Fire: The Gaspee Incident
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SECONDARY SCHOOL DRAMA/DISCUSSION PROGRAM STUDY GUIDE
REVOLUTIONARY FIRE: THE GASPEE INCIDENT
Study Guide Prepared by Natalie
A Model Topic From
RHODE ISLAND LEGACY
A project developed by the
Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities
and validated as an exemplary educational program
by the United States Department of Education
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This study guide has been prepared for use with "Rhode Island Legacy," the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities' series of secondary school drama/discussion programs. The series began in the 1983-84 school year, with "The Legacy of Roger Williams." That program toured the state's secondary schools from late September, 1983, through March, 1984, compiling a total of over 180 classroom presentations. In the 1984-1985 school year, "The Legacy of Roger Williams" will be presented on a limited basis in November and December, 1984. Two new presentations, "Revolutionary Fire: the Gaspee incident," and "From Field to Factory: Samuel Slater gathers a work force," will be available from January through May, 1985.
"Rhode Island Legacy" is an in-classroom program, offered free of charge to Rhode Island secondary school humanities classes (History, English, Social Studies, and Languages, in grades 7-12). Each presentation begins with a brief dramatic sketch about some aspect of Rhode Island history, featuring professional actors in the roles of Rhode Island historical figures. After the dramatic presentation, the actors remain in character for a discussion with students, on issues raised by the sketch and by the events it portrays. This discussion, in which students are active initiators and participants, is the core of the program.
The "Rhode Island Legacy" series concept is based on involving students in talking and thinking about issues of the past, that, in one form or another, are social or political issues in our own times as well. The study guides accompanying each program, also free of charge, are designed to help teachers prepare students for their own central roles in the discussion process.Experience with the program shows that it is most successful and useful when students are thoroughly prepared in advance, and when the number of students at each presentation is small enough to permit lively discussion among everyone in the group. We ask, therefore, that student groups not exceed 40 participants. Two, three, and occasionally four, presentations may be scheduled on a given day. Return visits to a single school can often be arranged during the "Legacy" program's availability period, although the total number of performances is limited and must be scheduled so as to reach all parts of the state.
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FOR TEACHERS ON USING THE
We hope that the material in the study guide will enable you to prepare your students for participation in the drama/discussion program without your having to undertake additional research. We assume that many teachers, especially teachers of American History and Rhode Island History, are familiar with the material. We also assume that many of you have ready access to your own source material. For any teachers who seek additional sources, an annotated bibliography is included.
The study guide centers on a narrative of the burning of H.M.S. Gaspee by a group of Rhode Islanders on June 9-10, 1772. The Gaspee incident is justly famous as a major event leading to the American Revolution. In telling the story here, we have placed the Gaspee incident within its pre-revolutionary context. The guide also includes the following sections: (1) notes on the narrative, with a variety of suggestions for building lessons on it as part of students' preparations for the drama/discussion presentation; (2) suggestions for additional activities; (3) a list of possible issue for discussion during the drama/discussion presentation; and (4) an identification list of individuals involved in the Gaspee affair. We have tried to make this material as extensive as possible within the Guide's space limits, so that individual classroom teachers can select from each section those items most suitable for their own classes. The actors will be prepared to respond, in their roles, to material contained in, but not limited to, the guide; teachers can therefore depend upon a lively discussion ensuing along whatever lines they choose for class preparation. Students are encouraged to raise issues or frame questions, based on their own relevant ideas, whether or not the Guide addresses them.
As further assistance in class preparation, we have included a map of the British Empire in North America as of 1763, and have reproduced portraits of some of the major participants along with other graphic materials. Finally, we have included a brief resume of the dramatic sketch with which the presentation opens. This is not intended for student use, but as information for teachers so that they can brief students about the characters whom they will meet. Having a sense of the sketch's content should also be helpful in preparing students for the drama/discussion experience.
We expect the time allotted for preparation to vary among individual teachers, depending in part upon other curriculum requirements, and upon how closely the presentation's subject matter fits a particular course. Because the topic of the Gaspee can be adapt' to such a wide range of issues, however, we hope that it will prove' useful not merely as an experience in and of itself, but as a means to illuminate and enliven ongoing course curricula.
Strict adherence to the role-playing approach helps promote a mated discussion. Therefore, teachers should not introduce the program as if it were a play, but indicate that the historical figure, are visiting the classroom. In the presentation, students should feel that they are actually confronting the historical characters portrayed. The professional actors in this project have already proven themselves adept at getting students to overcome their self consciousness, suspend disbelief, and enter unreservedly into the role-playing encounter. The actors will use a variety of techniques while doing this. For example, they will "not know" about anything -historically, technologically, socially or otherwise -- that has happened in the world since their own day. If students refer to such things, they will be put to the question, and will find themselves trying to explain the modern world to visitors from the past. In preparing students, it is particularly important to emphasize the students' role in the program, and perhaps practice a bit to give them the feel of it. Since time is limited, it helps when students are ready to come right in on the discussion.
Students frequently concentrate on asking questions of the historical figures, instead of debating issues with them. Some care needs to be taken to prevent the presentation from becoming strictly a question and answer session. The actors will sometimes solve this problem by asking the students about one or more of the issues in the Study Guide, seeking to involve them in dialogue among the class members and the characters.
We also want to avoid discussion based exclusively on "how daily life was lived in the past" topics. Sometimes it is easier to initiate discussion among students about dress, housing, food, transportation, hairdos and the like. This is fine as an icebreaker to overcome awkward silences, and to help students work through an initial shyness. For younger students, particularly, it helps generate interest. However, it is not strictly to the point of the program, and it is not the focus of the actors' own research and preparation.
In the case of the Gaspee incident, such items as communication and transportation technology are in fact relevant to the issues. So are the ways in which 18th century Rhode Islanders earned their living. Please remember, though, that the program's goal is to involve students in looking at the way in which particular issues were addressed in the past, and to recognize and debate the presence of those issues in their own society.
The Study Guide's major purpose is to assist teachers, not to dictate a single mode of preparation. We do not expect everyone to use this guide from cover to cover. We hope that teachers will be able to select from the amount and variety of material offered, and thereby to prepare each class in the way most useful to the students in it, whether the students are 7th graders of 12th graders, and whether they are at basic or advanced skills levels.
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FIRE: THE GASPEE
Shortly before midnight on June 9, 1772, eight large longboats with muffled oars and oarlocks pulled away from Fenner's wharf, at the foot of South Main Street, in Providence. Many of the sixty or more passengers divided among the eight boats were armed. Many were disguised with blacksmeared faces and Indian headdresses. The group included some of Providence's wealthiest and best-known citizens -- merchants, sea captains, lawyers, a doctor, and others. Their destination was Namquid Point, six miles from Providence, where His Majesty's Ship Gaspee had run aground, with the tide going out, at about two o'clock that afternoon. Their mission -- burn the Gaspee.
Why would some of the town's leading citizens set out on such a reckless adventure? Why would John Brown, Providence's foremost merchant, and a member of its most prominent family, organize the deliberate destruction of a British ship, on government service in Narragansett Bay? Why is the Gaspee incident still famous in Rhode Island history, with June 9th celebrated as Gaspee Day?
We can find the answers to these questions in a story that begins in 1763, almost ten years before the Gaspee incident. Until that year, Rhode Island and the twelve other English colonies, all of them strung out along the Atlantic coast, made up the entire North American portion of the British Empire. But Britain had been periodically at war with either France or Spain for almost seventy-five years, in a struggle for world power and world empire. The English finally won that struggle. In 1763 a treaty, agreed upon by Great Britain (England), France, Spain and Portugal, gave England possession of Canada, Florida, and all of the land in the present United States east of the Mississippi River.
New British regulations in America after 1763
From 1763 on, Great Britain began to pay much more attention to its North American possessions. The vast new territories, although sparsely inhabited, needed an occupying military force. This was because neither the French settlers nor the Indians, who lived, hunted, traded, and grew crops in this wilderness, liked or trusted the English. In fact, there was an Indian uprising against the English that was not completely defeated until 1765.
