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Map of Rhode Island

Rhode Island is the smallest state with the longest name. Its official name, "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," gives evidence of the divisions that have beset the state since its foundation. Although Rhode Island was established as a refuge from the Puritan orthodoxy of Massachusetts Bay, its earliest settlers found it no easier to get along with each other than they had with the authorities in Boston. In 1636 Roger Williams, exiled from Massachusetts, founded a settlement at the head of Narragansett Bay that he called Providence; in 1638 Anne and William Hutchinson and William Coddington settled on Aquidneck Island (later "Rhode Island") in Portsmouth. Several years later, Coddington quarreled with the Hutchinsons and founded Newport, a few miles to the south.

In 1643 the colonists put their differences aside and united in their support of Roger Williams's voyage to England, during which he secured a patent for the colony. In 1663 that document was superseded by a royal charter granted by Charles II, which guaranteed extensive religious toleration and provided the framework of government that would last long beyond the American Revolution, until 1843. The Rhode Island charter was the supreme law of the state for 180 years (the U.S. Constitution has been in effect only a few years more than that; it is now 220 years old).

The Rhode Island charter was easily the most democratic framework of government in any colony in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. After the Revolution, and especially in the 1790s, however, the framework of government began to show signs of obsolescence. Perhaps the worst aspect of Rhode Island's charter government was the malapportionment of its legislature, which was already acute at the time Rhode Island belatedly ratified the Constitution, in 1790. In that same year, Rhode Island fatefully launched the American industrial revolution at Slater's Mill in Pawtucket, and the economy and population of the towns near Providence took off. As a consequence, the malapportionment grew far worse.

While Providence and Pawtucket were booming, Newport and southern Rhode Island were declining. Although Newport had been a thriving commercial center before the Revolution, the long British naval occupation during the war and the decline in the rum, molasses, and slave trades in the 1790s brought a relative decline in Newport's fortunes. The inland Rhode Island towns west of Narragansett Bay did not share in the growth of Providence or even in the relative stability of Newport.

The four founding towns of Rhode Island (Providence, Newport, Portsmouth, and Warwick) were given the largest share of representatives in the legislative assembly: four seats each. Newer towns were given two seats. The state senate was elected by the assembly, and because each county claimed equal representation in that body, the southern portion of the state had veto power in the upper house.

The Charter of 1663 made no provision for the separation of powers; that is, it set up no formal division of responsibilities for the legislative, executive, and judicial functions of government. The legislature, known as the General Assembly, was the court of original jurisdiction in cases of debt and divorce, and it constituted the final court of appeal in all cases heard in Rhode Island until 1843. The governor and the legislature divided responsibilities in ways more akin to colonial government than to the new institutional frameworks being developed in other states. Although the legislature possessed substantial power, the governor nevertheless held significant patronage power in the state, and for that reason, Rhode Island organized its rough-and-tumble politics on a statewide basis long before it declared itself a state.

As with many individuals who suffer from arrested development, early Rhode Island showed signs of a remarkable political precocity. In the 1740s, two nascent political parties developed around the personalities of Samuel Ward and Stephen Hopkins. The Ward faction represented Newport and the surrounding southern towns. The Hopkins faction was attuned to the interests of Providence and its environs, which was already beginning its arc of ascendance by the middle of the eighteenth century. Historian Jack Greene credits Rhode Island (along with New York) with the development of the first modern, semi-permanent political parties.

Beginning in 1786, the “Country Party” of Jonathan Hazard took control of the Rhode Island government. The Country Party was committed to relief of the hard-pressed small farmers. In essence that meant a strong commitment to Rhode Island's issuance of paper currency. (In that same year, Daniel Shays and his cohorts launched a rebellion in Massachusetts to try to force that state's authorities to provide the same debt relief as Rhode Island.) Rhode Island's distressed farmers strongly resisted ratifying the federal Constitution, which prohibited the states from issuing their own currency. They were joined in their resistance by the Quakers in southern Rhode Island, who also denounced the new federal Constitution because of its implicit recognition of slavery. Through eleven attempts by the merchant interests in Providence (called the Minority Party) to gain ratification of the Constitution, the Country Party prevailed, finally acquiescing only in the face of the threat of Providence's secession from the state and the threatened enactment of tariffs by the new federal Congress against the tiny independent republic.

The Federal era brought new political difficulties to the state, even as it brought further prosperity to Providence. Rhode Island, which had given birth to the earliest modern political parties in America, now saw its parties degenerate into mere patronage-grabbing personal factions, only incidentally related to the important political and ideological contests between Hamiltonian Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans. These factions spent enormous amounts on campaigns revolving around personalities, private feuds, and outright bribery to control the elections.

