“You’re Too Short for That Gesture”: Some dissenting historiography behind Rhode Island’s supposedly declaring independence on May 4, 1776

The other day  — May 4, to be exact — the Smithsonian American History Museum posted this on Twitter: “Today in history: Rhode Island declares independence.”  I like and promote the Smithsonian’s posts. But I have a problem with this one, which draws on a longstanding tradition, promoted especially in Rhode Island, that Rhode Island declared independence from England two months before the Continental Congress did.

In the most literal sense the tradition is probably not wrong. But especially at its Twitter length, which allows for no context or nuance, it feeds widespread misconceptions about how the American colonies became independent.

I’ve been struggling against those misconceptions while writing Declaration, so I’m possibly hypersensitive to the Rhode Island claim. While my book is supposed to be a ripsnorting political action-adventure, and I don’t slow the story down by delving into arguments during the narrative (notes air out key issues and point readers to sources for exploration), the narrative sits on top of a detailed reading of the primary and secondary records that dissents from some reflexive, semi-examined ideas we have rattling around in our heads about how our country entered history.

Rhode Island is a case in point. Celebrating that state’s resolutions regarding independence fosters the false impression that each colony had the ability to declare independence individually in some meaningful way; and the further implication that some of them started to do so, first one, then another, then another, etc., until critical mass had been achieved and the inevitable weight of independence became finally irresistible to all

That’s dead wrong. Yet old book after old book , as well many founding-history-buff Websites, are full of stuff like: “first North Carolina declared independence,  then Rhode Island renounced allegiance to the king …” etc., etc., as if there had been a snowballing effect coming out of the state governments.

The language that writers resort to in these cases — “declare independence” versus “renounce  allegiance,” for example, applied vaguely and inconsistently to both North Carolina and Rhode Island — reveals the strain they’re under to have things go a certain (intellectually insupportable) way.  And this, I think, is one of the many reasons that virtually no otherwise well-informed person knows anything much about the most elemental, revealing, and dramatic story of our founding: how independence was actually brought about, against great resistance, in few weeks before July 4, 1776.  Readers of every founding-father book of the past fifteen years need feel no guilt at being unable to formulate even a reasonable hypothesis about what actually transpired during what were manifestly the most crucial weeks in our history. The story just hasn’t been told.

It involved nothing remotely like a state-by-state succumbing to something ineluctably right, or even remotely like one vanguard state’s stepping up in front of the others. It is true that, amid the pressures and chaos of war against England in 1775 and 1776 — and well before the Congress adopted independence in July — the royal colonies especially (as opposed to the proprietary ones) needed to start establishing governments.  North Carolina was one such. But North Carolina did not in fact declare its own independence when it formed its new government in April of 1776. It was alone in using the word “independence” (Rhode Island didn’t use it). North Carolina used that word only in the context of giving its delegates to the Congress in Philadelphia permission to concur with other delegations in adopting independence, as part of an alliance of former colonies, should such a measure ever be proposed there.

North Carolina pointedly refrained, that is, from instructing its delegates to advance such a proposal themselves in the Congress. And even had it ordered its delegates to do so, that order wouldn’t have amounted to a declaration of the state’s separate independence from England. Later in May, Virginia became the first member to instruct its delegates to actively propose (not just to permit them to go along with) independence. And while Virginia considered declaring a separate independence, it decided against doing so.  

So a state’s delegates’ voting in the Congress independence for the united states was by no means identical with that state’s declaring itself independent — regardless of having also formed a new government, beyond the purview of the king. South Carolina, for example, in forming its new government, said bluntly that the government was necessary only until reconciliation with Great Britain could be achieved.

Still, Rhode Island is indeed a bit of a different story. As always. That tiny state was wayward and feisty, forever harrying the others. Later, in the 1780’s, it held out against the impost that nationalists in the Congress had been pushing. Rhode Island called the tax an instrument of tyranny, and mighty Virgina, which had gone along with the impost, did an about-face and followed Rhode Island in refusing to allow it. For related reasons, Rhode Island is famous, or infamous, as the last state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. (Its resistance in that case may give celebrators of its behavior in 1776 some pause. Rhode Island was nothing if not consistent.)

And Rhode Island’s May 1776 resolutions do seem to more or less amount to a separate declaration of independence — even without the word “independence.” Rhode Island furthermore gave its delegates explicit permission to annoy England to the nth degree, including concurring in any proposal for independence that might be made in the Congress (although the state too refrained from instructing its delegates to actively propose independence there).

A bold enough set of moves. But while they’re culturally interesting, I think those moves were strategically and politically insignificant. Rhode Island could in no real way ever have been independent from England on its own, regardless of how bravely and articulately it may have declared itself so. And despite my “All about Eve” reference in the title, that’s not just because it was too small. Here we get to what most bugs me about the “Rhode Island declares independence!” type of countdown. Whether it’s meant to make Rhode Island look uniquely forward-thinking, or to give the impression that one colony after another went for independence separately, finally tipping like dominoes, that mood denies every salient reality of the American situation in 1776.