As for the original thirteen colonies, the British government looked to them for help in maintaining its army in North America. The King and his ministers in London finally had time, after seventy-five years of imperial wars, to notice how their American subjects were running colonial business and politics.
Problems between the thirteen colonies and the mother country began almost immediately after the treaty, in 1763. For one thing, the colonists objected to being taxed to support the British soldiers in the new territory, particularly since British policy forbade the Americans from settling there. The most serious problems, however, were caused by British efforts to take more direct control over colonial trade after not paying much attention to it for years. American colonists had become too accustomed to ignoring English trade laws, and to living by their own rules.
Beginning in 1764, the English government passed a series of laws designed to tighten up collection of import taxes, which the colonists had been successfully evading. They also added new tax laws that led to resentment and resistance throughout the colonies. Rhode Island was in the forefront of colonial resistance from the first. Although it was the smallest colony, Rhode Island was, as usual, the scrappiest. In part, this was because Rhode Island had struggled for political and economic survival since Roger Williams founded it in 1636.
Rhode Island never had huge areas of farmland, forests, or other material resources, as did the other colonies. Rhode Island businessmen became successful by using their wits, and by turning to trade based on Rhode Island's one great natural resource -- the waterways of Narragansett Bay. The shipping trade, both up and down the Atlantic coast and back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean, had brought wealth and success to the colony by the 1760's.
Colonial reaction to British mercantile policies: smuggling and the slave trade
All of the American colonies depended upon foreign trade for goods to use or to sell. Most finished products, whether clothing, furniture, dishes, other household articles, or luxury items, came to the colonies by way of Europe. Eighteenth century American merchants traded raw materials -- tobacco or rice raised in the South; lumber, farm products, beef or wool in the North -- to get money to pay for European imports.
According to long-standing English law, the Americans were supposed to trade all of their local products to England, and to receive English goods in return. This is the essence of the system known as mercantilism, upon which British imperial policy was based. Under this system, a mother country establishes colonies from which it receives a constant supply of raw materials. In return, the colonies receive finished products from the mother country, for which they pay partly in goods and partly in currency. In theory, both mother country and colonies will benefit, although the system was designed mainly to bring wealth and power to the mother country. Colonial business was, in fact, greatly assisted by the guarantee of English markets, and by participation in the world-wide English trading empire. However, the British mercantile system operated in a way that prevented the American colonists from getting their hands on any currency at all, not even what they needed to pay for British goods. The Americans needed more than finished goods in return. They needed cash to pay their debts and to clear a profit.
Instead of fretting about this, shrewd New Englanders simply found a way around it. They ignored the English laws, trading with France, Spain, Holland, and other countries as they pleased. All of these countries, and England as well, had colonies in the West Indies, with trade representatives stationed in them. Therefore, the New England ships did not necessarily have to go to European ports to do business with these European countries. The New Englanders also traded with the English West Indian colonies, as they always had. Rhode Island and Massachusetts were the New England colonies most involved in the West Indies trade.
Of course, merchants trading illegally, with countries that were not in the British Empire, often had to smuggle their cargoes into secret harbors, safely away from the inspectors at the ports. But Rhode Islanders had never been too fussy about the ways in which they made money, as long as those ways were successful. They had, for example, cheerfully continued to trade with the French and Spanish West Indies when those countries were at war with England, Rhode Island's mother country. One of their most successful ventures was the Triangular Trade, so called because the ships sailed a triangular route from Rhode Island to Africa, then to the West Indies, and back to Rhode Island. A less polite name for this activity is the slave trade. The merchants who owned the ships bought slaves in Africa, and traded them in the West Indies for sugar and molasses. (There were many sugar plantations in the West Indies, owned by the European countries that colonized them, and worked by slave labor.) Sugar and molasses were basic ingredients in the manufacture of rum, which the merchants produced in Rhode Island. The rum brought in cash profits, some of which the merchants used to buy the next group of slaves, and thus to start the next installment of the Triangular Trade. John Brown made part of his money in the slave trade, which he later defended as being just good business.
By 1763, this colonial trade system had been~going on unchecked for years. The colonists, although citizens of England and subject to its laws, managed to avoid detection and punishment. They were able to do this because they were so far away from England, separated by a vast ocean that took weeks to cross in wind powered sailing vessels. Also, for most of the time that the colonists had been trading abroad, English energies and attention were consumed in the wars against France and Spain.
English efforts to control illegal colonial trade
The English were aware of some of the colonists' dealings and they suspected a great deal more. Also, as was previously noted, they needed more money to run their expanded empire. They felt that the colonists should pay their fair share, since, in England's view, the British soldiers in America provided protection for the colonists against the French and the Indians. In 1733, while the wars were still going on, the English had put a tax on molasses imported into the American colonies. The colonists, furious, had followed their usual smuggling practices to avoid paying it.
In 1764, the British government replaced the molasses tax with the Sugar Act, the first in a series of laws that called forth utmost colonial resistance. Although the new tax was lower than the molasses tax, the Sugar Act was strictly enforced. This had never happened before. Ships' cargoes were checked, both at the port of exit and at the port of entry. The captain was required to swear under oath that the cargo was as he listed it, and a duplicate list had to be presented to the customs collector at the end of the voyage. If the certificate and cargo did not match, or if the captain did not have all the required documents, the cargo could be seized.
In addition to these precautions, in 1763 Parliament commissioned naval officers to act as customs officials. Their job would be to patrol the bays and inlets near colonial ports, looking for ships carrying smuggled goods. If they found such goods, they would seize both cargo and ships. This meant that Rhode Island merchants could no longer safely land on the islands in Narragansett Bay to transfer smuggled goods onto smaller boats for distribution to Newport or Providence.
The British also, in 1764, made changes in the colonial court system. They created new district courts for customs cases. The customs collectors could choose to file cases against suspected smugglers in one of the district courts away from the accused's home colony. This was a very sore point with the colonists for two reasons. First, they felt that it put the defendant at a disadvantage to have to go, along with his witnesses, far away for trial. Not only was it costly to be away from his business for an indefinite time, but it was harder to put together his case. Second, this charge violated basic rights to which the colonists believed they were entitled, both as English citizens and by guarantees written into their colonial charters. These rights involved self government in internal colonial affairs, and trial by a jury of their peers in a local court.
Political and economic resistance to new English trade laws in the colonies
Rhode Islanders felt all of these regulations most keenly. They were the admitted smuggling champions of the British colonies, and their economy was dependent upon illegal trade. Rhode Island merchants bought more manufactured goods from England than they could pay for with Rhode Island products. Trade with other countries kept them out of debt and provided their profit margins. Also, Rhode Island's charter was the most liberal of any of the colonial charters. Rhode Islanders had exercised virtually complete control over their government and their courts for over a hundred years. They were not about to give up any of that control without a struggle.
Along with merchants from the other New England colonies, Rhode Islanders protested the new Parliamentary Acts, and explained, in petitions to the English government, the hardships that the acts would impose upon Rhode Island's commerce. Throughout the twelve years between the 1763 treaty and the onset of revolution in 1775, petitions and letters went back and forth across the Atlantic. The colonies and the mother country both tried to settle their differences legally and peacefully. Each, however, interpreted the law as being on their side, and neither was willing to compromise its view of its own self-interest.
During this same twelve year period there were many protests against English tax and trade laws, some peaceful and some violent. In 1765, the Stamp Act was greeted with riots, and with vandalism against tax collectors' property -- nowhere more so than in Rhode Island. The Stamp Act taxed legal documents (wills, deeds, marriage licenses, birth certificates), newspapers, playing cards, dice, and, most troublesome to merchants, documents used in carrying out their daily business. Colonial protest against the Stamp Act was so widespread, and so intense, that Parliament quickly repealed the Act. In 1767, however, Parliament passed the Townshend Acts, which imposed taxes on colonial imports of lead, paper, paint, glass and tea.
The Townshend Act did not create as much of a business hardship for Rhode Island merchants as did the Sugar Act or the Stamp Act. Therefore, the merchants were tempted to avoid the taxes with their old tricks as much as possible, pay the taxes when they absolutely had to, and go back to practicing business as usual. The Rhode Islanders still believed that they could do this, in spite of the British ships that patrolled Narragansett Bay.
