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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Monday, May 23, 2022

“All should be ready to yield Assistance to Rhode Island”

We can see the logic of the London government’s decision to try people suspected of attacking H.M.S. Gaspee on 10 June 1772 in Britain, not Rhode Island.

For one thing, the colony hadn’t convicted anyone for the similar torching of the Customs ship Liberty in 1769. Or for earlier assaults on government vessels.

For another, a couple of the men accused of helping to storm the Gaspee were county sheriffs, and others were highly influential merchants and office-holders. The Crown controlled none of the branches of the Rhode Island government.

But by deciding on that plan, to be backed up by the army and navy, secretary of state Dartmouth gave Rhode Island’s Whigs a threat they used to rally other colonial leaders to their cause.

At first, American politicians and printers had been reluctant about supporting a bunch of smugglers who’d attacked a naval vessel enforcing the law. But once the issue became every British citizen’s right to be tried in the county where the alleged crime took place, not three thousand miles away, then Whigs found their voice.

Around Christmas, four Rhode Island politicians wrote to “several gentlemen in North America” about what Lord Dartmouth had told their governor. Those four politicians were:
  • Darius Sessions, deputy governor, who months before had initiated official complaints about the Gaspee’s patrols.
  • Stephen Hopkins, chief justice and possibly author of the “Americanus” essay on the case published days before.
  • John Cole, attorney and former chief justice who would be called as a witness in the inquiry.
  • Moses Brown, wealthy merchant and brother of the alleged leader of the attack.
One recipient of the men’s letters was Samuel Adams, leader of the Massachusetts resistance. He wrote three letters in return, saying such thing as:
It should awaken the American Colonies, which have been too long dozing upon the Brink of Ruin. It should again unite them in one Band. . . . It has ever been my Opinion, that an Attack upon the Liberties of one Colony is an Attack upon the Liberties of all; and therefore in this Instance all should be ready to yield Assistance to Rhode Island.
I beg just to propose for Consideration whether a circular Letr from your Assembly on this Occasion, to those of the other Colonies might not tend to the Advantage of the General Cause & of R Island in particular
Adams had helped to guide the Massachusetts legislature through its 1768 circular letter dispute. In November 1772 he had led the Boston town meeting to set up a standing committee of correspondence to exchange political letters with other Massachusetts towns. He saw the Crown’s reaction to the Gaspee affair as a cue to do the same with other colonies.

Richard Henry Lee might have been another of the men who received the Rhode Islanders’ letter. At any event, on 4 February he wrote to Adams, introducing himself and asking about details of the Gaspee matter; “this military parade appears extraordinary, unless the intention be to violate all law and legal forms, in order to establish the…fatal precedent of removing Americans beyond the water, to be tried for supposed offences committed here.” Adams wrote back, assuring Lee that the stories out of Rhode Island were true.

Meanwhile, no American was actually removed to Britain. The royal commission never collected enough strong evidence against anyone to bring charges. The investigation petered out in the spring of 1773. But by then it had helped to inspire a wider network of correspondence and a little more paranoia among the American Whigs.

TOMORROW: Remembering Gov. Wanton.

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