopped all vessels, even including small market boats, without showing his authority for doing so; and even sent the property which he thus illegally seized to Boston for trial.  Complaints became so numerous from those who had suffered from his acts, in which he even went beyond and in violation of his powers as limited by certain acts of parliament, that Governor Sessions obtained from Chief Justice Hopkins the opinion, 'that no commander of any vessel has a right to use any authority in the colony, without previously applying to the Governor, and showing his authority for so doing; and also being sworn to a due exercise of his office.'  Protests were made to the commander, and this correspondence was submitted to his superior officers, but, even while he seems to have been in doubt as to the legality of his acts, he still pursued his course.

On the 9th of June, 772, Captain Benjamin Lindsey left Newport for Providence in his packet, about the middle of the day.  The 'Gaspee' started in pursuit.  Following until they had reached Namquit point, about seven miles below Providence, the 'Gaspee' drawing more water than the other, ran aground upon a shoal and there remained.  On his arrival in Providence Lindsey spread the news of the position of the 'Gaspee', and immediately eight of the largest long-boats in the harbor were provided with five oars each, the same being well muffled, and placed in readiness at Fenner's wharf.  Soon after sunset the boats were manned by ship-masters and merchants of Providence, men of respectability and standing in society, and proceeded in the evening down the river.  The men had gathered at the house of James Sabin, on the northeast corner of South Main and Planet streets, and at about 10 o'clock started on their uncertain and perilous undertaking.  On approaching the 'Gaspee' they were discovered, however, and as the commander was hailing the party a shot from one of the boats gave him a wound which disabled him, and the party boarded the vessel without opposition, demanding her surrender.  The crew were directed to gather up their effects, and were then put ashore at Pawtuxet.  The vessel was then set on fire and burned to the water's edge.

Governor Wanton, on the 12th, issued a proclamation commanding all officers in the colony to use the utmost vigilance in apprehending  the perpetrators of this outrage, and offering a reward of £100 sterling for the conviction of the guilty party or parties.  The British Government offered a further reward of £500 in addition for the discovery of the leader of the party who did the work of destruction.  A special court of investigation was afterward held, but neither rewards nor judicial investigation ever led to any discovery of the guilty parties.  Bur now that long years have passed, and the rewards  for their discovery are no longer offered, we may without any offense or injury to them expose their names.  And this the more especially since for many decades their names have been all the more honored and respected because of their connection with this affair.  The leaders in the enterprise were John Brown, then the leading merchant in the colony, a prominent citizen, and one of the founders of Brown University;  Abraham Whipple, a captain of a merchantman engaged in the West India trade, formerly commanding an active privateer during the French war, and afterward a commander in the American navy during the revolution; John Mawney, a man of literary inclinations, who had been educated in medicine, but never practiced to any great extent, his estate, where he closed his long life, being that part of the present city now known as Elmwood; John B. Hopkins, a son of Commodore Esek Hopkins and member of the family represented by Governor Stephen Hopkins, signer of the declaration of independence, and himself afterward commander of the ship 'Cabot' in the revolution;  Benjamin Page, a prominent ship-master and for many years commander of a ship in the East India trade;  Joseph Bucklin, a restaurant keeper in South Main street;  Turpin Smith, a young man who afterward became a prominent and successful shipmaster, and Ephraim Bowen, afterward a colonel in the revolution, and the last survivor of the party, he living until the year 1840.  The commander of the party was Abraham Whipple.

Thus it may be claimed, with the facts recited, that the war began in Rhode Island, and that the first gun of the revolution was fired by a Providence man, and the first bloodshed was scarcely beyond the limits of the present city.  So Providence may boast of early and important revolutionary honors.

Events followed in thickening succession, ripening the sentiment which in due time was to break forth in the great struggle for American independence.  No occasion offered itself to demonstrate the readiness with which the people of Providence would have followed the example of Boston in relation to the importation of tea, but the following expressions, passed by a vote of the town at a town meeting for the purpose held at the court house on the 19th of January, 1774, Jabez Brown, moderator, present a good picture of the sentiments entertained at the time:

'Inasmuch as the British Parliament have undertaken to raise a revenue in the American colonies, by a duty upon tea;  we, the freemen of the town of Providence, legally assembled in meeting, cannot be silent on so interesting and alarming an occasion.  Should we, in this case, omit to assert and express the firmest resolutions to vindicate our rights, it might be construed as a cession of them into the hands of those who have wantonly invaded them in this instance.