The Rhode Island merchants' attitude is shown in a set of instructions that the firm of Nicholas Brown and Company sent in 1764 to Abraham Whipple, one of its ship captains. First, they instructed Whipple to avoid the patrol boats, and told him to "...come in by the light House in the night which we hope to have in good order by the Time of your arrival. But if you fall into the Westward it may be best to come in that way...." Second, they told him to arm his vessel, in case a British man-of-war did intercept it:
"...we advise you to get Two swivel guns & amanition at Stacia or St. Thomas's In case you don't obtain proper papers, and to suffer nothing to come on bord you on this cost of Bay, or anywhere else where you may aprehend Danger from the Persons who Presume to Visit you." (sic)By the time that the Townshend Act taxes were imposed in 1767, however, the American colonists saw that their differences with England went beyond economic issues. Political principles were also involved. At first, the colonies had protested the English trade laws on the grounds of economic hardship. Now, they talked about "taxation without representation." They said that Parliament did not have an unlimited right to tax the colonies, because the colonies did not have their own elected representatives in Parliament to vote for or against the taxes.
To show their determination, the American colonies joined together in non-importation agreements. These agreements called upon the merchants and the people to boycott British goods by refusing to import or to use them. Merchants who cooperated with the non-importation agreements voluntarily accepted business losses because British goods accounted for a large percentage of their sales.
All the while that the colonists were protesting and petitioning to England, the English naval vessels were harassing colonial ships. Parliament ordered patrols up and down the Atlantic coast from Nova Scotia to Florida. The English government also increased the number of customs officials in the colonies. Between the soldiers stationed on land, the naval vessels at sea, and the customs officials in the seaports, Americans felt oppressed by the British presence in their lives. The Reverend Mr. Ezra Stiles, a Newport minister, called the British officials "a plague of locusts."
Relations between the Americans and the British officials were bad throughout the colonies. Local newspapers printed indignant stories about unjust treatment by the British in their own, and in the other colonies. Thus, Rhode Islanders' resentment was aroused by what they read about events in Boston, Philadelphia, and other places, as well as by what they heard and saw in Rhode Island.
Escalation of resistance into violence
The British officers did, in fact, hold low opinions of the Americans, and did not try to hide their feelings. They suspected every American of being a smuggler. Very soon, Rhode Island newspapers began printing complaints that local residents were insulted and treated roughly by the British. Shortly after that, Rhode Islanders began to use violence to express their grievances.
For example, in 1769 a group of "ruffians" attacked an assistant to the Providence customs collector. They tarred and feathered him, and then beat him. This man, Jesse Saville, had testified against a local merchant whose vessel was condemned. Saville had boarded the vessel at night, when he was off duty, to search secretly for smuggled goods. The local citizens considered him a spy and an informer. Later, Newport customs collector Charles Dudley was also attacked and beaten. Rhode Islanders hated Dudley because he showed favoritism and discriminated against merchants who had signed the non-importation agreements. He took bribes from his favorites, although he pretended to be above such behavior.
Rhode Islanders took violent reprisal upon the British ships, as well as upon customs officials. In 1764, the St. John was fired upon by the gunner at Fort George, in Newport. This action was upheld and defended by the Rhode Island colonial government. In 1765, another British ship, the Maidstone, was also a victim of local violence in Newport. One of its launches was stolen and burned. In 1769, the Liberty, under Captain William Reid, was boarded by "unknown persons" while the captain and crew were ashore. These persons cut the ship's cables and let the ship drift ashore. There they cut down the mast, scuttled the ship, and burned its boats.
In all of these instances, the Rhode Islanders had serious grievances to redress. The British vessels often stopped local ships, and searched them, without any evidence or information to justify their suspicions. The attack on the Liberty, for example, came after it seized two ships that were quickly able to prove that they had not violated the trade laws. As for the St. John, it was one of many British ships that practiced impressment: boarding an American ship, kidnapping one or more of its sailors, and forcing them into service in the British navy. In general, Rhode Islanders regarded the Royal Navy captains as the most hated symbols of British oppression in the 1760's.
Enter the Gaspee and Lieutenant William Dudingston
The sloop Gaspee had been on duty in colonial waters since 1764, under Captain Thomas Allen. Because impressment was a prominent part of his job, he and his ship earned hatred and fear in several American colonies. In 1768 the Gaspee was overhauled, and turned into a two-masted schooner. This increased the ship's speed, and enabled it to operate with a smaller crew. When the Gaspee returned to duty along the Atlantic coast, Lieutenant William Dudingston replaced Captain Allen in command.
Lieutenant Dudingston soon had a reputation throughout the colonies for insulting, humiliating, and even beating Americans who offended him. In 1772, he and the Gaspee were transferred to the New England area from Pennsylvania, where he had seized so many ships that the British authorities feared riots might break out. Since Rhode Island was notorious for its smuggling activities, Dudingston was permanently stationed there by early March, 1772.
We have seen, in the letter from Nicholas Brown and Company to Captain Abraham Whipple, that some Rhode Islanders were willing to go to any lengths to continue their illegal business activities. Dudingston, on the other hand, was equally determined to stop them. He pursued wealthy merchants as well as small traders and fishermen. He made it clear that he would send seized vessels to Boston, instead of allowing merchants to petition for return of their goods in local courts.
Lieutenant Dudingston hounded small, often innocent, packet boats engaged in local commerce. He also took supplies for the Gaspee, such as pigs, poultry, and timber, from local farmers without their permission, and without paying for them. When information about his actions reached Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton, Dudingston scorned the governor's request for a meeting between them to discuss local residents' complaints. The governor wanted Dudingston to present his commission personally, so that Dudingston's authority, and its limits, could be made clear. The lieutenant refused, saying that he was required to present his commission only to British Rear Admiral John Montagu, Dudingston's superior, who was stationed in Boston.
From this account, it is obvious that Dudingston wasted no time in making a host of enemies in Rhode Island, from the most insignificant small trader on up to the colony's governor. In fact, one reason for Dudingston's reluctance to leave the Gaspee to meet with Governor Wanton was his fear of attack or arrest once he stepped on land. Eight prominent Rhode Island merchants, including John and Nicholas Brown and Thomas Greene, had signed a complaint against Dudingston, after the Fortune, a Greene family ship, was seized by the Gaspee. Dudingston had outraged the local merchant community by sending the ship and its cargo to Boston, to be held there until a smuggling trial took place.
Rhode Island business had close connections with Rhode Island politics. Governor Wanton was a member of a wealthy merchant family. The Wantons of Newport belonged to the same political faction as the Browns and Hopkins of Providence. Stephen Hopkins, a merchant and a former Rhode Island governor, was Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court during the period of the Gaspee incident. This court had received the complaints against Dudingston.
Governor Wanton was both shrewd and sophisticated. He thought that Rhode Island's interests would be best served by trying to reason or bargain with British ship captains to get them to modify their overzealous behavior. He had already met with Captain John Linzee of the Beaver, another vessel stationed off Rhode Island. Captain Linzee was courteous, but offered the Governor little hope of cooperation. Governor Wanton had met Lieutenant Dudingston when the Lieutenant first arrived in Rhode Island. At that time, the governor diplomatically tried to get across to Dudingston this message: "Take care, be careful how and whom you search, and if you do I will cooperate with you for your own peace and safety." But Dudingston ignored the message. He was as righteous and arrogant in his attitude toward Governor Wanton as he was in directing the Gaspee to harass Rhode Island shipping.
All during the spring of 1772, Lieutenant Dudingston and his crew, assisted by the Beaver under Captain John Linzee, disrupted commerce along Narragansett Bay. Rhode Island Lieutenant Governor Darius Sessions kept Governor Wanton informed of increasing complaints that local people were being unjustly insulted, and that trade was interrupted. Letters went back and forth between the Governor, Dudingston, Vice Admiral Montagu in Boston, and British Colonial Secretary Lord Hillsborough, in London. Admiral Montagu supported Dudingston in his letters and reports to London, while Governor Wanton forcefully stated the case for Rhode Island.