For the first two decades of the Constitutional era, Rhode Island was a one-party political monopoly disguised as a competitive two-party state. The political monopoly was exercised at the gubernatorial level by Arthur Fenner, who held that office unopposed from 1790 until his death in 1805. Fenner was nominally a Republican, but he had few connections with the party organization in Philadelphia and later in Washington. And although Fenner was a nominal Republican, the congressional delegation was Federalist until 1800, and the presidential electors for Rhode Island were Federalist in all presidential elections from 1792 to 1816, except for the Republican landslide in 1804. From 1807 to 1811, Arthur Fenner's son James was elected to the governorship by Federalists and some dissident Republicans on a Union ticket. Because of strong opposition to the Embargo, to Non-importation, and later to "Mr. Madison's War," Rhode Island Federalists swept to a gubernatorial victory under William Jones in 1811 and in succeeding annual elections through 1816. In 1817, Republican Nehemiah Knight won the governorship, and he ran unopposed by the Federalists except for the year 1821. James Fenner was returned to the governorship in 1824 and held that office until 1829.

Colonial Rhode Islanders enjoyed one of the widest suffrages in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, however, Rhode Island's restricted suffrage was remarked upon as a cause of its "otherwise-minded" politics: corrupt, vindictive, and devoid of substance. The property requirement for freeholders to vote was $134. This was enough of an obstacle that in no election in Rhode Island's early republican era, from 1790 to 1824, did a majority of its adult male inhabitants vote, although the closely contested election of 1811 nearly reached the 50 percent mark. Corruption of the voting process resembled the worst practices in pre-Reform Britain, where voters were "manufactured" by fraudulent transfers of land to unpropertied voters with instructions on how to vote. The father of one candidate in Bristol manufactured mortgages on his property to ensure his son's election. In another election in the 1820s, a South County creditor referred to those white farmers in his debt as his "slaves." As the years wore on under the increasingly obsolete charter, the Rhode Island legislature became increasingly obstinate. In 1822 the legislature restricted the vote to whites only, disenfranchising the male people of color of the state, all of whom had previously been just as eligible as the white male inhabitants to vote. In the 1820s, with increasing numbers of immigrants working in Providence and Pawtucket, this one-time haven of religious refugees deliberately kept higher restrictions on immigrant voting to ensure that Providence Catholics would not gain even a modicum of political power until after the Dorr Rebellion. By 1829, 60 percent of Rhode Island's adult male inhabitants were ineligible to vote, and the number was growing.

Rhode Island shared with South Carolina the dubious distinction of being one of the last two states to preserve a property requirement for adult white male voters. Like the Chartists in Britain, Rhode Island suffrage reformers faced the violent suppression of their attempts to create a constitutional order based on universal manhood suffrage. Thomas Wilson Dorr, the leader of the attempt to frame a constitution based on universal manhood suffrage, was tried and convicted of treason in 1844 and sentenced to life imprisonment (his sentence was commuted the following year). In 1844 a new constitution was approved for Rhode Island that allowed for all adult white males to vote for a poll tax of one dollar. With that grudging and still racially restrictive nod to political reality, Rhode Island’s political parties, voting, and political practices gradually came to resemble those of her New England neighbors.


  • Conley, Patrick T. Democracy in Decline: Rhode Island's Constitutional Development, 1776–1841. Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1977.
  • Coleman, Peter J. The Transformation of Rhode Island, 1790–1860. Providence, R.I.: Brown University Press, 1963.
  • Gettleman, Marvin E. The Dorr Rebellion: A Study in American Radicalism. New York: Random House, 1973.
  • Herndon, Ruth Wallis. "Governing the Affairs of the Town: Continuity and Change in Rhode Island, 1750–1800." Unpublished dissertation, American University, 1992.
  • Lemons, J. Stanley and Michael A. McKenna. "Re-Enfranchisement of Rhode Island Negroes," Rhode Island History, 30(1971): 3–13.
  • McLoughlin, William G. Rhode Island: A Bicentennial History. New York: Norton, 1978.
  • Polishook, Irwin H. Rhode Island and the Union, 1774–1795. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969.
  • Sweet, John Wood. "Bodies Politic: Colonialism, Race and the Emergence of the American North. Rhode Island, 1730–1830." Unpublished dissertation, Princeton University, 1995.


