The Fourth of July Story and Rhode Island's Role
by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
On July 4th, our country celebrates Independence Day, the annual commemoration of our nationhood. Why July the Fourth? Because on that day in 1776, the Continental Congress passed the Declaration of Independence declaring our separation from Great Britain.
"Tomorrow has a much deeper meaning than special sales, fireworks, and hot dogs on the grill," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "And to appreciate how significant it is, it's important to understand the history of this country, warts and all, and why the birth of the United States is so special. I would also like to discuss why the state of Rhode Island became the first to declare independence and the last to ratify our Constitution, unfortunately, not just for patriotic reasons."
For those who may need a bit of a history refresher, America once consisted of thirteen original colonies that were established by Great Britain beginning with the settlement in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. After that, Great Britain and other European countries continued to colonize the new country throughout the 17th and into the 18th century. By the mid-1700s, over two million settlers lived in the original colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
"As the settlers became more self-sufficient, the British Crown began to pass laws that gave them more control over the colonies," said Attorney Connelly. "This control took the form of onerous taxation laws not only meant to keep the colonists under their thumb but also to help the British pay off a massive debt from the French and Indian War." This legislation included:
The Stamp Act passed in March of 1765 which taxed newspapers, almanacs, pamphlets, broadsides, legal documents, dice, and playing cards.
The Townshend Acts of June and July 0f 1767 were passed that taxed all goods imported to the colonies.
The Tea Act of 1773 gave all control of the trade and delivery of tea to the East India Tea Company, which had struck a deal with parliament.
"These laws led to the well-known phrase, 'taxation without representation', meaning that the laws were passed without any input from the colonists who were affected," said Attorney Connelly. "Obviously, these laws became a festering wound among the colonists which was the fuse waiting to be lit leading to the American Revolution."
Before the Tea Act of 1773, another famous event occurred that stirred the ire of the colonists that continued to stoke the fires of anger within the colonists. "That event became known as the Boston Massacre, and it was the result of the citizens and business owners of Boston refusing to pay taxes and the British sending troops to occupy the city to enforce the collection of the money," said Attorney Connelly.
The Boston Massacre
It was March 5, 1770, when an unruly mob, who called themselves patriots, assembled at the Customs House in Boston. A late winter snowstorm was in progress as British soldiers stood guard in the occupied city. A British soldier, Private Hugh White, stood guard outside the building. At around 8:00 pm, a group of young patriots approached White and began taunting him. A physical melee ensued, and church bells rang throughout Boston followed by a flood of angry colonists taking to the street.
"Then," said Attorney Connelly, "someone pelted Private White with a snowball. This was followed by more snowballs, chunks of ice, and oyster shells that were piled by the dining establishments. White then called for help."
British Captain Thomas Preston and a group of soldiers joined White outside the Customs House. He ordered his men to put their bayonets on their weapons and they, too, were barraged with snowballs and ice. When another British Private, Hugh Montgomery was hit with a piece of ice, he discharged his rifle at the crowd.
"When the smoke cleared, five colonists were dead and three more lay in the snow-covered streets of Boston seriously injured," said Attorney Connelly. "Of particular interest is the fact that many believe the first one killed was an African American named Crispus Attucks. Many historians regard these deaths as the first fatalities of the American Revolution."
The Boston Tea Party
Three years later, following the Tea Act, the American colonists staged a political protest on December 16, 1773. "A group of colonists calling themselves the Sons of Liberty arrived at Griffins Wharf awaiting the arrival of several ships loaded with tea from China," stated Attorney Connelly. "Among this group was such well-known American patriots as Benedict Arnold, Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, John Adams, and John Hancock."
Earlier in the day, thousands of colonists flooded the waterfront of Boston to attend a meeting held at the Old South Meeting House. "It was at this meeting that a vote was held, and it was agreed that no further taxes would be paid on the tea, nor would the tea be allowed to be delivered, stored, sold, or used," continued Attorney Connelly.
"Later that night, a large group of men disguised in traditional native American garb, snuck onto the boats and destroyed boxes of tea and dumped them into the Boston Harbor," said Attorney Connelly. "The Tea Party went on for nearly three hours with more than a hundred colonists participating. It is estimated that 90,000 pounds of tea worth over a million dollars in today's money was dumped into the water. As this was occurring, there was no attempt by British soldiers to interfere with the protest."
The War Begins
As these small but explosive incidents began to increase in numbers, so did the tension throughout the colonies between the colonists and the British occupiers. Word had gotten back to the crown that the colonists and those who called themselves patriots had stockpiled weapons and started to form a militia. British forces were ordered to confiscate all weapons from the colonists.
Finally, in April of 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord broke out when the British attempted to take the weapons from the colonists. It was the first time that an actual militia fought the British and marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War.