Drumbeats signal destruction for the Gaspee
This was the situation when, on June 9, the Gaspee tried to stop the Hannah, a small packet on its way up Narragansett Bay from Newport to Providence. Captain Benjamin Lindsey of the Hannah refused to drop anchor, even after warning shots were fired from the Gaspee. Dudingston ordered a chase, and the Gaspee pursued the Hannah up the bay. Crafty Captain Lindsey, thoroughly familiar with the bay and its tides, maneuvered the chase so that the Gaspee ran aground on Namquid Point. This spit of land was only a few feet below the water, even at high tide. Because the tide was just going out at mid-afternoon, when the Gaspee ran aground, Captain Lindsey knew that the British would not be able to free their ship for twelve hours or more.
Captain Lindsey arrived in Providence in the early evening. He immediately informed John Brown of the Gaspee's situation. Without hesitation, Brown instructed his loyal sea captain, Abraham Whipple, to gather and prepare longboats. He also recruited a young boy, Daniel Pearce, to walk up and down between the south end of Main Street and Market Square, beating a drum. Daniel call out the news that the Gaspee was grounded. He summoned those interested to a meeting in Sabin's Tavern at 124 South Main Street the northeast corner of South Main and Planet Streets. Here the expedition to destroy the hated Gaspee was organized, and a captain designated for each longboat. Captain Whipple was in overall command of the boats. John Brown was the expedition leader.
Altogether, including the eight boat captains and John Brown, about sixty-five volunteers rowed away from Fenner's Wharf, directly across from Sabin's Tavern, at about ten o'clock that night. John Howland, later a prominent businessman and proponent of public education, was fourteen years old at the time. Many years later, he wrote about standing on the wharf and watching them go. He knew Daniel Pearce, and along with other boys, probably accompanied the drummer on his march.
The attack on the Gaspee
At the mouth of the river, Captain Whipple ordered the boats to line up and sail abreast down the bay. The night was dark and moonless. This made navigation more difficult, but kept the silent boats hidden from the Gaspee sentinel's sight until they were with in 60 to 100 yards of the ship. By getting so close undetected, t raiders were safe from the Gaspee's eight large guns. When the sentinel and Lieutenant Dudingston spotted the boats, at about 12:45 a.m., the Gaspee was already surrounded.
When Dudingston challenged the boats and ordered them away, someone, probably John Brown, claimed to be the sheriff of Kent County with a warrant for Dudingston's arrest. Dudingston ordered his crew to take up their small arms and fire at anyone who tried to come on deck. Shouting and cursing, the Rhode Islanders stormed on board the Gaspee. One of the attackers, still in a boat, took aim and fired at Dudingston, fully intending to kill him. The bullet passed through the Lieutenant's left arm, breaking it, and lodged in his left groin. Dudingston fell, badly wounded and bleeding, but not dead.
At this point, confusion reigned. The Gaspee's sailors, almost all of whom had been undressed and asleep below deck, were soon overcome by the raiding party. The Rhode Islanders outnumber the British by almost four to one. Brown and Whipple ordered Dudingston to surrender, promising him that the crew would then be unharmed. As hard as it was for him to accept this order, the lie tenant agreed. While the crew were tied up and put into the boats, Dudingston was left bleeding on the deck. He was so hated by his attackers that they watched him suffer without pity. In response to Dudingston's calls for medical aid, Captain Whipple ordered the wounded lieutenant to beg for his life on his knees. Dudingston later said that he was so weak at that point that he asked to be medically treated or killed.
Finally, John Mawney, one of the raiders and a trained surgeon, was summoned to the ship's cabin to tend to the lieutenant. He managed to stop the bleeding, and bandaged the wounds with linen, even using part of his own shirt. Dudingston, in gratitude, offered Mawney a gold belt buckle. Mawney refused it, but Dudingston convinced him to accept a silver one.
After going through the ship's papers, and removing most of them, the leaders ordered the boats to take the crew ashore. The sailors were landed, along with the wounded Lieutenant Dudingston, in the Pawtuxet area. The Rhode Islanders then rowed back to the Gaspee and set it afire. Dudingston, dressed only in a shirt and a blanket, was taken in by a local resident and the British sailors watched from shore as their ship went up in flames and burned to the water.
An event that nobody heard or saw
Next day, everyone in Providence, Newport, Bristol and other towns on the bay knew what had happened. They had seen the smoke, and many were aware of the fire and explosions during the night. But, from June 10, 1772 until a year later, when the investigation of the Gaspee incident was closed, not one person in Providence admitted to knowing about it in advance, or knowing either before or after the fact, the name of any person involved.
Years later, after the Americans successfully won their independence from England, the stories were told and written. Some Gaspee affair participants then marched in July 4th parades every year, honored for this act of rebellion. But on June 10, 1772, no one in Providence noticed, or later remembered, that young Justin Jacobs was parading up and down the "great bridge" between the east and west side of town wearing Lieutenant Dudingston's gold laced officer's hat. His friends hushed him up and hustled him away when he began telling everyone who would listen just how and where he had gotten it. For all practical purposes, Rhode Island's governmental authorities never heard about this incident, or about any other indiscreet bragging from young, exuberant raiders of the Gaspee.
The Rhode Island authorities investigate
Majority opinion in Rhode Island clearly approved the burning of the Gaspee and the personal attack on Lieutenant Dudingston. There were, of course, those who opposed violent actions -- some out of principle, others because they feared military reprisals by Great Britain upon the colony. Local government officials, whatever they felt, had to try to prevent punishment from falling upon the colony as a whole. They therefore immediately began a formal investigation.
Lieutenant Governor Darius Sessions, accompanied by Rhode Island's Vice-Admiralty Court Judge, John Andrews, went from Providence to Pawtuxet on June 10th to visit Lieutenant Dudingston. Sessions wanted to make sure of Dudingston's well-being and proper medical care, and to question him. The Lieutenant refused to give a statement, saying that he would save his testimony for the court martial that he knew he must face in England for losing his ship. Dudingston also refused the Rhode Islanders' offers of help, but he did allow Sessions to send a doctor to tend him. He also granted Sessions and Andrews permission to question the Gaspee crew. Dudingston, in fact, still feared for his life if he described his attackers or repeated any names that he heard mentioned among them.
Sessions and Andrews took depositions from several Gaspee crew members. Their testimony convinced the Lieutenant Governor and the Judge that neglecting the affair would be very dangerous. Sessions wrote to Governor Wanton, recommending that the Governor issue a proclamation and offer a large reward for "apprehending the persons who have thus offended." Governor Wanton immediately did so.
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Dudingston had written his version of the affair to Vice Admiral Montague in Boston. Admiral Montagu also questioned Midshipman William Dickinson, who brought him the news of the Gaspee's loss. Admiral Montagu wrote to Governor Wanton, informing the Governor that he was sending the information to England. Governor Wanton also wrote to the Colonial Secretary, claiming that the Gaspee's oppressive and unjustified harassment had provoked such violent reprisals. Nevertheless, Governor Wanton assured the English Secretary of State that he would spare no effort to discover and punish the guilty.
By mid July, Lieutenant Dudingston was on his way back to England aboard the Beaver. He had spent several weeks recuperating at the home of Jahleel Brenton, on Brenton's Point, in Newport. Captain Linzee shared Dudingston's own fears for his safety, and mounted a marine guard outside Brenton's house until Dudingston was well enough to travel.
Governor Wanton might have let the matter rest once Dudingston and the Beaver were both gone. Early in July, however, Admiral Montagu sent the Governor a story told by Aaron Briggs, a black indentured servant from Prudence Island, who admitted to taking part in the attack on the Gaspee. Aaron said that, on the night in question, he was rowing from Providence to Warren. On the way he met a boat coming from Bristol, with armed men in it, who insisted that he join them. Aaron said that this boat joined the boats from Providence, and that he was present throughout the night's events: boarding the Gaspee, shooting Dudingston, removing the crew, and burning the ship. He named John Brown and Joseph Brown of Providence, and Simeon Potter of Bristol, as being involved, and accused John Brown of firing the shot that wounded Dudingston.