'We do therefore, in justice to ourselves, our posterity, and the sister colonies, openly and publicly make the following declarations, hoping that by a vigorous exertion, in conformity thereto, we may in some measure contribute towards escaping the dreadful train of evils which must be the consequence of a tame submission to any invasions of American freedom.

'We lament any seeming acquiescence which hath at any time heretofore been made in these colonies, under parliamentary usurpations of our liberties; but as any such tacit concessions of their rights, we strongly protest against any precedent being made thereby, to our disadvantage.

'When we consider that many of our ancestors removed from Britain and planted themselves here; that the religion, language and customs of the two countries are mostly similar, and that there hath been a long intercourse of trade and commerce between them, we are willing, and even desirous of a continuance of connexion between the colonies and Britain, if it may be on terms in any measure equal.'

'Upon full consideration of the matter upon which we have met, we do resolve, --- "

'I.  That the disposal of their own property is the inherent right of freemen; that there can be no property in that, which another can, of right, take from us without our consent; that the claim of Parliament to tax America, is in other words, a claim of right to levy contributions on us at pleasure.

'II.  That the duty imposed by Parliament upon the tea, landed in America, is a tax on the Americans, or levying contributions on them without their consent.

'III.  That the express purpose for which the tax is levied on the Americans, namely; for the support of government, administration of justice, and defence of His Majesty's dominions in America, has a direct tendency to render Assemblies useless, and to introduce arbitrary government and slavery.

'IV.  That a virtuous and steady opposition to this ministerial plan of governing America, is absolutely necessary, to preserve even the shadow of liberty; and is a duty which every freeman in America owes to his country, to himself, and to his posterity.

'V.  That the resolution lately entered into by the East India Company to send out their tea to America, subject to the payment of duties on its being landed here, is an open attempt to enforce this ministerial plan, and a violent attack upon the liberties of America.

'VI.  That it is the duty of every American to oppose this attempt.

'VII.  That whoever shall, directly or indirectly, countenance this attempt, or in any wise aid or abet in unloading, receiving, or vending the tea sent, or to be sent out by the East India Company, while it remains subject to the payment of a duty here, is an enemy to his country.'

'VIII.  That no tea belonging to the East India Company, or any other persons, subject to a duty, or dutied tea, shall be unladed here, or brought to land.

'IX.  That this town will co-operate with the other towns in this colony, and with all the other colonies, in a resolute stand, as well against every other unconstitutional measure, calculated to enslave America, as the tea act in particular.

'X.  That Samuel Nighengale, Esq., Jabez Bowen, Esq., and Messrs. John Brown, John Updike, John Jenckes, John Mathewson, and Daniel Cahoon, or the major part of them, be a committee to correspond with the towns in this and the neighboring governments, on all such matters as shall be thought to affect the liberties of America.

'Voted, That this town highly approve of the proceedings of their brethren of Boston, Philadelphia and New York, in their spirited and resolute opposition made to the introduction of tea, while subject to a duty laid by Parliament; and that our thanks be given them for the same.

'Voted, That this committee wait on all the importers of English goods in this town, and inform them of the resolutions which the town have entered into respecting tea, while subject to a duty; ad if any of them have ordered any tea to come next spring, that they be desired to send counter orders immediately.

'Voted, That the foregoing proceedings be published in the next 'Providence Gazette'.

The committee found on investigation, that only one chest of tea had been ordered by the merchants of Providence, and that order had been promptly recalled before the town meeting.  Only nine chests on which a duty had been paid had been imported here since the non-importation agreement was rescinded.  In the general sympathy with Boston which was manifested throughout the colonies, Providence led the van, being first to pass a resolution expressive of that sympathy.  At a town meeting held here May 17th, 1774, resolutions were passed declaring that this town would join with the other colonies in such measures as should generally be agreed upon for protecting them to posterity.  The deputies were called upon to use their influence in general assembly in favor of calling a congress of the colonies.  The opinion was put forth that a suspension of all trade with Great Britain and its dependencies would be the best expedient for securing the speedy reinstatement of Boston to its former privileges.

The general assembly acted in accordance with the desires of the people, and in June appointed Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward delegates from this colony to a continental congress.  At the town meeting last referred to this town also passed a resolution directing their deputies to endeavor to secure the passage of an act in assembly prohibiting the importation of negro slaves into this colony and also making negroes born here in slavery free after attaining a certain age.

In 1774 the town of Providence contained 4,321 inhabitants, who was grouped in 655 families, and domiciled in 421 houses.

