Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

"USA 250th Starts Now!"

One of our members, John Millar, forwarded the following essay about the 250th anniversary of the first event of the struggle for independence that happens this week on the 9th. Thank you, John!

USA 250th Starts Now!
by John Fitzhugh Millar

Modern America may be tired of anniversaries (at the moment, we are observing mostly with yawns the 200th of the War of 1812, the 150th of the Civil War, and the 100th of the First World War), but now it’s also time for the pesky Revolutionary War to begin its countdown. The first event of the Revolutionary War happened on 9 July 1764, twelve years before the Declaration of Independence, at Newport, Rhode Island, and the 250th anniversary of that is now.

Rhode Island was unique among the colonies in having a charter that guaranteed that all public officials from the governor on down were to be elected, not appointed from England. For decades, Rhode Island governors encouraged the importation of free Haitian molasses (something the other colonies were not allowed to do), turning that molasses into dark rum, and re-exporting the rum in huge quantities to all the other colonies, principally as a food-preservative.

For a long time, the British had winked at this, but George III ordered Rhode Island to put an instant stop to the only industry that made them any money. To enforce his order, the king sent a small warship to Newport, the 6-gun schooner Saint John, commanded by the arrogant 19-year-old Lieutenant  Thomas Hill. Hill arrested every ship entering Narragansett Bay, selling ships and cargoes at public auction.

Since most Royal Navy ships stationed in America were short of crews, he also forcibly “impressed” Rhode Islanders into the navy. Hardly anyone knew that impressing Americans had been made illegal by Parliament in 1707, back in the reign of Queen Anne.

Rhode Island’s elected Governor Stephen Hopkins (1707-1785) did know it. Therefore, partly to stop this illegal activity and partly to save Rhode Island’s economy, Hopkins had himself rowed out to the Saint John. He ordered Hill to leave the colony by sunset and not return. Hill countered by threatening to have his crew throw Hopkins in the harbor, so Hopkins had himself rowed to Goat Island in the middle of the harbor, and ordered the master gunner at Fort George there to sink the schooner. When the master gunner (a member of the Newport Artillery Company, founded in 1741, the oldest military organization in North America) determined that Hopkins was not joking, he opened fire with his massive 18-pounders, with cannon-balls the size of cantaloupes.

Two of the shots hit the Saint John and turned big chunks of the schooner into splinters, so Lieutenant Hill took his axe, cut the anchor cable, and sailed away from Newport, never to return. These shots were fired on 9 July 1764, the first shots of resistance fired against British authority in America. Of course, no one could have known then that these shots would lead to a lengthy war for independence.

Naturally, the British did not give up that easily, so they sent a series of other small ships to try to end Rhode Island’s rum trade, and the people of the colony rose up each time and destroyed the ships by burning them in 1765, 1769, and 1772.

What about Hopkins? Within weeks of the Saint John incident, he founded what he called “The College at Rhode Island,” later renamed Brown University. In 1765, he founded the Stamp Act Congress, which managed to get the odious Stamp Act repealed. In 1769, predicting the coming of the Revolution, he established the Hope Furnace Cannon Foundry at Scituate RI, which cast the first cannons ever in British America, including most of the cannons used by the Continental Navy. In 1773, he founded the Continental Committees of Correspondence, a major step on the road to independence. When the Committees proved too cumbersome, in 1774 he founded the Continental Congress; that same year, he authored the bill on 10 June that outlawed slavery in Rhode Island seven years later, the first in the New World. In 1775, he founded the US Post Office (26 July), the Continental Navy (13 October), and the Continental Marine Corps (10 November). In 1776, he notified Congress that Rhode Island had already declared independence on 4 May, the first colony to do so, and suggested that Congress do the same. He signed the Declaration with a wiggly hand that shows that he suffered from a serious case of Parkinson’s Disease, and then retired from Congress.

Why have most people never heard of Hopkins? All his papers were carefully collected after his death so that scholars could consult them, but in 1815 the biggest hurricane on record, with peak winds of over 200 miles per hour, swept up the East Coast, placing the streets of Providence under more than 20 feet of water. The papers were never seen again, and no book-length biography of Hopkins has been written since 1880.

In the 1970s, the author raised the money to build full-sized operational copies of two Revolutionary War ships, the 24-gun frigate Rose, and the 12-gun Continental sloop Providence for the Bicentennial. He was then unable to raise the additional money needed to build the Saint John.

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