The Federalist Party

The Federalist Party was dominated by a man who never actually ran for public office in the United States - Alexander Hamilton. "Alexander Hamilton was, writes Marcus Cunliffe, 'the executive head with the most urgent program to implement, with the sharpest ideas of what he meant to do and with the boldest desire to shape the national government accordingly.' In less than two years he presented three reports, defining a federal economic program which forced a major debate not only on the details of the program but on the purpose for which the union has been formed. Hamilton's own sense of purpose was clear; he would count the revolution for independence a success only if it were followed by the creation of a prosperous commerical nation, comparable, perhaps even competitive, in power and in energy, with its European counterparts." (fn: Marcus Cunliffe, The Nation Takes Shape, 1789-1837, (Chicago, 1959), 23.) (Linda K. Kerber, History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher. p. 11)

"Federalists created their political program out of a political vision. They had shared in the revolutionaries' dream of a Republic of Virtue, and they emerged from a successful war against empire to search for guarantees that the republican experiment would not collapse." (Kerber, p. 3)

"The Federalist political demand was for a competent government, one responsible for the destiny of the nation and with the power to direct what that destiny would be. What was missing in postwar America, they repeatedly complained in a large variety of contexts, was order, predictability, stability. A competent government would guarantee the prosperity and external security of the nation; a government of countervailing balances was less likely to be threatened by temporary lapses in civic virtue, while remaining strictly accountable to the public will." (Kerber, p. 4)

"So long as Federalists controlled and staffed the agencies of the national government, the need to formulate alternate mechanisms for party decision making was veiled; with a Federalist in the White House, Federalists in the Cabinet, and Federalist majorities in Congress, the very institutional agencies of the government would themselves be the mechanism of party. Federal patronage could be used to bind party workers to the Federalist 'interest.' 'The reason of allowing Congress to appoint its own officers of the Customs, collectors of the taxes and military officers of every rank,' Hamilton said, 'is to create in the interior of each State, a mass of influence in favor of the Federal Government.' (fn: Alexander Hamilton, 1782, quoted in Lisle A. Rose, Prologue to Democracy: The Federalists in the South, 1789-1800, (Lexington, Kentucky, 1968), 3.) Federalists though of themselves as a government, not as a party; their history in the 1790's would be the history of alignments within the government, rather than of extrernal alignments which sought to influence the machinery of government." (Kerber, p. 10)

"Major national issues invigorated the process of party formation; as state groups came, slowly and hesitantly, to resemble each other. The issues on which pro-administration and anti-administration positions might be assumed increased in number and in obvious significance; the polarity of the parties became clearer." (Kerber, p. 11)

"As Adams' presidential decisions sequentially created a definition of the administration's goals as clear as Hamilton's funding program had once done, the range of political ideology which called itself Federalist simply became too broad to the party successfully to cast over it a unifying umbrella. Federalists were unified in their response to the XYZ Affair, and in their support of the Alien and Sedition Acts, which passed as party measures in the Fifth Congress, but in little else. The distance between Adams and Hamilton - in political philosophy, in willingness to contemplate war with France, in willingness to manipulate public opinion - was unbridgable; Hamilton's ill-tempered anti-Adams pamphlet of 1800 would be confirmation of a long-established distaste." (Kerber, p. 14)

"One result of the war was to add to Federalist strength and party cohesion. There were several varieties of Federalist congressional opinion on the war: most believed that the Republicans had fomented hard feeling with England so that their party could pose as defende of American honor; many believed that in the aftermath of what they were sure to be an unsuccessful war the Republicans would fall from power and Federalists would be returned to office . . . Regardless of the region from which they came, Federalists voted against the war with virtual unanimity." (Kerber, p. 24)

"As an anti-war party, Federalists retained their identity as an opposition well past wartime into a period that is usually known as the Era of Good Feelings and assumed to be the occasion of a one party system. In 1816, Federalists 'controlled the state governments of Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts; they cast between forty percent and fifty percent of the popular votes in New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Vermont...Such wide support did not simply vanish...' (fn: Shaw Livermore, Jr. The Twilight of Federalism: The Disintegration of the Federalist Party 1815-1830, (Princeton, 1962), 265.) Rather, that support remained available, and people continued to attempt to make careers as Federalists (though, probably fewer initiated new careers as Federalists). Because men like Rufus King and Harrison Gray Otis retained their partisan identity intact, when real issues surfaced, like the Missouri debates of 1820, a 'formed opposition' still remained to respond to a moral cause and to oppose what they still thought of as a 'Virginia system.' Each of the candidates, including Jackson in the disputed election of 1824 had Federalist supporters, and their presence made a difference; Shaw Livermore argues that the central 'corrupt bargain' was not Adams' with Clay, but Adams' promise of patronage to Federalists which caused Webster to deliver the crucial Federalist votes that swung the election. If the war had increased Federalist strength, it also, paradoxically, had operated to decrease it, for prominent Federalists rallied to a beleaguered government in the name of unity and patriotism. These wartime republicans included no less intense Federalists than Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut and William Plumer of New Hampshire, both of whom went on to become Republican governors of their respective states, and in their careers thus provide emblems for the beginning of a one party period, and the slow breakdown of the first party system." (Kerber, p. 24)