Aaron Briggs ran away from Prudence Island in July, taking a boat and rowing out to the Beaver. One of the Gaspee sailors, now on the Beaver, saw and claimed to recognize him. It was after he was questioned, beaten, and threatened with death by Captain Linzee that Aaron first told his story. But once he told it, he maintained its truth throughout the investigation.
Governor Wanton's immediate response was to try to question Aaron himself, but Captain Linzee refused to turn the boy over to the sheriff. The sheriff then took affidavits from Aaron's master, Samuel Tompkins, from other members of the Tompkins family, and from Aaron's fellow servants. These witnesses attested that Aaron had been on the island the night of the Gaspee burning. The servants claimed that he was in bed with them, in their quarters. The family said that the boat Aaron claimed to be rowing that night was under repair and unusable at the time. They also said that he showed up to do his early morning chores at the usual time the next day, acting quite normal; and that nothing he said or did before running away suggested his participation in the Gaspee raid.
Conclusion of the local investigation
No further local investigation took place. When the General Assembly met in August, its members approved of the actions that the Governor had taken -- the proclamation, the offer of a reward and the report to England -- and authorized him to continue the investigation in whatever manner he considered to be appropriate. Other than issuing the proclamation and trying to question Aaron Briggs, Governor Wanton did not make an effort to discover or prosecute any individuals. The news of the Gaspee incident was well reported throughout the colonies, however. Newspapers from New Hampshire to South Carolina reprinted stories about it from the Providence, Newport and Boston papers.
Although official responses condemned the destruction and violence, the public expressed neither surprise nor sorrow. Most people agreed that the Gaspee's fate was a natural result of the English government's policies after 1763, and of the arrogance with which most English naval officers carried them out. There was, however, general concern over England's inevitable reaction to the burning of a royal vessel. The colonials awaited news of it, with no real idea of what kind of action England would take.
Appointment of a Royal Commission
The responsibility for deciding what His Majesty's government should do about the Gaspee fell upon the Secretary of State for the Colonies, whose department had exclusive control over colonial affairs. With legal advice from the Attorney and Solicitor General, he found precedent in English law to define this act as high treason, and to rule that the accused must stand trial for it in England. The next question facing the Colonial Secretary was how to uncover sufficient evidence to arrest anyone. The English government did not trust Rhode Islanders to carry out an honest investigation, just as it clearly did not trust a Rhode Island judge and jury to convict or punish anyone for burning the Gaspee.
The answer was one that will appear familiar to many twentieth century Americans: when in doubt, appoint a commission. In this case, the English appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry, with authority to make indictments, and with instructions to turn indicted persons over to the British navy for transportation to England. With this commission, the British were able to bypass the Rhode Island courts completely. Five commissioners were appointed, four of whom were judges from other American colonies: Chief Justices Peter Oliver of Massachusetts, Daniel Horsemanden of New York, and Frederick Smythe of New Jersey; and Robert Auchmuty, Jr., Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court in the New England district. This paper has been plagiarised from the Gaspee Historical Archives and the RI Committee for the Humanities. These four men were appointees of the crown and loyal supporters of the English government. The fifth appointed commissioner was Rhode Island Governor Joseph Wanton.
Why was Governor Wanton included if the British did not trust him? He had not made serious efforts to solve the case on his own, so why give him any more authority to do so? The answer seems to be that there was a difference in the Colonial Secretary's department over how harshly the Rhode Islanders should be treated. During the summer of 1772, while the department was still planning the investigation, Colonial Secretary Lord Hillsborough resigned. He was replaced by Lord Dartmouth who was far less vindictive in his attitude and who gave less of his personal attention to the Gaspee case. Any plan of action that the department chose, had to be approved by the King's Privy Council. The Council was aware that the Rhode Islanders would resist any plan that sidestepped local authority. By appointing Governor Wanton, they might prevent violent reaction to the commission.
Rewards are offered, rumors spread, and rights upheld
On August 26th, the King signed a proclamation designating the burning of the Gaspee an act of high treason, and authorizing the commission. He also signed the document appointing the commissioners. These official papers were immediately sent by ship to Boston, to be delivered to Admiral Montagu for further distribution. The proclamation offered 1000 pounds reward to informers, to be paid upon conviction of accused persons. It also offered a pardon to any participant in the Gaspee's destruction who would identify the expedition's leaders and the person who wounded Lieutenant Dudingston. Although the ship sailed from England in early September, bad weather and necessary repairs forced it into port for extended layovers, first in South Carolina and then in New York. While the ship was en route to America, Lieutenant Dudingston's court martial in England honorably acquitted him of any blame for losing the Gaspee.
The royal commission of inquiry assembled at the Colony House, in Newport, on January 4, 1773. Fears that Newporters would try to prevent the Commission's sessions from taking place proved groundless; the meetings were held peacefully throughout. Opening sessions were taken up with such formalities as swearing in the Commissioners, reading the King's orders to them, and appointing secretaries.
The commissioners took upon themselves the task of interpreting the King's orders, which were general rather than detailed. The five Commissioners came to an agreement about how to define their authority, and how best to carry out their duties. In the course of doing so, they reviewed all of Governor Wanton's correspondence relative to the Gaspee, before and after the attack. As a result of this review, and of interviews with Governor Wanton, Lieutenant Governor Sessions, and Chief Justice Hopkins, the Commissioners agreed to interpret their powers quite narrowly. They assured the Rhode Island officials that they would not themselves arrest anyone or deliver anyone to Admiral Montagu, but would leave that task to the regular judicial officials in the colony. The Rhode Island officials, in turn, promised to submit written statements containing everything they knew about the burning. By acknowledging local judicial authority, the Commissioners calmed some of the Rhode Islanders' worst fears.
From that point on, the Commission's proceedings were anticlimactic. The members wanted Admiral Montagu to testify personally. The Admiral resisted leaving Boston and, when finally persuaded, used the severe winter weather as an excuse to return almost immediately. Because the weather made it difficult to get other witnesses to come to Newport as well, the commission adjourned on January 20th until May.
During the sixteen day January session, the Commissioners examined ten people, three of whom were Rhode Island officials. The officials' testimony emphasized Dudingston's behavior, in effect saying that his outrageous actions drove desperate, unknown, Rhode Islanders to seek revenge. The officials also made a point of Captain Linzee's refusal to cooperate with the local authorities who were sent to interview Aaron Briggs. .
In other testimony, Stephen Gulley, a Smithfield farmer, claimed to know who the attack leaders were. His evidence turned out to be third hand, and was refuted by the people Gulley said he had heard it from. Aaron Briggs appeared and gave his testimony. Previously refuted by the Tompkins family and their servants, further doubt was now cast upon it in a deposition given to Governor Wanton by Daniel Vaughan. Vaughan was a witness to the fact that Aaron claimed knowledge of the Gaspee burning only after being whipped by Captain Linzee.
Although one of the Gaspee' sailors identified Aaron, and vague references to the names Greene, Brown and Potter appeared in various depositions, the evidence was not specific enough to name a particular individual. Rhode Island was, after all populated with so many Greenes, Browns, and Potters.
The Commission tried to summon six additional witnesses during the January session r including James Sabin, the proprietor of Sabin's Tavern. All six informed the Commission that, alas, they were unable to attend. Some were too sick, some were too old, and some were unable to disrupt their professional duties by taking time away from them. Rhode Islanders had seemingly discovered that they could, at least temporarily thwart the Royal Commission without resorting to violence.
The final chapter
When the Commissioners reconvened at the end of May, they were able to hear the testimony of William Dickinson and Bartholomew Cheever, two Gaspee sailors who had been in Lieutenant Dudingston's cabin when Dudingston's wounds were being dressed. The Lieutenant himself was not yet well enough to travel to America, but the Colonial Secretary granted approval for the seamen to come instead. The two sailors described the raiding party's leaders, whom they had seen in the cabin, but since no one had been apprehended, their descriptions were meaningless.
Strangely enough, fewer witnesses appeared before the Commission during May's fine spring days than during January's snow. As in January, the testimony failed to produce sufficient evidence to identify any members of the raiding party, The four non-Rhode Islanders on the Commission privately deplored the Gaspee incident and would have been happy to discover the culprits. In voluntarily limiting their own authority to arrest or indict anyone, however, they accepted the reality that Rhode Islanders would not submit to the Commission's exercising this power without armed force to back it up.
