J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Newport’s “Revolution House” Coming in 2015

The Newport Historical Society reports it will reinterpret its Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House as “Revolution House.” Rather than continue to present that building as a standard house museum, it will use it to tell the history of Newport in the American Revolution.

“Revolution House” will open next summer. In the meantime, the society has launched a new “Revolutionary Newport” website. And on Saturday, 23 August, it will commemorate the anniversary of when in 1765 the Wanton-Lyman-Hazard House was almost sacked because it was then home to Martin Howard, stamp tax collector. There will be a reenactor-led public “riot” and other programs.

The society’s press release argues that the first violent resistance of the Revolution took place in Rhode Island:
In the wake of the Sugar Act of 1764, violence broke out when colonists took over Fort George on Goat Island, off the far end of Long Wharf, and fired cannon on the British ship St. John whose crew allegedly stole merchandise from Newport businesses but which was also enforcing tax laws against local ships.

More violence erupted in 1765 when a long boat from the British ship the Maidstone was captured by an angry mob, dragged through the streets, and set fire in the square. This ship had been impressing Rhode Islanders into the British Navy, that is, capturing them and forcing them to serve on British ships, a common but highly unpopular practice of the British here and elsewhere.

In 1769 Newporters destroyed the British revenue sloop the Liberty. After harshly questioning the captains of two ships out of Connecticut, the Captain of the Liberty was surrounded by an angry mob of Newporters and forced to bring his crew in from the ship. Locals boarded the empty ship, cut it loose and it floated around the Point where it was stripped and burned. London protested to Rhode Island officials, but decided to let the matter drop.
And lastly there was the burning of the Gaspee, a Royal Navy ship, in 1772, after it had stopped the Hannah, out of Newport.

I’d argue that the 1764 and 1765 events weren’t really part of the Revolution because there was an ongoing conflict between mariners and officers of the Customs service and Royal Navy. In 1747, for example, Boston was shut down by riots over impressment. The Liberty and Gaspee riots are easier to link the new Crown taxes and duties that brought on the Revolution.

Still, Rhode Island deserves credit for destroying three government ships in less than a decade, and getting away with that. The closest Bostonians were able to match that was burning a small boat belonging to Customs official Joseph Harrison in 1768.

But Rhode Island was already known as a hard place to enforce the law. In contrast to Massachusetts, the governor was elected locally, not appointed by the king, and the harbor was much bigger and harder to patrol. I get the impression that Crown officials didn’t try so hard down there because they knew they couldn’t win.


Charles Bahne said...

Wasn't the Liberty the ship that the British government seized from John Hancock back in 1768?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, it was. And even after the Rhode Islanders had destroyed that ship, there was a riot in Boston in October 1769 when people discovered a sailor from the ship in town. It was a grievance that kept on giving.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Your position that "ongoing conflict between mariners and officers of the Customs service and Royal Navy" shouldn't necessarily be fed into a coming-of-the-revolution narrative is a welcome one, John. My impression is that there was plenty of (sometimes violent) customs-evasion and impressment resistance in the British Isles as well. Indeed, I believe that one of the domestic occupations of the peacetime 18th-century British army was suppression of smuggling. But perhaps colonial acts of resistance to customs enforcement/impressment were more highly charged and problematic than their domestic equivalents, given the colonies' much greater distance from the metropole and built-in frictions in imperial governance?

J. L. Bell said...

Customs enforcement definitely became the focus of pre-Revolutionary turmoil from 1767 on, but before then I'm just not convinced most Americans saw such disputes in their ports as a big political issue.

The Sugar Act affected sugar importers and distillers, but not many other professions in the ports and few people in the countryside—where 90% or more of Americans lived. Impressment was a horrible issue for sailors, but meant little to farmers. Might Customs enforcement have been looser in the colonies than in the British Isles since the military usually wasn’t involved?

I think what changed the equation was the Stamp Act of 1765. That threatened to affect anyone who had to file a lawsuit or wanted to read a newspaper. The broad-based nature of the tax, spreading out the burden, seems to have backfired on the Crown. After that, lots of Americans seem to have been more sensitive to new Crown revenue measures, even if they could avoid those taxes by, say, not buying tea.

In hindsight (and with a shove from John Adams), we often treat the Sugar Act and the writs of assistance case as leading into the Revolution. But I think those tempests would have passed by, no more remembered than the Knowles Riots or other disputes, if not for the Stamp Act and the decade that followed.

Robert A Selig said...

John Wanton's daughter, Polly, was well known among the French officers in 1780/81 as attested to by a window pane that bears the inscription "charming Polly Wanton." Lieutenant Colonel George Henry Victor Collot, an aide-de-camp to Rochambeau, lodged here from July 1780 to June 1781 while in Newport. Governor of Guadeloupe in 1792, he came to the US as a British prisoner of war after the surrender of the island in April 1794. Paroled in Philadelphia in 1796, he was approached by Pierre Adet, the French minister to the United States, to survey the lands west of the Appalachian Mountains and investigate how they could be claimed for France. Having completed his journey along the Ohio and Mississippi, he returned to Paris from Louisiana in December 1796. Based in part on Collot's information, Napoleon acquired the Louisiana Territory from Spain on October 1, 1800, but sold it to the United States 2 1/2 years later.