This spring, I started doing research to create a storytelling presentation for school aged children about the Burning of the Gaspee. During that research, I discovered things that would help make Rhode Islanders very proud of our past. First, understanding the importance of the Gaspee event in its role in provoking our Revolution against Great Britain and secondly, the incredible impact that Roger Williams had on the independence felt by those raiders in 1772 as well as the building of America.
Roger Williams, due to his independence and originality in his writing and actions, should be included with Washington, Adams, and Jefferson as one of the most important people who helped create the America we know today. This is not an exaggeration.
Let me explain that the Gaspee Burning was the match that lit the explosion that was the American Revolution in 1775! Why? Rhode Islanders were an independent crew of merchants and seaman in the 1770s. Along with other colonies, we were involved in fighting for fewer taxes, a more fair tax system, and the right to be represented in any decisions concerning our taxation. The Stamp Act, which started in 1765, and was not stopped until 1776, caused rage throughout the colonies.
In Narragansett Bay, the Gaspee captained by William Duddingston was harassing every ship that he could. He was so hated that he had to wear a costume when he visited in Providence. So, it is believed that John Brown, Benjamin Lindsey, and others had actually toured the bay to find the best place to maroon the Gaspee. Once the plan was put into action, the Gaspee was marooned off Namquit Point. The Raiders met at Sabin’s Tavern, decided to take whatever goods were on the Gaspee, and then to set it aflame. As we all know, that is what happened.
That is not the end of the story, though. King George became enraged, and the king ordered that once the raiders were apprehended, they would be taken to England for trial. This was a clear violation of the Charters of the colonies – defendants would be judged only by a group of their peers! The Gaspee burning and this demand by the King caused Samuel Adams and others to create the Committee of Correspondence, and their first subject was this demand by King George. Reverend John Allen brought the struggle forward in his “Oration on the Beauties of Liberty” written in December of 1772 delivers the demand for freedom from England as a result of the King’s demand. So, and this known well to people like the Gaspee Days Committee, means that the revolution was triggered by the burning of the Gaspee. This is the first thing that I found should be known by all Rhode Islanders.
That brings me to my second discovery, and that is that Roger Williams stands as a giant in the history of America, while he means literally nothing to most Rhode Islanders, except for the name of “his park”.
Why is this true? First, he was in my mind a genius. By the time he was eight years old, he had learned stenography so well that the highest jurist in England, Edward Coke (pronounced “Cook”) brought him to the court to work. Coke sent Roger to the best schools, and by fifteen, he had learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French and Dutch. He grew up in Anglia, a neighborhood of London, a center for Puritan Separatists. Oliver Cromwell was his cousin. He immigrated to colony America to convert the native population. In little time, he learned Narragansett (now called Algonquin). He was the first European to write a dictionary and cultural study of a native people in 1643.
He was a master linguist, the Founder of the Baptist Church in America. He helped Chaddus Brown to become the second Minister for the church – it was the father of John Brown. He wrote The Bloudy Tenant Against Persecution due to Conscience, which demanded that there were no reasons to persecute a person because of difference in religious belief. This brilliant work became the core of our Constitutional separation of church and state as well as the desire for tolerance. I cannot here write all of his contributions to America’s life, but I do know that without a doubt, his life story should be known be all of us. Things like how he stood up against the Massachusetts theocracy. He escaped in December, and only with the care of an Indian woman who is known as Margaret, he would have died during the trip. Or, he did not “buy” Rhode Island. Since he learned Narragansett by the time he moved into what would become Providence, he spoke Narragansett. He and Canonicus made an agreement that Roger could set up a camp as long as he would make items available to the Narragansetts.
Williams became destitute at the end of his life, but he still wrote: “It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island. Rhode Island was purchased by love.”
That is all that can I fit into the limits of this essay, but you can contact me for more hear more. You can visit the fine Rangers at the Roger Williams National Memorial. The Gaspee Days Committee offers a brilliant set of archives about the Burning of the Gaspee (gaspee.org/#Contents).
Marc W. Kohler lives in East Providence and is a storyteller, puppeteer, face painter, and children’s arts provider with a keen interest in American and world history.