No colony big or small, not even the mightiest bloc of colonies, could become independent alone. Strategically, any division among states or regions would open a fatal wedge for England’s military and diplomatic success. If New England and Virgina had opted for independence, and the middle-colony bloc hadn’t, England would have divided north from south and easily conquered both. Without a declaration, adopted as nearly unanimously as possible, many states (though probably not Rhode Island!) would have been shoving others aside to make a separate deal with England for peace. 

Furthermore, in order to have a fighting chance against England, America needed foreign alliances and loans. No nation would have supplied those had the colonies seemed to be declaring independence piecemeal and on their own. A unified declaration of all thirteen — or as close to that as possible — was essential to even the remotest prospect of winning the war.

So the important question about independence was whether the Congress would declare it, not whether Rhode Island, say, would cop an attitude about it. There was a mounting tension in the spring of ’76, which I try to dramatize in Declaration, where the Samuel Adams coalition’s desperate need for an all-binding resolution of the Congress, which would enable foreign alliances and keep any one state from backsliding, was stymied by Pennsylvania’s desire for reconciliation, and its great influence over those all-important middle colonies.

Adams and his cohort didn’t overcome resistance by persuading each state to declare its own independence, or even by benefiting from the one state that can be said to have done so in May. They did it by working on divisions within the delegations to the Congress; taking down the elected government of the Congress’s host, Pennsylvania, by militia force; and having Virginia lead the way in the Congress in proposing that the united states together adopt a resolution for independence.

To ignore that realpolitik — to treat Rhode Island’s or North Carolina’s supposedly declaring independence as an exciting step in a grand progress, to treat it, really, as anything other than a cute gesture — denies the amazingly ruthless lengths that Samuel Adams and others went to, indeed had to go to, in Philadelphia, if they were to really push the Congress, willy nilly, toward independence in the spring and summer of 1776. 

And ignoring realpolitik is what Samuel Adams never did. If he had, we’d all be speaking English.

3 thoughts on ““You’re Too Short for That Gesture”: Some dissenting historiography behind Rhode Island’s supposedly declaring independence on May 4, 1776

  1. Thanks for weighing in to correct the misimpression that the museum’s tweet may have caused. I am in total agreement: the colonies did not declare independence individually, and they would have been foolish to try it in the face of the military power of Great Britain. It seems important to emphasize: the colonies did more than declare independence in July of 1776; they declared unity with one another. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, they had to “hang together” in order not to “hang separately.”

    The persistence of various misconceptions about the Revolution surely has something to do with our tendency to reinterpret the Revolutionaries’ ideas of freedom and independence to fit (and authorize) our own, later beliefs and political preferences. Whether Americans of the 21st century like it or not, in 1776—and for years thereafter—being “Patriotic” generally meant supporting the authority of the Continental Congress, enlisting in its army, accepting the value of the paper currency that it emitted, abiding by limits it recommended on trade and profit-taking, and suppressing individuals who dissented too vocally from its policies. In retrospect, from the safe ground of having attained international recognition and a measure of security, some later Americans could imagine that the Revolutionaries had fought only in local militias, only for their own state’s sovereignty, or only for a society in which individuals (or individual white males) might do whatever they wanted. As you point out, most 18th-century “Patriots” were far more realistic than that. They recognized the value of foreign alliances, foreign loans, and (yes) government regulations and unity in the “common cause.” I would argue that they understood that attaining independence required a prior and continuing inter-dependence among Americans. (I make this case in The Freedoms We Lost, forthcoming with the New Press.)

    That said, perhaps calling Rhode Island’s action in May, 1776 “a cute gesture” is a bit dismissive; I tend to agree with Pauline Maier (in American Scripture) that it was important that Congress’s constituents expressed a willingness to follow the Congress into independence, should Congress proceed to declare it. But now I am quibbling with your fundamentally correct point.

    On a personal note, let me say that I look forward to Declaration.

    Barbara Clark Smith [PhD]
    Curator, Division of Political History
    National Museum of American History

    • Thanks very much for this thoughtful comment. I look forward to The Freedoms We Lost — for as you say, imagining states as having effective power to declare independence individually leads to a problematic interpretation of the nature of sovereignty, which we’ve struggled with for a long time. Rhode Island was always a wild card — admirably, perhaps, in certain cases (in The Whiskey Rebellion, I discuss RI’s objections to the proposed federal impost of the 1780’s), but not always to the obvious benefit of cohesion and nationhood!

      perhaps calling Rhode Island’s action in May, 1776 “a cute gesture” is a bit dismissive; I tend to agree with Pauline Maier (in American Scripture) that it was important that Congress’s constituents expressed a willingness to follow the Congress into independence, should Congress proceed to declare it.
      Agreed. I like to overplay when I feel a balance needs restriking. Maier’s work on all the less-well-known “declarations” is critically important (and cited in Declaration). My subject is the lack of an American consensus in declaring independence, despite those proto-declarations, and the hardball politics involved in bringing it about. The politics connect with, yet often also conflict with, the intellectual history of which Maier is such a powerful exponent. Anyway, I’ll be interested in any response you might have to Declaration, and thanks again for treating my post so thoughtfully.

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