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 In 1663 that document was superseded by a royal charter granted by Charles II, which guaranteed extensive religious toleration and provided the framework of government that would last long beyond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

Bibliography

  • 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.

Republican

What is today referred to as the Democratic Republican Party did not exist as such under that name.

"The party name which the Jeffersonians used most commonly in self-designation was Republican. Since nearly all Americans professed to be supporters of a republic, Federalists were reluctant to allow their opponents the advantage of this name, preferring to label them as Antifederalists, Jacobins, disorganizers, or, at best, Democrats." (Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., 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. 240.)

"No precise date can be given for the establishment of the Republican party, for it did not spring suddenly into being, and even those leaders most intimately involved in its formation were not fully aware of what they were creating. The beginnings of what in course of time became the Republican party can be found in the Second Congress in the congressional faction that contemporaries referred to as the 'republican interest.' . . . An examination of roll calls during the Second Congress indicates that a voting bloc was forming around Madison in opposition to another bloc that united in support of Hamilton's program. While only about half of the membership of the House could be identified with one or the other of these factions, two such groups had not been observable in the First Congress." (Cunningham, p. 241)

"As members of Congress defended their legislative records and sought reelection, they took to the electorate the issues and the disputes that had divided Congress, and they tended in their campaigns for reelection to impart to the voters something of the partisanship that was developing in Congress. Thus, the party divisions in Congress filtered down to the voters through the electoral process, and voters came to align along the lines that divisions in Congress had marked out. In this process the congressional factions acquired the mass followings in the county necessary to transform them from capital factions into national political parties." (Cunningham, p. 244)

Though Thomas Jefferson was seen as the primary leader of the emerging Republican Party, his retirement in 1793 would force that mantle back upon James Madison. "Contemporaries referred to 'Madison's party,' and, when Jefferson was put forward for the presidency in 1796, he was recognized as the candidate of Madison's party. Adams's supporters warned that 'the measures of Madison and Gallatin will be the measures of the executive' if Jefferson were elected. Under Madison's leadership, the Republican party in Congress moved from a role characterized largely by opposition to administration measures, mostly Hamiltonian inspired, to one of offering policy alternatives and proposing Republican programs." (Cunningham, p. 246)

"As the country became dangerously polarized, the Federalists, in 1798 with the passage of the Alien and Sedition Laws, used the full power of the government in an effort to destroy their opponents, whom they saw as subversive. The Republicans, forced to do battle for their very survival, were compelled to change their strategy radically. Prior to 1798 they had optimistically believed that the people would repudiate leaders who supported antirepublican measures hostile to the general good of society. By 1798, however, the Federalists' electoral successes and their hold on the federal government seemed to belie that belief. Therefore, the Republicans shifted their focus of attention from the national to the state level. And by emphasizing a more overtly, self-consciously sectional, political enclave strategy, they left the clear implication that state secession and the breakup of the union might follow if the federal government refused to modify its policies and actions to make them more acceptable to opponents, especially Southerners." (American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. James Roger Sharp. New Haven, 1993, Yale University Press. p. 12)

"On the national level, Republican members of Congress through their informal associations in the national capital formed the basic national party structure. Many of them lodged together in boarding houses or dined together in small groups where there were ample opportunities to plot party tactics. They kept in close touch with political leaders and party organizations in their home states. In 1800, Republican members introduced what was to become the most important element of national party machinery and the most powerful device for the maintenance of congressional influence of the leadership of the party: the congressional nominating caucus." (Cunningham, p. 252)

"The coming to power of the Jeffersonians in 1801 marked the beginning of the Republican era that saw the presidency passed from Jefferson to Madison to Monroe. When the Virginia dynasty came to an end in 1825, the presidential office went to a former Federalist who had become a Republican while Jefferson was president. But, although John Quincy Adams was a Republican, the presidential election of 1824 shattered the Republican party and destroyed the congressional nominating caucus which had given direction to the party's national structure since 1800. Adams's presidency was a period of restructuring of parties - a transitional period from the first party system of the Federalists and the Jeffersonians to the second party system of the age of Jackson." (Cunningham, p. 258-259).

"During the period from its rise in the 1790's to its breakup in the 1820's, the Jeffersonian Republican party made contributions of major significance to the development of the american political system. It demonstrated that a political party could be successfully organized in opposition to an administration in power in the national government, win control over that government, and produce orderly changes through the party process. In challenging the Federalist power, Republicans were innovative in building party machinery, organizing poltical campaigns, employing a party press, and devising campaign techniques to stimulate voter interest in elections and support of republican candidates at the polls. In the process, it became acceptable for candidates to campaign for office and for their partisans to organize campaign committees, distribute campaign literature, see that voters get to the polls, and adopt other practices which, though subsequently familiar features of american political campaigns, previously had been widely regarded with suspicion and distrust. Many of the methods of campaigning and the techniques of party organization, introduced by the Jeffersonian Republicans, while falling into disuse by the end of the Republican era, would be revived by the Jacksonians. In taking office in 1801, the Jeffersonians led the nation through the first transfer of political power in the national government from one party to another; and Jefferson demonstrated that the president could be both the head of his party and the leader of the nation." (Cunningham, p. 271)