In August of that year the town instructed its deputies to endeavor to procure the passage of an act making a grant for the assistance of Boston.  The instructions declare, 'Their cause is our cause, and unless aid and succor be afforded them, they may be discouraged into a hurtful submission, and ministerial vengeance may be next directed against this colony, and in the end alight upon all.'  The patriotism of the people of this town at that time was no burst of spread-eagle enthusiasm, to flash and soar with the parade of a holiday.  It was a deep, pervading sentiment, founded in principle and taking root in the hearts and lives of the people, prompting them to lay hold of the situation with an earnest grasp that meant to stay to the bitter end, whatever the end might be.  Many of the people from Boston, when the port was closed and business thus made stagnant there, removed to other places.  Among those who came to Providence was one John Simpson, a hardware merchant, who made himself obnoxious by espousing the cause of despotism.  On the morning of the 21st of August, he found his doors and window shutters tarred and feathered.  He accepted the ominous threat implied, and returned to Boston.  A tin-plate worker arrived here a few days afterward, but the inhabitants being apprised that he was a sympathizer with the oppressive royal government, intimated to him that he could not continue here in safety, and on the following day he returned to Boston.  On the 30th of August, in view of the facts which we have noticed and others of their kind, the people in town meeting expressed themselves as follows:

'It is resolved by this meeting, that this town ought not to be made the asylum of any person or persons, of whatever town, place or city, within the British dominions, whose principles and practices, being inimical to the liberties of our country and its happy constitution, have rendered or shall render them obnoxious to the inhabitants of such place or places from which they may emigrate; and that all such ought to be discouraged, by every prudent and legal measure; and the honorable town council are hereby requested to exert themselves, for the removal and ejection of all such persons, so far as by law they may be warranted; as their being admitted amongst us may tend greatly to endanger the peace, order and tranquility of the town, which has been manifested by recent instances.'

It appears that riots and tumultuous outbreaks of the passions of men were occasionally known here, which, in view of the highly excited condition of the popular feeling, is not at all to be wondered at.  The people, however, put in operation all the safeguards and regulations at their command to prevent such occurrences, and as far as we can now see, their efforts were reasonably successful.  In November, the committee of correspondence was authorized to transmit £125 as a donation to Boston from the treasury of this town.  That committee strongly urged the preservation of all the sheep in the colony that were not actually needed, and urged both by proclamation and personal appeal the withholding of all sheep from export to the West Indies, which at that time was a considerable line of trade.  The recommendations of the committee seem to have been almost entirely acquiesced in, as well as the resolutions of the town.  The readiness and unanimity with which the people accepted and acted upon measures for the public good, even when their own personal interests for the time being were injuriously affected thereby, is a remarkable evidence of the depth of the patriotic principle by which they were actuated.  Hon. William R. Staples, the local historian of Providence, has well said:  'When any people are so virtuous as to yield implicit obedience to the simple recommendations of their rulers, upon the ground that the well being of the community depends on them, they may be annihilated, but not subjugated.'

In pursuance of the recommendation of the continental congress a 'committee of inspection' was appointed by this town on December 17th, which consisted of the following men:  William Earl, Nicholas Cooke, Benjamin Man, Zephaniah Andrews, Arthur Fenner, Jr., Ambrose Page, Nicholas Power, George Corlis, Paul Allen, David Lawrence, Joseph Russell, Job Sweeting, Joseph Bucklin, Jonathan Arnold, Bernard Eddy, Aaron Mason, Joseph Brown and Nathaniel Wheaton.  The committee was vigilant in carrying out the purposes for which they were appointed.  In accord with the recommendation of congress they urged the entire abstinence from the use of East India tea after March 1st, 1775.  To this the people most heartily agreed, and to make their determination the more positive a public demonstration was made on March 2d, the account of which runs as follows:

The town crier at noon ran through the town, giving notice that a quantity of India tea would be burnt at 5 o'clock that afternoon in the market place.  All true friends of their country were invited to manifest their good dispositions by coming and casting upon the fire what they might bring of 'a needless herb, which for a long time hath been highly detrimental to our liberty, interest and health.'  A great number of people assembled at the time and place appointed, bringing together about three hundred pounds of tea, which was publicly burned.  There was also cast upon the bon-fire a tar barrel, Lord North's speech, Rivington's and Mills and Hicks' newspapers, and other things.  Meanwhile the bells of the town were tolled, and one of the Sons of Liberty went along the streets with a brush and black paint and covered the word 'tea' on all the shop signs where it was found.