The Commissioners judged correctly that it was hopeless to expect that local justices would issue arrest warrants. Nevertheless they did not want to take the responsibility of causing violence b, direct action on their own part. Furthermore, their investigation had failed to penetrate the Rhode Islanders' wall of silence. Nobody wanted the King's reward badly enough to admit any knowledge, whether the reason was reluctance to betray a friend, or fear of t! reprisals that would surely befall an informer. The commission therefore closed its investigation, submitting reports both to the Rhode Island Superior Court and to the King of England.
In these reports, the Commissioners answered all the questions put to them in their orders from the King, except for the crucial one of "who did it?" They described in detail what happened, where it happened, and why it happened. They came to the conclusion that the attack was a spontaneous one, and not, as some in the English government suspected, a plot carefully laid in advance. They agreed that, in light of the Rhode Islanders' earlier resistance to royal economic controls, and the unpunished acts of violence against British ships that had already occurred in Rhode Island, Lieutenant Dudingston behaved with "...intemperate, if not a reprehensible, zeal to aid the revenue service...." In other words, they accepted as one factor. Rhode Island officials' claims that Dudingston had brought the attack upon himself.
Effects of the Gaspee incident
The attack on the Gaspee, and the investigations that followed it, came after almost ten years of growing conflict between the American colonies and their mother country. It ended a two year period during which, after the Boston Massacre of 1770, there were no major incidents of violence and it appeared that the difference could be settled peacefully after all. By the end of 1773, however, the Boston Tea Party would take place. This time the British responded with immediate punitive measures instead of a fact finding commission. From that point on, revolutionary attitudes grew stronger until April, 1775, when fighting broke out at Lexington and Concord.
Americans' perceptions of the Gaspee incident greatly solidified their anti-British feeling, and helped create the climate that made revolution thinkable. In truth, the Royal Commission conducted its investigation of the Gaspee affair in a moderate, respectful way, completely mindful of the rule of law. Whatever the Commissioners' suspicions, they accepted no hearsay evidence, nor did they summon before them individuals, such as John Brown and Simeon Potter, whose names were heard and repeated by British sailors, but who were not positively identified.
The four non-Rhode Island Commissioners were trained and responsible lawyers. Indeed, one observer at the time remarked how differently things might have been handled by a military commission, had the King appointed one. Then, the observer thought, a secret warrant might have been prepared, troops summoned from New York, and accused persons seized and taken to England forthwith.
Fairness and moderation, however, were not what most Americans saw in the Royal Commission. The very fact of its existence signified oppression to them. Newspapers throughout the colonies printed articles emphasizing that the Commission supplanted local justice, that the accused would be tried for treason, and that they would be transported abroad for trial.
Committees of Correspondence were formed to share information among the colonies about perceived threats to their liberties. Americans were convinced that the English government wanted to take revenge upon the entire colony of Rhode Island for the acts of a few of its citizens. They believed that Rhode Island's charter might be revoked, royal appointees substituted for elected officials, and military force applied. Had not British troops, stationed in Boston, enacted the Boston Massacre? If liberty is assaulted in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, how long can it be before the other colonies suffer as well?
On the other hand, many members of the British government considered the attack upon the Gaspee an open act of rebellion against the crown. -Their attitudes were fed by letters from royal appointees on the scene, like customs collector Charles Dudley, who insisted that there had been a conspiracy to attack the Gaspee. Dudley claimed that the Gaspee was only one example of ongoing rebellious plots in Rhode Island and, doubtless, elsewhere in the colonies. The commission's conclusion to the contrary left Dudley unconvinced. Suspicions such as these influenced policy makers in London to deal harshly and directly with the colony of Massachusetts when the Boston Tea Party took place on December 15, 1773, only six months after the Gaspee investigation was concluded. Thus, on both sides of the Atlantic, mistrust and fear helped lead to warlike actions and, ultimately, to war.
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FOR TEACHERS ON THE GASPEE
STUDY GUIDE NARRATIVE
The story of the Gaspee incident and its aftermath, along with the background information, is presented in considerable detail in this narrative. Even so, the episode is so rich in significant detail that much has been omitted. We have selected and emphasized material that we judged most basic to students' understanding of the incident's events and their significance. We have designed the narrative to emphasize issues raised by the story of the Gaspee, that readily lend themselves to lively discussion.
We anticipate that some teachers will assign this narrative directly to students to read, while others will use it, in combination with other material found in this guide and elsewhere, as source material for lessons on the Gaspee incident. We have tried to organize the narrative so that, after photocopying it, teachers can selectively cut and paste it to produce a shortened version for student use where that seems appropriate. We have sought, through the use of some detail and anecdote about individuals, to personalize the story in ways that will arouse student interest. Teachers can emphasize that the students will be meeting and talking with two individuals from the story.
A variety of points can be emphasized in class preparation, using the narrative. Some examples are:
1. The insistence of the British on their right to tax the Americans despite arguments about the latters' rights as British citizens (taxation without representation).
2. The colonists' willingness to "get away with" breaking English trade laws before 1763, instead of publicly confronting the issue of these laws' fairness or justice.
3. The use of various means of protest: avoidance of the law, as in smuggling; boycotts, as in the non-importation agreements; petitions to the government in England; engaging in riots; destruction of property; and attacks upon persons. There is also, with respect to the Royal Commission, the use of non-cooperation with the authorities by refusing to appear before them and by denying any knowledge of the case. (For example, though not specifically mentioned in the narrative, a number of Providence residents, including Lieutenant Governor Darius Sessions, heard Daniel Pearce beat his drum. They claimed to have thought it was just boys playing soldiers, and not to have heard anything that suggested otherwise to them. Other people, present in Sabin's Tavern on the night of June 9, 1772, denied seeing or hearing anything unusual, such as a meeting of large numbers of men planning an action.)
4. The ways in which law was applied to the case -for example, searching for precedents in English law to define this crime and its penalty. Do students agree that treason was an appropriate label for what the colonists did? There is also the question of whether the Rhode Islanders' legal positions, stressing self-government, were correct.
5. Rhode Island merchants' attitude that smuggling, and participation in the slave trade, were matters to be decided from the perspective of business rather than that of ethics (later, Rhode Island was the first state to make slave trading illegal; Moses Brown, a prominent Quaker and anti-slavery advocate, was in conflict with his brother John on this issue).
6. The Rhode Islanders' determination to manage their own local affairs, in spite of pressure from the country that was then the most powerful one in the world,
7. The importance of newspapers in conveying information, particularly from one colony to another.
8. The issue of Aaron Briggs' testimony -- the evidence points to its being a forced confession obtained under threat of death. In addition to the witnesses mentioned in the narrative who refuted it, a young man that Aaron claimed he rowed from Prudence to Warren on the night of the Gaspee attack denied that he was with Aaron then as well. It could be an interesting exercise for students to discuss Aaron's role in the affair, and, as he was about the same age as many of the students, what they would have done in his place.
9. The undisguised contempt and suspicion of the British officials, stationed in America, towards the American colonists who were born here; in particular, the arrogance displayed by Lieutenant Dudingston, including his refusal to show Governor Wanton his papers of authorization, as well as his harassing shippers and stealing from farmers. At the same time, Dudingston showed some "gentlemanly" traits, as when he rewarded Dr. Mawney for probably saving him from bleeding to death. He also displayed bravery in the face of the attack on his ship, and conscientiousness of duty in his concern for the sailors' safety.
10. The leadership and presence of Providence's most ''solid citizens" in the Gaspee affair, and in the move toward revolution as it intensified throughout the American colonies. Again, although not specifically mentioned in the narrative, the commissioner's report concluded that "several men of relatively high station" were in the attacking party. They knew this by their dress, manner, and speech, as described by Gaspee's sailors. This point can also be used to illustrate that dress, manner and speech were clear evidence of social class in the eighteenth century, as they are not so often apt to be today.
