Rhode Island "Independence," May 4, 1776

Fri, 05/05/2017 - 12:11pm -- mfarias

This past week, Rhode Island celebrated its own “Independence Day” on the anniversary of when Rhode Island became the first colony to renounce its allegiance to the King of England on May 4, 1776. In his History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1859-1860), Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island (and later U.S. Senator) Samuel G. Arnold (1821-1880) wrote, “The last Colonial Assembly of Rhode Island met at Providence on May the Fourth…. History should preserve the names of the actors in this closing scene of our colonial drama. May, 1776.” Despite his opinion, the celebration and remembrance of the day’s events since then has been fairly irregular.

 

Samuel G. Arnold (Source: Wikipedia)

In a volume titled Rhode Island Independence Day Addresses, May 4, 1910, Thomas W. Bicknell (1834-1925), President of the Rhode Island Citizens Historical Associations, gave a history of the recent efforts to celebrate Rhode Island Independence. James S. Slater (1841-1915) of Slatersville, RI led those efforts to get the day recognized by the state and held a celebration in Slatersville on May 4, 1906. In the same year, Bicknell’s Association invited scores of politicians and Rhode Island families to services at the Mathewson Street M.E. Church in Providence, RI. At this event, “The principal historic address was given by Hon. Charles Warren Lippitt of Providence, who delivered an able and exhaustive discussion of the action of the General Assembly of May Fourth, 1776, proving by undoubted authorities, Rhode Island’s claim to precedence in declaring Colonial Independence of Great Britain.” In 1907, the celebration was held in the Representatives Hall of the Old State House on North Main Street in Providence and continued there through the writing of this work in 1910. At the January session of the General Assembly in 1908, an act was passed acknowledging the day as worthy of public recognition as a result of the work of James Slater.

 

 

 Exercises on May 4, 1910 from Rhode Island Independence Day Addresses
From the Collection of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum

At the Millennial Session of the General Assembly on May 4, 2000, noted Rhode Island historian and lawyer Dr. Patrick T. Conley (1938-) spoke on the notion of “Rhode Island Independence.” He said to the Assembly:

“Rhode Island Independence Day, is more the creation of an antiquarian from North Smithfield by the name of James Slater. When the General Assembly last met officially in this building in May of 1900, there was no Rhode Island Independence Day. For James Slater, from 1884 to 1908, absorbingly and persistently promulgated that concept until eventually the General Assembly established a state holiday in 1908.- May 4, Rhode Island Independence Day. The only problem with that day is that on May 4 of 1776, Rhode Island did not declare independence; it renounced allegiance to King George III. Now admittedly, Independence Day has more pizazz than Renunciation of Allegiance to King George III Day. but the historical reality is that we did not declare our allegiance from England until the General Assembly, operating here in Newport in this building on July 18, 1776, ratified the Declaration of Independence sent to it by the delegates in Philadelphia', particularly, Stephen Hopkins and William Ellery.”

 

Flag from the Rhode Island Colony ca. 1663
From the Collection of the Redwood Library & Athenaeum 

In the action taken by the General Assembly of Rhode Island on May 4, 1776, it is true that King George III was the target. An act entitled “An act for the more effectually securing to His Majesty the allegiance of his subjects, in this his Colony and dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” was repealed. The Assembly further enacted a rule to replace the name and authority of the King with the name and authority of the Governor and Company of this Colony. This read as: “The Governor and Company of the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” The name and authority of King George III was formally renounced by the Assembly, even as Rhode Island remained an English colony. While this action is certainly different from the formal Declaration of Independence later that year, Rhode Island took a first step towards Independence out of a desire to control its own commerce in the face of the King’s regulations. Independence did not begin on July 4, 1776, it was a movement growing in different forms in all of the colonies, leading us to the country we know today.