The committee of inspection found many duties to perform, and so well did they attend to those duties that with the exception of George Corlis, they were in June, all re-appointed, and the number enlarged by the addition of Samuel Nighengale, Jr., Jabez Bowen, John Brown, John Updike, John Jenckes, John Mathewson, David Cahoone, James Angell and James Black.  Among their duties they sought to preserve the uniform prices of the necessaries of life, to prevent the cupidity of merchants or dealers taking advantage of the limited supply of any article to raise by force the price thereof.  They also forbade the killing and bringing into market any lamb or mutton between July 22d and September 1st, under penalty of forfeiture.

Besides such measures of internal polity, which were doubtless enforced with comparatively little effort because of the strong public sentiment behind them, the townspeople were not behind their neighbors in making preparations for war.  Independent companies, so-called, were organized from volunteers from the militia, having the right to choose their own officers and certain other  privileges granted them by the assembly.  They were not attached to any regiment, but were subject to orders immediately from the governor as captain general.  An artillery company had been organized in 1774, which in June of that year assumed the name of the Cadet Company.  A light infantry company was incorporated the same month, a grenadier company was soon formed, and in December the Providence Fusileers, a company of horse, and another of artillery were chartered.  The Fusileers and Artillery were a few months later united into one, as the United Train of Artillery.  Military drill was a daily occupation, and the tactics of war were being thoroughly studied by determined patriots, who knew not what day they might be called upon to exercise all their skill and powers of endurance in the defense of their principles, their homes and their lives.  In April, a general muster of the militia took place, when there were about 2,000 men under arms in the county of Providence, besides the troop of horse.  As early as January, 1775, Stephen Jenckes, of North Providence, had supplied some of the independent companies with muskets of his own manufacture.  Other persons in the colony were extensively engaged in making small arms at the same time.

Providence received news of the battle of Lexington on the 19th of April, at evening.  Preparations were immediately begun, and as fast as they could get ready companies of militia and independent companies were in line of march for Boston.  By the morning of the 21st about a thousand men had marched or were in readiness to do so.  Receiving word that their assistance was not immediately needed, they were dismissed.

Besides these general preparations for meeting an enemy in the field it now seemed necessary for some preparations for defense in case the British should make an armed attack upon this town.  Several vessels of war were in the bay, and might at any time appear in hostile attitude in the very midst of the town.  To prevent this a breastwork and entrenchment were thrown up between Field and Sassafras points, and a battery was planted on Fox point, armed with six 18-pounders.  At a meeting August 29th, Esek Hopkins was appointed to command this battery, with Samuel Warner as lieutenant, and Christopher Sheldon, gunner.  A floating battery was also soon begun, and in October a line of obstruction consisting of a line of scows, filled with combustible materials, and a boom and chain across the channel.  The works thus begun by this town were completed under direction and patronage of the colony.

In order to give notice of an attack upon the town, in case one should be made, a beacon was erected on the east hill, near the junction of Meeting and Prospect streets.  As an experiment to test its action it was lighted one night and its light could be seen in Newport, New London, Norwich, Pomfret and Cambridge.

On the morning of August 22d, three British war ships were seen coming up the bay, and within ten miles of Providence.  The alarm was given, the batteries and entrenchments were manned, and the military companies of the town and vicinity were called out, and every preparation made to meet the approaching fleet in a manner appropriate to the sentiment of the time.  But the ships returned down the bay at evening, without manifesting any hostile intentions.

The population of the town then numbered 4,355, of which 2,678 were on the east side of the river, and 1,677 on the west side.  The total population was divided among 741 families.  The defensive force is hinted at by the fact that there were 726 men, and they were provided with 497 stand of arms.

When the American army was set in motion across the country from Boston to New York, after the evacuation of the former by the British, General Washington made a call in this town, and was well entertained by the people, who were filled with admiration of his skillful and successful campaign against the British at Boston.  Here he was a welcome and honored guest.  He arrived on the 5th of April, 1776, and was escorted into the town by the Cadet and Light Infantry Companies and two regiments of continental troops.

The independence sentiment was growing here with great rapidity.  Providence was doubtless in full accord with the act of the general assembly which was passed in May, repealing a former 'Act for the more effectual securing to this Majesty the Allegiance of his subjects in this his Colony and dominion.'  This act provided, besides the repealing clause, that whenever the name and authority of the king was made use of, in all commissions of officers, civil and military, and in all writs and processes in law, the words recognizing the authority of the king should be omitted, and the words, 'The Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,' should be substituted therefor.  The courts of law were no longer to be considered the king's courts, and no instrument in writing, either public or private, should mention in its date the year of the king's reign.

