By Monique Politowski
In 1774, British Parliament implemented the Coercive Acts in response to the destruction of British property by colonists during the Boston Tea Party. Paul Revere reproduced an engraving from a London newspaper that depicted the relationship between the British government and America, and he circulated it among the colonies. A copy of this allegorical cartoon (National Archives Identifier 535720) can be found at the National Archives in College Park, MD in Record Group 208: Records of the Office of War Information, 1926-1951.
There is no denying the fact that during the Revolutionary Period, many significant events that led to war occurred in major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City for example. Boston in particular is viewed as an epicenter of colonial rebellion, but there were other New England cities and towns that active patriots called home as well. Thus, recognizing the participation of colonists from other cities such as Providence should not be such a bitter draught to swallow.
The presence of the Sons of Liberty is clearly palpable by scholars and American History enthusiasts in Massachusetts, but the Sons had multiple chapters throughout the colonies. Rhode Island was also an active colony where the Sons of Liberty organized and destroyed British property. Before the Tea Party, there was the Gaspee Affair in 1772. Members of the Providence Sons of Liberty such as John Brown and Abraham Whipple together with their associates seized the HMS Gaspee, a British customs patrol schooner. One of the notable members of this motley crew was Rufus Greene, cousin of the soon to be Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene. Rufus Greene had history with the Royal Navy because the crew of the HMS Gaspee assaulted him when they apprehended Nathanael Greene’s ship, the Fortune. Nathanael Greene wrote about his loss to a friend saying that he was “engageed in the pursuit of a Searover who took into his Custody a quantity of Our Rum and carried it round to Boston (contrary to the Express words of the Statute) for Tryal and condemnation. The illegality of his measure together with the Loss sustaind createed such a Spirit of Resentment That I have devoted almost the whole of my Time in devising and carrying into execution measures for the recovery of my Property and punnishing the offender.” (177204 NG to SW Jr., The Papers of General Nathanael Greene (National Archives Identifier 28798168)) The Greene’s sued the Captain of the Gaspee for losses and damages which forced him to travel back and forth between Boston and Greenwich for an extended period of time.
The colonists burned the HMS Gaspee in retaliation against the Royal Navy’s enforcement of customs laws in Rhode Island ports. More insight on British colonial maritime and customs laws may be found in General Records, compiled 1757 – 1772 (National Archives Identifier 4545843), Series from Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2004, which discusses parliamentary acts that address “the better prevention of Piracies and Robberies by Crews of private ships of war” and letters to government officials containing complaints about violation of trade law. This series contains mostly New York records, but the documents stating parliamentary law are relevant to multiple regions.
This act of organized mob violence by the Sons of Liberty off the coast of Rhode Island set the precedent for future violent protests in the colonies such as the Boston Tea Party, because it demonstrated the capabilities of American resistance. For more information about the naval mobilization of American colonists and to learn more about the naval career development of the raiders of the Gaspee see Letters Received by the Committee of Safety of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, compiled 12/01/1914 – 12/01/1914, documenting the period 03/1775 – 05/1775 (National Archives Identifier 1766789), Series from Record Group 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, 1691 – 1945 and Correspondence of the Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy, compiled 1919? – 1947?, documenting the period 10/1775 – 10/1777 (National Archives Identifier 1766790), Series from Record Group 45: Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, 1691 – 1945.