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 In 1663 that document was superseded by a royal charter granted by Charles II, which guaranteed extensive religious toleration and provided the framework of government that would last long beyond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.