The climax of this independence spirit was reached in the declaration of July 4th, 1776.  This was followed by resolutions by the general assembly in July, 'That if any person within this state shall, under pretence of preaching or praying, or in any other way and manner whatever, acknowledge or declare the said King to be our rightful Lord and Sovereign, or shall pray for the success of his arms, or that he may vanquish and overcome all his enemies, shall be guilty of a high misdemeanor, and shall therefor be presented by the Grand Jury of the County where the offence shall be committed, to the Superior Court of the same County; and upon conviction thereof shall forfeit and pay, as a fine, to and for the use of this State, the sum of £100 lawful money, and pay all costs of prosecution, and shall stand committed to jail until the same be satisfied.'  This act was directed to be printed in the newspapers of Newport and Providence.

The ratification of the declaration of independence was duly celebrated in Providence on the 25th of the month.  The governor and such members of the assembly as were in town, were escorted by the Cadet and Light Infantry companies to the court house, where the declaration was read to the public.  A salute of thirteen guns was fired from the artillery and the continental ships in the harbor.  A public dinner was provided, and appropriate toasts given.  In the evening the king's arms were taken down from the public offices and burned, and the keeper of the 'Crown Coffee House' threw his own sign upon the fire.

Warlike preparations were making on land and sea.  The lower bay was infested with a gathering fleet of British war ships and soon the island of Rhode Island fell into the possession of the British, remaining so until October, 1779.  The presence of the war ships in the bay kept the people here in a state of continual alarm.  Large numbers of troops were centered here for some time, to prevent a supposed design of the British to land troops here and march them to Boston.  The town had somewhat the appearance of a camp. The college building was first used as quarters for the artillery, and the grounds around it for a parade, and afterward as a hospital for the sick soldiers.  Ordinary business in the town was suspended.  Many of the inhabitants removed into the interior to find places of greater safety.  Martial movements were daily the interest and excitement of the people.  Expeditions were prepared here to go down to drive out the British from the island.

One of the notable exploits of the war was the capture of the 'Pigot' by Major Talbut, of Providence.  The 'Pigot' was a British galley carrying eight 12-pounders and 45 men.  She was stationed at the entrance of Seconet river, on the east of the island, where she acted as an obstruction to navigation up and down from Providence and Mount Hope bay.  On the 25th of October, 1778, Major Silas Talbut left Providence in the sloop 'Hawk', with two lieutenants and 50 men who had volunteered for the expedition from Sullivan's army.  They sailed down the river and bay, and on the night of the 28th passed the British battery on Rhode Island, opposite Fogland point.  At about one o'clock in the morning of the 29th they boarded the 'Pigot', having approached with such caution that the crew were surprised, and surrendered without being able to make any decided resistance.  The prize was taken to New London and afterward brought to Providence.  In recognition of this daring exploit Major Talbut received the thanks of the general assembly, accompanied by a sword, and congress promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

General Sullivan left the command here in March, 1779, being succeeded by Major General Gates.  During the time in which he had been in command of the post here he had become greatly attached to and respected by the people, and on the 19th of March a town meeting expressed their complimentary and appreciative sentiments and good wishes in a brief written address, to which General Sullivan responded in an open letter, expressing his cordial acknowledgements and reciprocal regard for the people.  General Gates arrived on the 3d of April, and took command of the forces here, remaining in command until November 8th, when he left to join the main army.  The British people had now left the island and the people there were returning to claim and take possession of their property.  June 16th, 1780, Major General Heath was invested with the command of this department and arrived here, an expected engagement in the vicinity creating some alarm.  The militia of the state were called out, and troops from Massachusetts and Connecticut were gathered here.  The alarm continued but a few days, and the militia were dismissed on the 7th of August, the enemy having returned to New York.

In the spring of 1781 General Washington visited Newport, and on his return through this town he was made the center of a popular demonstration of welcome and flattering expression of devoted regard.  He was greeted by the firing of cannon, a popular parade, grand illumination in the evening, dinner at the state house on the day following and a ball in the evening.  From the address presented to him on that occasion by the prominent citizens of Providence we quote the following paragraphs as specimens of its general tone:

'We beg leave to assure your excellency, that we will manifest our attachment to your excellency, and the great cause in which we are engaged, by exerting the utmost of our abilities in enlisting and supporting such a force, as with the aid of our generous allies, will be sufficient to bring the war to a happy issue.

'That your excellency may be the glorious instrument of effecting this most desirable event, which will deliver your name to posterity with a fame equal to that of the most celebrated heroes of antiquity; and that you may long enjoy the honors that will be paid you, is the sincere prayer of your excellency's most obedient and most humble servants.'

To the address General Washington made a very appropriate reply.

