On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island declares Independence from England

Boldly Breaking Free: Rhode Island’s Path to Independence and the Reluctant Ratification of the US Constitution

On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island, a colony founded by fervent religious dissenters seeking refuge from the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony, took a groundbreaking step as the first North American colony to renounce its allegiance to King George III. Yet, in a twist of fate, Rhode Island would become the last state to ratify the new American Constitution over 14 years later, on May 29, 1790.

Rhode Island’s Role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade

In the 18th century, Rhode Island emerged as a mercantile powerhouse, playing a significant role in the transatlantic slave trade. West Indian molasses was transformed into rum at Rhode Island distilleries and traded on the West African coast for enslaved individuals. These unfortunate souls were transported across the infamous Middle Passage from Africa to the Caribbean islands.

Upon arrival, Rhode Island merchants sold the survivors of the harrowing journey to West Indian plantation owners in exchange for enslaved laborers, securing a fresh shipment of molasses. This lucrative triangular trade propelled Rhode Islanders to fiercely oppose British efforts to tighten control over their colonies’ commerce.

Resistance and Rebellion Against British Rule

Tensions escalated with the introduction of the Sugar Act in 1764, which imposed stricter trade regulations and increased the duty on molasses. This led to a series of colonial protests against British regulation throughout the late 1760s and early 1770s, with Rhode Islanders taking center stage in two pivotal incidents.

In 1768, British customs officials seized John Hancock’s sloop Liberty for its involvement in smuggling Madeira wine, sparking a riot in the streets of Boston. Close to Providence, the British customs vessel Gaspee ran aground four years later. Enraged by the British government’s persistent attempts to tax them unfairly, Rhode Islanders boarded and burned the ship, injuring its captain in the process.

Rhode Island’s Reluctance to Join the New American Nation

Rhode Island’s economic prowess proved to be a double-edged sword, posing challenges for both the British Empire and the emerging American nation. With its independent wealth and flourishing trade centered in the ports of Providence and Newport, Rhode Island was the only small state capable of surviving independently of the proposed federal union in 1787.

Fearful of losing income through import duties to the new federal government, Rhode Island hesitated to join the union. However, faced with the threat of increased financial burdens as a foreign country separate from the United States, Rhode Island ultimately conceded and became the last state to ratify the Constitution in 1790.

Rhode Island Ship Token

Obverse: Shows the flagship of British Admiral Lord Richard Howe. The inscription around the border: DE ADMIRAALS FLAG van ADMIRAAL HOWE 1779.

Reverse: The reverse depicts the retreat of American forces from Rhode Island in 1778. The inscription around the border: D’vlugtende AMERICAANEN van ROHDE YLAND Aug,t 1778

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