11. The way in which rumor, fear, actions and reaction can cause dangerous situations to escalate. There was no violence at the commission hearing in Newport, and the Commission exonerated the colony itself from blame in the affair. But the presence of British military power was threatening, and the fact that the Commission was appointed by the King fueled Rhode Islanders', and subsequently all the colonies' fears that there was an English conspiracy to deprive them of all their liberties and to institute direct, oppressive rule over them.
12. A minor, but perhaps enjoyable exercise for students, could be to note the misspellings and other errors of grammar and punctuation in Nicholas Brown's letter of instructions to Abraham Whipple, reprinted in the narrative almost stylistically intact. Eighteenth century grammar, punctuation, spelling and capitalization were much more imaginative and individualistic than modern standardized forms.
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ACTIVITIES THAT CAN BE USED EITHER IN PREPARATION FOR THE
PRESENTATION OR IN SUBSEQUENT CLASS SESSIONS
1. If field trips are available as a part of course activities, there are several excellent possibilities:
a. A tour of the John Brown House, 52 Power Street, Providence, conducted by the Rhode Island Historical Society. This was the home of the man who not only organized the burning of the Gaspee, but is famous in Rhode Island history as an eighteenth century political and economic figure.2. Having students put out a newspaper on the Gaspee affair using the Providence Gazette as a model (available on microfilm at the Rhode Island Historical Society Library).
3. Having students prepare and enact a trial of Lieutenant Dudingston, brought before the Rhode Island courts on charges of stealing goods, confiscating ships, etc., as discussed in the study guide narrative or in sources listed in the bibliography.
4. Having the students prepare and enact the trial of John Brown, as if he had been accused of leading the Gaspee attack, and sent to England.
5. Other role-playing exercises, with students themselves portraying various historical characters involved in the Gaspee incident, or taking sides in a general debate between English and colonial interests.
6. Forming the class into several "committee of correspondence" groups, one from Rhode Island and others from Massachusetts, Virginia, and other colonies. The committees would discuss issues of the Gaspee incident in chronological sequence, and write reports to send to each other as the events unfold.
7. Letter writing assignments with students writing to each other as if between Rhode Island and other colonies, and between individuals in America and England, discussing the events, and their feelings about them. These could be fictional "everyday" people, as compared to the leadership types in the committees of correspondence.
8. Student discussion groups, or debates, on such topics as:
a. Was the secrecy that Rhode Islanders maintained about the Gaspee a praiseworthy act of loyalty, or a criminal cover-up?
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BY THE GASPEE INCIDENT
The Gaspee incident offers a wealth of possibilities for teaching about both past events and current issues. It is rich historical significance with respect to the American Revolution and it is also a generic case study of the kind of events that I figure revolutions, past and present. It lends itself to discussions of the rule of law, the nature of political protest, the nature and limits of governmental authority, and civil disobedience. It is also an example of how economic issues blend into politic causes, and of the importance of economic issues in past events that history texts often explain as issues of political principle alone. Last, but far from least, it graphically illustrates ho perception, rumor, fear, and misunderstanding create provocations that lead to violence and war.
The following list of issues is a sample of current or recent events that can be discussed in classes either before or after drama/discussion presentation. They, and others you might this of, can also be used in the discussion period between students actors. We hope that, as teachers prepare their students for discussion, they will encourage the students to make and use the connections between past and present issues.
1. Terrorism: This is something frequently in the news these days. Was the Gaspee incident an act of terrorism? Are modern terrorists like the people who burn the Gaspee? What does terror accomplish? Is violence or an act of terror justified for the sake of a political, or, as often now, a religious cause? Are all terrorists revolutionaries? Do governments ever use terrorism? If so, for what purpose? At what point does an act of protest, or an act of violence, become terrorism?Common to all of these suggested issues is the question of the distinction between what is legal and what is just. Democratic societies strive to equate legality and justice, but sometimes even democracies fall short of this goal. Who should, or can, decide how just a law is? What actions are defensible on the part of those who believe that one or more of their society's laws violate principles of justice? Have our standards of justice changed over the years? Moreover, have our attitudes towards various forms of protest or dissent changed since the days of the Gaspee and the American Revolution? Is justice equated with strength, or with victory in war? For example, if the American colonies had lost their revolution, would the Gaspee, the Boston Tea Party, and George Washington be villainous in history? And would the Boston Massacre, the Stamp Act and Benedict Arnold be praised?
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|BRIEF RESUME OF THE
"REVOLUTIONARY FIRE: THE GASPEE INCIDENT"
The two historical characters in the sketch are Lieutenant Dudingston, commander of the Gaspee, and Mrs. Brenton, in whose home Dudingston spent several weeks while regaining enough strength to return to England. The major action takes place on the day in mid July, 1772, when the Lieutenant leaves the Brenton house to go on board the Beaver for the return trip.
The sketch begins, however, in September of 1773, over a year later, with Dudingston still recuperating from his wounds, which in fact were very serious. He has had to go to a French spa for treatment. On this particular day, he receives letters informing him that the Gaspee case is closed, and that none of the perpetrators has been identified. This leads him to remember, in some frustration and anger, the last encounter he had with Mrs. Brenton. Thus the actor playing Dudingston will set the scene and provide a certain amount of information with an opening soliloquy, leading into a flashback sequence between him and Mrs. Brenton. This sequence comprises the balance of the sketch.
The two characters, Dudingston and Mrs. Brenton, are used to represent the conflicting views of England and the colonies during the 1770's. Dudingston of course expresses the view that the colonists have behaved as lawless rebels, while Mrs. Brenton upholds the various rights that the colonists were then asserting. Whereas Dudingston berates the colonists for lack of loyalty to England and to its King, Mrs. Brenton cites examples of English oppression and injustice to the Americans. Dudingston accuses Mrs. Brenton of knowing who the attackers were, and tries to get the information from her. She predicts they will never be discovered.Through use of the flashbacks, the sketch encompasses the Gaspee incident from beginning to end, permitting discussion of events and issues related to the Royal Commission's investigation as well as those relating to circumstances leading up to the burning. The choice of characters expressing conflicting views was deliberate as well, and taken in hopes of enlivening the discussion period.
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|SOME OF THE
MANY INDIVIDUALS WHO FIGURED IN THE GASPEE INCIDENT:
(Most, but not all of these, are specifically mentioned in other
of the Study Guide).
1. Samuel Adams - A Massachusetts leader of resistance to English policies. He was one of the earliest advocates of revolution and was instrumental in forming committees of correspondence among the colonies. The Rhode Island General Assembly sought his advice when news arrived in Rhode Island that the English government had appointed a Royal Commission to investigate the Gaspee incident.
2. John Allen - Minister of the Second Baptist Church in Boston He delivered a sermon, later printed with an open letter to Lord Dartmouth, entitled "An Oration Upon the Beauty of Liberty, Or the Essential Rights of Americans." Allen protested England's reaction in the Gaspee case, particularly the idea that Rhode Islanders be tried in England, He raised the whole issue of whether the King had a right to reign in America, and asserted that England and America were separate legal jurisdictions. Thus, what was become basic revolutionary doctrine a few years later, was clearly stated and widely distributed as a result of the Gaspee incident.
3. Thomas Allen - Captain of the Gaspee. He was replaced in 1768 by Lieutenant William Dudingston.
4. John Andrews - Rhode Islander. Judge of the colony's Vice Admiralty court.
5. Robert Auchmuty, Jr. - Judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court for New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connect cut, member of the Royal Commission of Inquiry investigating the Gaspee affair.
6. James Ayscough - Captain of the British ship Swan; the one British naval officer who treated Rhode Islanders with kindness and respect, and earned their respect in return.
7. Ephraim Bowen - Participant in the raid, nineteen years old the time. Years later he wrote a famous newspaper article about it. At 86, he was still taking part in the July 4th parade as an honored veteran of the Gaspee affair.
8. Jahleel Brenton and Mrs. Brenton - Dudingston stayed with them at their home on Brenton's Point in Newport, during the early part of his recovery from his wounds.
9. Aaron Briggs - 18 year old black indentured servant from Prudence Island, who testified that he had been forced to take part in the Gaspee raid. He identified by name several participants.
