Rhode Island politics has been known to be at its best and its worst when we have a clash of personalities as well as of political parties and philosophies in our elections.
As we look at recent campaigns, we can’t help but wonder if the real issues in the minds of the voters are not centered upon the personalities of the candidates rather than upon the philosophy of the parties. It seems to be the opinion of many political savants that Rhode Island is a strongly Democratic state and for any Republican to win he will have to capture a large number of traditionally Democratic votes. It is no secret that Rhode Island elections have powerful ethnic considerations, but mostly it is the "image" of the candidates that receives the greatest attention.
Personality clashes in political campaigns go back in time to the very bitter rivalry between Samuel Ward and Stephen Hopkins that gave us our first real two-party election fight in Rhode Island.
The issue that began this rivalry came in 1731 over the controversy of issuing paper currency. The powerful Wanton family wanted the controversy to be kept from the attention of the king. The very conservative governor at the time, Joseph Jenckes, ordered his recorder or secretary, Richard Ward, to send copies of the controversial bills to the king. This so angered the Wantons that they blamed Ward and set out to ruin him politically. Thus, the first Rhode Island political feud started.
Powerful men of wealth and influence began to take sides with the hopes of getting legislation passed that would benefit them. Richard Ward of Newport received aid and support from the Greene family of Warwick and southern Rhode Island. The Wantons turned for help to the merchant princes of Providence, especially the Brown family.
The situation reached its climax in bitterness and patronage when Stephen Hopkins, a business partner of the Browns, led the Wanton-Brown faction and was elected governor in 1755. Hopkins, a skilled politician and administrator, became a major power in the state. Hopkins was elected governor nine times and Ward was elected three times in this see-saw battle for power.
On the surface, this struggle seemed to be a “tempest in a teapot.” The office of governor was a relatively weak position. The real control was in the General Assembly, for the governor could not veto and could only sit in the upper house with the same vote as any other member. The governor, however, could issue privateering commissioners and “flags of truce,” which in some cases brought great wealth to the recipients. The prestige of the office in the hands of a true politician and party leader meant virtual control over the party members and their votes. The actual power of Hopkins and Ward far outweighed the power granted to governors by the Charter of 1665.
In 1757 Ward accused Hopkins of using his influence as governor to enrich himself. An incensed Hopkins brought countercharges against Ward, and the result was a court case. The arguments became so heated that the case had to be tried in Massachusetts, as no court in Rhode Island could be said not to have a prejudice for one of the participants. James Otis, a very famous and prominent Boston lawyer, represented Hopkins. Otis and Hopkins became great friends and worked for the cause of independence. In this case, however, even Otis's great talent was not enough, and Hopkins lost the case and was forced to pay court costs.
The bitterness reached a climax when Hopkins threatened to blow Ward's brains out, and as a result received a great deal of bad publicity. In the next election, Hopkins was defeated in his bid for governor by William Greene, a leader of the Ward faction. When Greene died in 1758, however, the General Assembly passed oven Samuel Ward and selected Hopkins to succeed Greene. This move emphasizes the fact that the personal magnetism of the rivals, rather than his political philosophy, was the deciding factor.
The basic issues of the day concerned the levying of taxes to pay off war debts and the issuance of paper money, yet neither side had any clear-cut policy on these. Instead, both sides fought for patronage and used taxation as a means of rewarding friends and punishing enemies. Political power meant economic power and advantages. Both factions were backed by big money interests in the colony. Neither Ward nor Hopkins commanded very great fortunes of their own, but their backers did. The Wantons were wealthy enough to spend their winters in Bermuda, the Browns and DeWolfs were truly merchant princes and the Greenes commanded a sizeable fortune.
The political struggle more than anything else seemed to indicate that Rhode Island was not going to conform to any set political pattern but instead was going to embark on a vigorous course of self-government. It is no wonder that when the first Continental Congress was formed in Philadelphia in 1774, both Samuel Ward and Stephen Hopkins were selected as Rhode Island's representatives.
Rhode Island, after the Revolution, was divided again, this time over the issue of ratifying the Constitution. Again, bitterness and personality conflicts were going to be typical side effects. During this era, the wealthy of Providence and Newport were allied against rural and farm elements of the smaller towns. In time, Rhode Island, like most of the rest of the nation, divided politically into factions.
In the 1840s, a powerful personality, Henry Anthony, and the Know-Nothing Party combined personal magnetism and an intense fear of Irish immigrants to gain control of the state. “Boss” Anthony and his followers, Nelson Aldrich and Charles Brayton, became firmly entrenched in the new Republican Party. They controlled Rhode Island for many years until the so-called "Green" revolution of the 1930s, when Theodore Francis Greene united the various ethnic groups in the Democratic Party and shifted the political climate in Rhode Island. Since that time, Democrats have most often held the power, but on a number of occasions strong personalities have shattered the traditional political alliances.