During the early part of 1781, the French troops from the camp at Newport, which had been broken up, marched through Providence on their way to join the army of General Washington.  A part of them encamped for a short time on the plain near the burial ground of the Benevolent Congregational Society.  The second division of this army spent the winter in an encampment in North Providence, on the rising ground to the east of the Pawtucket turnpike, a little south of the old site of the turnpike gate.

Among the memorable events of the war which stirred the enthusiasm and excitement of this town perhaps none were more powerful for the time than the capture of Prescott.  We need not here recount the story of how the brave and cautious Colonel William Barton, with a band of daring men crossed from Warwick Neck at night in boats with muffled oars, and surrounded the house in which General Prescott, the British officer in command of the island, was quartered, and took him prisoner, and without giving him time to dress hurried him to the boats and across to the mainland, where he was soon taken in a coach to Providence, amid the enthusiastic expressions and under the gaze of thousands of spectators.  Remaining in Providence but a day or two, he was removed on the third day to Connecticut, and later to New York, the object of his capture being to exchange him for General Lee, who was then a prisoner in the hands of the British, and detained on ship-board lying off the capes of Virginia.

In connection with this affair the following episode is so full of practical suggestion in regard to the times that we must be pardoned for narrating it.  We give it in the words of Mrs. Williams.

'At the time so many distressed families were seeking to get away from Rhode Island, some very considerable difficulty was experienced in procuring passports to get away.  Mrs. Read was among the number, and finding all indirect application useless, she at length applied herself.  He [Prescott] at first refused, frankly avowing that he 'meant to keep her there to catch her husband.'  But at length some of the under officers joining in the request, he relented and ordered the passport made out.  Upon presenting it he said, in his usual pompous manner, -- ''If you go to Providence to get out of my way, Mrs. Read, you will lose your labor, as I shall get there about as soon as you will.'

'Mrs. Read was now settled in a comfortable residence, a house on Weybosset street belonging to Mr. Butler (still standing near the Arcade), when on the morning of the 10th of July, Captain William Brown, a connexion of her family, called to tell her that her old tormentor, Prescott, was coming past in the course of the day.  'And now Mary', said he, 'if you will stand in the front door and welcome him as he passes, and say Why, General, you said you should be here, but I did not think you would come so soon; scare as money is, I will give you fifty dollars.'  'It is a bargain', said the lady.  Accordingly when the carriage came past she threw open the front door and presented  her majestic figure.  She was a woman of singular appearance, take her all in all, and very handsome; being somewhat above the common height, having a very piercing pair of black eyes, and when excited there was something startling in her look.  The General, though riding bareheaded in an open carriage, subject to the gaze of the multitude, endeavored to carry himself with composure, and from time to time would turn to make some remark to his captor, who sat by his side, strove in vain to retain his equanimity, when he observed Mrs. Read.  Owing to the crowd which surrounded the carriage, it moved very slowly through the streets, and as she threw open the door, his eyes chanced to turn full upon her.  He changed countenance, dropped his eyes instantly, and a transient flush passed over his features; and it was observed, that from that moment his composure vanished.  As to the lady, though a woman of uncommon firmness and fearlessness, she was quite unmoved by this unlooked for agitation.'

The events of the revolution were now drawing to a close.  The long period of war was a severe strain upon the patriots of this town, but they bore it nobly, and with unfaltering devotion to the cause in which their sympathies were enlisted.  Soon after the surrender of Cornwallis hopes of an immediate peace were borne on every breeze across the Atlantic.  At last the preliminary articles were signed at Versailles in January, 1783, and a proclamation declaring a cessation of hostilities was issued by Congress on the 11th of April following.  The celebration of this joyful event in Providence took place on the 22d of the same month.  The morning was welcomed by a discharge of cannon and the ringing of bells.  The continental frigate 'Alliance', then in the harbor, and the rest of the shipping were decked with colors, and fired salutes in honor of the occasion.  A civic procession, escorted by the artillery, marched from the house of Deputy Governor Bowen to the Baptist meeting house.  The Reverend Enos Hitchcock, pastor of the first Congregational Society, preached a sermon from the text, 'Not unto us, O Lord, but unto Thy name, give Glory.'  This was followed by an oration by the Hon. Asher Robbins, then a tutor in the college here.  The procession then moved to the court house, where the proclamation of Congress was read from the balcony, and this was followed by a discharge of 13 cannon from the state house parade and a battery on the east hill near the beacon.  After dinner 13 toasts were drank, each under a discharge of 13 cannon.  In the evening the state house and market house were illuminated, and a display of fireworks closed the festivities of the day.  The artillery company paraded under Colonel Daniel Tillinghast, who had commanded it during the whole year.