"The dreams of the Revolution had been liberty and order, freedom and power; in seeking to make these dreams permanent, to institutionalize some things means to lose others. The Federalists, the first to be challenged by power, would experience these contradictions most sharply; a party that could include John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Noah Webster, would be its own oxymoron. In the end the party perished out of internal contradiction and external rival, but the individuals who staffed it continued on to staff its succesors." (Kerber, p, 25)

Additional Sources:

  • History of U.S. Political Parties Volume I: 1789-1860: From Factions to Parties. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., ed. New York, 1973, Chelsea House Publisher.
  • The Revolution of American Conservatism: The Federalist Party in the Era of Jeffersonian Democracy. David Hackett Fischer. New York, 1965, Harper and Row.
  • The Age of Federalism: The Early American Republic, 1788-1800. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick. New York, 1993, Oxford University Press.

The Federalists were referred to by many monikers over the years by newspapers.

American Party:

  • In 1809, The Concord Gazette refers to the Federalist Ticket as the American Ticket.
  • Beginning in 1810, the Newburyport Herald (MA), began referring to Federalists as the American Party (as opposed to the "French" Party, who were Republicans). This continued in the 1811 elections.


The Aurora, based in Philadelphia, the most well-known Republican newspaper of the era (see American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns by Richard N. Rosenfeld.) in the February 11, 1800 issue referred to Mr. Holmes, the losing candidate for the Special Election for the Philadelphia County seat in the House of Representatives as an "anti-republican".

Federal Republican:

The October 7, 1799 issue of the Maryland Herald (Easton) referred to the Federalist ticket of Talbot County as Federal Republicans. It would continue to be used intermittently throughout the next 20 years. Newspapers that used this term included the Gazette of the United States (Philadelphia) and Philadelphia Gazette in 1800, the Newport Mercury in 1808, the New Bedford Mercury in 1810, the True American (Philadelphia) in 1812, the Northumberland Republican (Sunbury) in 1815, the United States Gazette (Philadelphia) in 1816 and the Union (Philadelphia) in 1821 and 1822.

Friends of Peace / Peace / Peace Ticket:

Beginning in 1812 ("In laying before our readers the above Canvass of this county, a few remarks become necessary, to refute the Assertion of the war party, that the Friends of Peace are decreasing in this country." Northern Whig (Hudson). May 11, 1812.) and continuing through to 1815 a number of newspapers referred to the Federalists as the Peace Party (or Peacemaker Party, as the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill) of March 19, 1814 used), as the Peace Ticket or as the Friends of Peace due to their opposition of the War of 1812 (many of these same newspapers referred to the Republicans as the War Party). This use occurred all through at least August of 1815, with the Raleigh Minerva of August 18, 1815 referring to the Federalist candidates as Peace candidates.

These newspapers include the Columbian Centinel (Boston), Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill), Providence Gazette, the New York Evening Post, the New York Spectator, the Commercial Advertiser (New York), Northern Whig (Hudson), the Broome County Patriot (Chenango Point), the Independent American (Ballston Spa), the Baltimore Patriot, the Alexandria Gazette, Poulson's, Middlesex Gazette (Middletown), the Political and Commercial Register (Philadelphia), Freeman's Journal (Philadelphia), the Carlisle Herald, Northampton Farmer, Intelligencer and Weekly Advertiser (Lancaster), National Intelligencer (Washington), The Federal Republican (New Bern), the Raleigh Minerva, The Star (Raleigh) and Charleston Courier.

The New Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth) took the opposite side, listing the Federalists in the March 16, 1813 edition as "Advocates of Dishonorable Peace and Submission."

Additional Sources:

"The Tyranny of Printers": Newspaper Politics in the Early American Republic. Jeffrey L. Pasley. Charlottesville, 2001, University Press of Virginia.