Second Continental Congress
"In May of 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia inside Independence Hall, and this time, the Congress was preparing for battle following the shots being fired in Massachusetts," stated Attorney Connelly. "During that Congress, they officially established the militia, known as the Continental Army, and elected George Washington to be its Commander in Chief."
But even after making these plans for war, the delegates felt that one final offer should be made to the Crown to avoid a conflict and find a peaceful resolution. "King George refused to deal with the colonists and instead, stated the American colonies were in full revolt and ordered his troops to put down the uprising," said Connelly.
On June 7, 1776, a resolution was put forth by the Virginia delegate, Richard Henry Lee for a declaration of independence: “Resolved, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states…”
Even given the situation occurring, not all delegates at Independence Hall were for declaring independence from the British. The vote ended up being postponed while advocates for separation tried to convince others to support the move. Meanwhile, five men were assigned to draft the document: John Adams (MA), Benjamin Franklin (PA), Thomas Jefferson (VA), Roger Sherman (CT), and Robert R. Livingston (NY), with Jefferson doing most of the work in his room that is now located at 7th and Market Streets in the City of Brotherly Love.
"On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted to adopt the resolution for independence, and the declaration was presented," said Attorney Connelly. "Between July 2 and July 4, a tremendous amount of haggling occurred over every word in the draft and numerous changes were made. Then, on July 4, 1776, Congress approved the work which we know today as the Declaration of Independence and America became a free nation."
Rhode Island's Dissenting Role
"To understand Rhode Island's role in our new nation, it's necessary to understand how and why Rhode Island was founded," cited Attorney Connelly. "There was a lot of friction between different religious philosophies at the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans, who were the most outspoken, did not originally come here to promote the notion of religious freedom for all, but to gain the freedom to pursue their own faith as they believed God directed them to do. It was the most radical of the Puritan dissenters that founded Rhode Island."
The colony of Rhode Island was able to prosper and became quite wealthy thanks to its ports and their proximity to the West Indies shipping lanes. As the Crown began to punish the colonies with increased taxation, the colony became the most affected because it had become the mercantile center of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th Century.
"This lucrative trade and the accumulated wealth led Rhode Island to be the first colony to actually renounce its allegiance to the British on May 4, 1776, a full two months ahead of the official Declaration, marking this state's Independence Day" pointed out Attorney Connelly. "Unfortunately, it is actually a low point in Rhode Island's history. The slave trade that was one of the reasons for the declaration involved moving this human cargo in dirty and horrific storage areas of rat and insect-infested ships to the Caribbean Islands where those who survived the trip were sold by Rhode Island businessmen to the West Indian plantation owners who used them in exchange for shipments of molasses for the rum industry in the state."
It was Britain's attempt to tighten its control over this trade that caused ire among Rhode Islanders leading to two well-known incidents during protests leading to the state's early break from the rule of the Crown.
The first occurred in June of 1768 when British troops confiscated John Hancock's ship named Liberty because it was involved in smuggling wine, which led to riots in the streets of Boston. The second, occurred in 1772 near Warwick when the British customs boat named the Gaspee ran aground sparking the already angered colonists to board the boat and burn it, wounding the captain of the ship.
"Rhode Island was founded by dissenters and it was dissenters that balked at being a part of the colonies' Declaration," said Connelly. "It was the strength of the state's mercantile that caused as much trouble for the newly founded country as it did for the British. In fact, so strong was the wealth and trade in Rhode Island, due to ports in Providence and Newport, that it was the only small state that could survive independent of the new union that was proposed in 1787. So, although Rhode Island was the first to declare its independence, it was also the last to ratify the Constitution in 1790, and only after it was confronted by the rest of the union and told it would suffer severe financial consequences and be treated as a foreign country."
When We Began to Celebrate
If our story ended here, it would be somewhat of a wonderful fairy tale, but as adults, we all know fairy tales only exist in fiction and so too for the Declaration of Independence. Although today we view the Declaration as a magnificent document, it wasn't celebrated or even discussed much for the first two decades after it was signed, leading to those who were involved in its development being disappointed.
At one point, the document became controversial and partisan conflicts began to break out, picking apart the signers and the wording of the Declaration. Of the two parties at the time, the Democrat-Republicans, admired the document, and the other party, the Federalists, stated that the Declaration was "too French and too anti-British."
In 1817, a disgusted John Adams penned a letter stating that America, as it stood at the time, "had little interest in its past."
"After the war of 1812, the Federalist party began to break apart and several new parties emerged, the strongest of which had their origins in Jeffersonian beliefs," said Connelly. "This renewed interest in our founding led to the printing and widespread distribution of the Declaration of Independence with the date July 4, 1776, displayed across the top. This helped to promote the idea of July 4th as a date to be celebrated in our nation's history."
Following the deaths of both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, coincidently on July 4th, 1826, many wanted more done to cite America's birthday. As time went by, more citizens across the country began to celebrate this date, and nearly one hundred years after this document was written, Congress declared July 4th a national holiday.