The colony of Rhode Island at the commencement of the war was largely interested in commerce.  This fact led the state at an early period to take measures for the protection of business.  In June, 1775, the assembly directed the committee of safety to charter two vessels for this purpose.  Abraham Whipple, of Providence, was placed in command of them both, with the title of commodore.  The assembly urged congress to provide for building a sufficient number of vessels to protect the merchant service of the colonies.  Accordingly it provided in 1775 for fitting out three war vessels, and Esek Hopkins, of North Providence, then a brigadier general of this state, received the appointment of commander in chief of the infant navy.  It was afterward increased.  The first expedition with this fleet was made by Commodore Hopkins early in 1776.  The fleet consisted of the ships 'Alfred' and 'Columbus', the brigs 'Andrew Doria' and 'Cabot', and the sloops 'Providence', 'Fly', 'Hornet' and 'Wasp'.  Leaving the capes of the Delaware on the 17th of February they sailed to the Bermudas, where they captured a large quantity of munitions of war, and returned to New London on the 8th of April, and subsequently came up to Providence.  In the plan for building 13 vessels, which congress decided upon, two were to be built in Rhode Island, their names being the 'Warren' and the 'Providence'.  The former was 111 feet keel, 34 1/2 feet beam, and 10 feet, 8 inches depth of hold.  A committee of Providence men was appointed to superintend their building.

During the war Providence abounded in privateers.  They were generally successful in eluding the British cruisers which infested the waters along our coasts, and they made prizes of merchantmen, transports and small vessels of war.  It was engaged in by many whose name stood high in the social and moral scale, as the moral scale was graduated to the circumstances of the times.  Most of the merchandise introduced into the country from abroad was brought in by these privateers, and their spoils furnished valuable resources of the army and navy.  Thus by touching the pockets of British merchants these privateers did much toward influencing he British government to recognize the independence of the colonies.

News of the final treaty of peace between the United States and Great Britain arrived in Providence on the second day of December, 1783.  The population of this town at that time numbered 4,306, of which 291 were negroes, mulattoes and Indians.

The war being ended, and the independence of the colonies being recognized by Great Britain, the questions of peace now came to the surface for adjustment.  They presented some phases even more perplexing than the questions of war had been.  The conditions upon which the colonies were to be united as states, so as to secure the imperative necessities of union and at the same time preserve the independence of each, was a question that puzzled the leaders of this state to a hazardous extreme.  In the general sentiment in opposition to accepting the constitution of a government which most of the other states quite readily accepted, the town of Providence did not sympathize.  On the contrary the prevailing sentiment here, as expressed in repeated public demonstrations and instructions to their deputies and other action of the town, was decidedly in favor of adopting the constitution of the United States.  The opposition in other parts of the state, however, was for a long time in the ascendency.  The people of Providence expressed their sentiments of approval by demonstrations of public rejoicing whenever the news arrived of the acceptance of the constitution by any of the sister states.  On such occasions the schools were dismissed for the day, the church bells rung nearly all day and cannon fired at different hours of the day.

The 4th of July, 1788, was determined upon as the occasion of a great festive day, commemorative both of the adoption of the constitution by the nine states necessary to its going into effect, and the signing of the declaration of independence.  A sumptuous programme had bee prepared, including among its details the roasting of an ox entire.  A table a thousand feet long was prepared under an awning.  The scene of the jubilee and feast was at Federal Plain, on the land of Job Smith, at the head of the cove.  Here it was estimated some five or six thousand people assembled and took part in the ceremonies.  But there was an element of opposition in the surrounding country that, hearing of the proposed demonstrations of rejoicing, determined to interfere with it.  To carry out their design  about one thousand armed men assembled in the adjoining woods during the previous night, and sent a delegation on the morning of the celebration to forbid any demonstrations of rejoicing on account of the adoption of the constitution by other states.  With a very commendable desire to preserve peace at this juncture of their history, the people consented that the festivities in form should have reference only to the celebration of the declaration of independence, and that no formal declaration of approval of the constitution and its adoption by other states as the object of rejoicing by the assemblage should be made.  Upon this the men in arms remained quiet during the day, some of them perhaps taking part in the festivities as a patriotic celebration of the 4th of July or Independence Day.