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.
  • American Politics in the Early Republic: The New Nation in Crisis. James Roger Sharp. New Haven, 1993, Yale University Press.
  • Partisanship and the Birth of America's Second Party, 1796-1800: "Stop the Wheels of Government". Matthew Q. Dawson. Westwood, CT, 2000, Greenwood Press.
  • Party of the People: A History of the Democrats. Jules Witcover. New York, 2003, Random House

Beginning in 1799, many Federalist papers began to refer to the Republican Party as Democrats or the Democratic Party. This continued throughout the first quarter of the 18th Century until what is currently known as the Democratic Party emerged among the followers of Andrew Jackson in the 1828 Presidential Election.

Republicans were also called by a variety of different terms in various newspapers throughout the period:

Anti-Federalist:

Though the Anti-Federalists were not quite the exact same group as the Republicans as they would develop after 1792, there were still some of those who referred to them as such. The term was used by the following newspapers in the following elections:

  • Porcupine's Gazette (Philadelphia). October 22, 1798. Pennsylvania 1798 Assembly, Chester County.
  • Virginia Gazette (Richmond). April 30, 1799. Virginia 1799 House of Delegates, New Kent County.
  • The Virginia Federalist (Richmond). April 26, 1800. Virginia 1800 House of Delegates, Norfolk County.
  • Virginia Gazette (Richmond). May 12, 1802. Virginia 1802 House of Delegates, Bedford County.
  • Virginia Gazette (Richmond). May 12, 1802. Virginia 1802 House of Delegates, Pittsylvania County.
  • The Salem Gazette. May 17, 1805. Massachusetts 1805 House of Representatives, Salem.

Democratic Republican:

Though the term is commonly used today to distinguish the Jeffersonian Republicans from the later Republican Party and because so many of those among the Jeffersonian Republicans eventually became Jacksonian Democrats, this term was extremely rare during the actual period. It was used by the Readinger Adler in the October 27, 1818 edition recording the 1818 county elections in Pennsylvania.

French / War / Warhawk / Jacobin:

Starting in 1798, various Federalist newspapers would refer to Republicans as Jacobins. ("In Newbern district the contest lay between two federalists -- No Jacobin had the effrontery to offer himself." United States Gazette. September 1, 1798.) These references continued through until at least 1810. ("From the Cooperstown Federalist: The election in this County has terminated in favor of the Jacobin Ticket for Assembly. An important revolution has been effected by the most shameful artifices. Never before were the jacobin ranks so completely formed and thoroughly drilled for action. We hope next week to be able to lay before our readers a correct statement of votes, and to exhibit to the world a picture of depravity in the conduct of some of the inspectors of the election which has no parallel." The American (Herkimer). May 3, 1810.)

Beginning in 1810, the Newburyport Herald (MA), began referring to Republicans as the French Party (as opposed to the "American" Party, who were Federalists). This continued in the 1811 elections.

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 1813 and 1814 a number of newspapers were referring to the Republicans as the War Party (or Warhawk Party, as the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill) of March 19, 1814 used) due to their support of the Madison administration and the War of 1812 (most of these same papers referred to the Federalists as the Peace Party). These newspapers include the Trenton Federalist, the Columbian Centinel (Boston), the Northern Whig (Hudson), the Independent American (Ballston Spa), the Broome County Patriot (Chenango Point), the New York Spectator, the Commercial Advertiser (New York), the New York Evening Post, the Albany Gazette, the Political and Commercial Register (Philadelphia), the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill), The Federal Republican (New Bern), the Freeman's Journal (Philadelphia), Alexandria Gazette, Poulson's, Middlesex Gazette (Middletown), the Raleigh Minerva and The Star (Raleigh).

Jackson / Jacksonian:

With the Presidential election of 1824 split among four candidates who were, ostensibly, members of the same political party, the divisions among the Republican Party began to be apparent.

The phrase "Jackson" or "Jacksonian" candidate was used in nearly every state election in Georgia in 1824 to distinguish between those were were supporters of Andrew Jackson as opposed to the supporters of William H. Crawford. The Maryland Republican (Annapolis) and the Federal Gazette (Baltimore) used the term "Jacksonian" in the Cecil County elections of 1824 (as opposed to "Adamite" or "Crawfordite") and the Allegheny and Butler county election in Pennsylvania in 1824.

Whig:

The New Hampshire Gazette of March 5, 1816 would refer to the Republican ticket as the Whig Ticket and as being in favor of Peace and Commerce.


Assessor

Assessor:
a. One who sits as assistant or adviser to a judge or magistrate; esp. a skilled assistant competent to advise on technical points of law, commercial usage, navigation, etc.
b. One who assesses taxes.
c. One who officially estimates the value of property or income for purposes of taxation.

Oxford English Dictionary

In some states, especially Massachusetts, the tax assessment of a town would determine how many state representatives could be elected.

1801 - 1825: Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island

Office Scope: County / City / Hundred / District / Borough

Role Scope: County / Hundred / Ward / District / Borough