But the spirit of sympathy with the adoption of the constitution was alive on the following day, when the news arrived that Virginia had fallen into line.  Bells were rung, cannon fired, and about a thousand men paraded through the principle streets.  Again on the 29th of the same month, when the news that New York had adopted the constitution arrived, the popular rejoicing found vent in a similar outburst of demonstrative enthusiasm.  On this occasion the south side of Weybosset bridge was decorated with eleven flags, to represent the eleven states which had then adopted the constitution, while on the north side of the bridge stood two poles, one of which represented North Carolina, inclined about 30 degrees from perpendicular, and bearing the motto, 'It will rise;' while the other represented this state, being inclined at an angle of about 45 degrees, and bearing the motto 'Rhode Island in hopes'.  Early in 1789, on the inauguration of the new government of the United States, we find the people of Providence instructing and urging their deputies in general assembly to advocate a convention to consider the adoption of the constitution.  In spite, however, of all the efforts the representatives of Providence could make nothing could be done, so strong was the sentiment in other parts of the state in opposition to the idea.  In May this town again appealed to the assembly, this time by direct petition, to call a state convention to consider the adoption of the constitution.  Strong arguments were enumerated in this petition against delay and refusal to join the eleven states already in the Union, but the assembly remained obstinate.

In August, 1789, Providence, in town meeting appointed a committee to draft a petition direct to congress, which petition, duly attested, was transmitted to that body.  In it the people prayed for the favorable consideration of congress, assuring them of their patriotism and fidelity to the cause during the war, and regretting their unhappy situation outside the Union, and particularly entreating congress to grant that for a reasonable time 'the vessels belonging to the citizens of this state, may be admitted to entry in the ports of the United States, exempt from the payment of foreign tonnage in the same manner as vessels belonging to their own citizens.'  A similar petition in this particular was presented to congress by the general assembly in September, and in response to these congress consented to place for a limited time the vessels and goods of the citizens of this state on the same footing with like property of citizens of the United States.

The assembly now sent out a request that the people of the different towns should instruct their representatives in regard to calling a convention.  Providence now gave no specific instructions to her representatives, but directed them to act conscientiously in the matter and according to their oaths of office, the people evidently believing that no further instructions were needed.  Doubtless the sentiments of their representatives were well known before their election.  The January session of the assembly was held in Providence and the motion for a convention was carried in the lower house.  Excitement now became intense.  The session held until Saturday evening, when the senate stood four in favor and five against.  They adjourned to Sunday morning.  One of the senators, being a minister, felt it was his duty to return home to attend to his Sabbath services, and when the senate convened the motion received a tie vote.  It now devolved upon the governor to decide, and he gave his vote to concur with the lower house.  An uncontrollable burst of applause broke from the crowded house when the decision was reached.  The convention was accordingly called at South Kingstown in March and adjourned thence to meet at Newport on the last Monday in May, where, after several days of the most intense excitement and prolonged discussion, the motion to adopt the constitution was carried by a majority of two.  The delegates to this convention from Providence were Jabez Bowen, Benjamin Bourne, William Barton and John Innes Clark.  The popular enthusiasm again found expression in the firing of salutes, ringing of bells, waving of flags and military parades, not even forbearing on account of the day, which chanced to be the Sabbath, when the news arrived.

Thus the state was admitted to the Union, and the interests of the town of Providence shared in the common current of peaceful prosperity, which from that time bore its history adown the decades with only now and then a disturbance upon its placid bosom.  The population of Providence in 1790 was 6,380, and its shipping then consisted of 9 ships, 36 brigs, 20 schooners, 45 sloops, altogether 110 sail, aggregating a tonnage of 10,590, exclusive of river packets, boats and shallops.  At this time Providence was claimed to be 'a place of more navigation than any of its size in the union', and it was also declared in a petition to congress that there was a greater number of vessels belonging to this port than to New York.  Such declarations made to so august a body as congress, and by a company represented by a man of so high standing as Welcome Arnold, are hardly to be doubted, incredible as the assertions may at first appear.

In August of this year (1790), President Washington visited Providence.  He came from New York in the packet 'Hancock', Captain Brown, and was accompanied by Governor Clinton of New York, Thomas Jefferson, secretary of state, and several other members of congress.  The party were formally escorted from the wharf to their lodgings at the Golden Ball Inn, while the enthusiastic populace fired salutes, rang bells and paraded the streets.  The college edifice was illuminated in the evening.  On the following day the president was shown about town by Governor Fenner, and joined in a state dinner with a company of about three hundred.  An address was presented to his excellency by a committee of the people, and was handsomely responded to."

* * * * * * * * * * *END transcript of chapter VI. * * * * * * * * * * *


Chapter VII
These documents are made available free to the public for non-commercial purposes by the Rhode Island USGenWeb Project.
Transcription 2004 by Beth Hurd, Images by Beth Hurd 2004
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