10. John Brown - Leading Providence merchant, organizer of the raid on the Gaspee.
11. Joseph and Nicholas Brown - Brothers of John. Nicholas was also a prominent merchant. Joseph was named as one of the Gaspee raiders,
12. Joseph Bucklin - Innkeeper, friend of Ephraim Bowen, who also went along on the raid. He fired the shot intended to kill Dudingston.
13. John Carter - Publisher of the Providence Gazette, which printed many articles about the activities of British ships in New England waters, and about all the aspects of the Gaspee affair.
14. John Cole, Daniel Hitchcock, and George Brown - Three Providence lawyers who were alleged to have taken part in the Gaspee affair, or to have information about it. They claimed that they could not leave East Greenwich, where they were involved in court sessions, to testify before the Commission. They all signed depositions denying any significant knowledge, but later Brown and Cole did appear in person to say essentially the same thing. Cole was attacked by the Providence Gazette for cooperating with the commission. He was a member of the Rhode Island Committee of Correspondence, and as such had pledged not to recognize the commission's authority.
15. Mr. Daggett - Rhode Islander, pilot of the Gaspee. He was not on hand, as he had been transferred to the Beaver. The attackers wanted to take revenge upon him for working for the British. Some time later, he was found on land, roughed up and his head shaved so roughly that his nose and ears were in some danger.
16. Lord Dartmouth - He succeeded Lord Hillsborough as Colonial Secretary; inclined to be more lenient.
17. Charles Dudley - Englishman who came to Rhode Island in 1768 as customs collector for Newport. The colonists hated him, and he was beaten up by a group of men who were never identified.
18. Samuel Dunn - Captain of one of the longboats.
19. Patrick Earl, William Dickinson, John Johnson, William J. Caple, Peter May, Bartholomew Cheever, Thomas Parr, Edward Pullibeck, Joseph Bowman , Patrick Whaler, Patrick Reynolds - Crew members of the Gaspee whose names are known. Patrick Earl, boatswain's mate, was the sentry on duty the night of the raid, and later claimed to recognize Aaron Briggs. William Dickinson, midshipman, was present when Dudingston's wounds were treated on board the ship, and was sent by Dudingston to Boston to deliver news of the Gaspee's loss to Admiral Montagu.
20. Samuel Falconer - Farm servant of the Tompkins family whom Aaron Briggs claimed to be rowing back to his home in Bristol when he encountered Potter's boat. Falconer denied that he was with Briggs on the night of the Gaspee burning, and testified that Briggs never left Prudence Island on the night in question.
21. Thomas Gage - British General; Commander of British troops in North America at the time of the Gaspee incident.
22. George III - King of England, 1760 - 1820.
23. Jacob, Rufus, and Nathanael Greene - Members of a prominent Rhode Island family with branches in Newport, East Greenwich and Coventry. Their ship, the Fortune, was seized by Lieutenant Dudingston in the spring of 1772, leading to a complaint against the Lieutenant by a group of Rhode Island merchants. Eventually after the Gaspee affair was over, a suit against Dudingston was tried in the Rhode Island courts. He was represented, in his absence by local counsel. Dudingston lost the case and had to pay damages to the Greenes for the cargo he had seized.
24. George Grenville - Prime Minister of England, 1763 - 1765. His administration put into practice the policies that the colonists found so objectionable.
25. Stephen Gulley - Smithfield farmer, who testified to the Royal Commission that he knew who the Gaspee attackers were. He had the information at third hand. He subsequently enlisted in the British navy.
26. Lord Hillsborough - English Colonial Secretary of State, inclined to be harsh on the colonies; resigned in July, 1772.
27. John Hopkins - Nephew of Stephen Hopkins, and captain of one the longboats. Also related, by marriage, to Captain Whipple.
28. Stephen Hopkins - Leading Rhode Islander, former Governor, and Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court at the time of the Gaspee affair.
29. Daniel Horsemanden - Chief Justice of New York, and a member of the Royal Commission of Inquiry investigating the Gaspee affair.
30. John Howland - Important community leader in Rhode Island after the American Revolution. He was 14 years old in 1772, and stood on the dock at Fenner's Wharf as the longboats pulled out to attack the Gaspee. Years later, he wrote a brief memorandum about it in which he named several of the participants.
31. Thomas Hutchinson - Governor of Massachusetts; a royal appointee and a loyal subject of George III.
33. Daniel Jenckes - Chief Justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas for Providence County. The day after the Gaspee burning, he advised Andrews and Sessions to attend to the matter immediately. If they did this, he felt nobody could blame Rhode Island's civil officials for approving or permitting the attack.
34. Robert Lillbridge and James Brenton - The Deputy Sheriff and his assistant who tried to serve a warrant on Aaron Briggs, so he could be directly questioned by Rhode Island authorities. Captain Linzee refused to honor the warrant.
35. Benjamin Lindsay - Captain of the Hannah, which was being chased by the Gaspee when the Gaspee ran aground.
36. John Linzee - Captain of H.M.S. Beaver; he worked closely with Lieutenant Dudingston and the Gaspee.
37. John Mawney - Young (22 years old) doctor who participated in the raid, and who also later wrote about it. He gave medical aid to Dudingston on board the Gaspee.
38. Henry Marchant - Rhode Island's Attorney General. He protested against the English government's threatening to try leading Rhode Islanders for treason, "upon such evidence as would not hang a cat."
39. John Montagu - British Rear Admiral, stationed in Boston.
40. Lord North - Prime Minister of England, 1770-1782.
41. Peter Oliver - Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and a member of the Royal Commission of Inquiry investigating the Gaspee affair.
42. Daniel Pearce - Young boy who beat the drum along Providence streets to announce the Gaspee's plight and gather volunteers.
43. Simeon Potter - Captain of one of the longboats; Bristol seaman and merchant, who brought a boatload of men from Bristol to meet the Providence raiders. Aaron Briggs claimed that it was Potter whom he encountered on the bay, and Potter who pressed him into involuntary participation the raid.
44. John Pownall - Undersecretary of State to both Lord Hillsborough and Lord Dartmouth; influenced the course of action the English government took in the Gaspee investigation.
45. Saul Ramsdale - Friend of William Thayer, a Providence shoemaker recently moved from Mendon, Massachusetts. He claimed to have heard the preparations for the Gaspee and identified the "heads of the gang" as John and Joseph Brown, and someone named Potter. He told his friend Thayer what he had heard, but neither of them testified, before the Royal Commission.
46. William Reid - Captain of the hated British revenue ship Liberty; most hated British ship captain before Lieutenant Dudingston arrived in Rhode Island.
47. Joseph Rhodes - Dudingston was taken to his house in Pawtuxet when the Gaspee crew were put on land. It was here that Lieutenant Governor Sessions visited Dudingston the day after the raid. Dudingston was moved to the Brenton's because Captain Linzee thought that it would be safer there. Rhodes kept some of Dudingston's money, claiming that he was entitled to it for Dudingston's room and board.
48. James Sabin - Owner of the tavern where the burning of the Gaspee was organized. He made excuses of illness and business problems when asked to appear before the Royal Commission.
49. Jesse Saville - "Tidewaiter" or assistant to the Providence customs collector, who was considered to be a spy and informer for the British. In 1769, he was tarred, feathered, and beaten by a gang who were never identified.
50. Darius Sessions - Lieutenant Governor of Rhode Island, and neighbor of Stephen Hopkins.
51. Frederick Smythe - Chief Justice of New Jersey, and a member of the Royal Commission of Inquiry investigating the Gaspee affair.
52. Ezra Stiles - Newport Congregational minister who spoke out in support of the colonies' rights.
53. William Thayer - Resident of Mendon, Massachusetts, who gave information about the Gaspee burning. He had heard from a friend, Saul Ramsdale.
54. Joseph Tillinghast - Friend of Dr. Mawney, also one of the young Gaspee raiders.
55. Samuel Tompkins - Aaron Briggs' master, who refuted Aaron's testimony.
56. Charles Townshend - English Chancellor of the Exchequer, under whose leadership new taxes were imposed on the colonies in 1767.
57. Daniel Vaughan - Gunner of Fort George in Newport, who was ordered by two General Assembly members to fire on the British ship St. John. When a British officer demanded proof of his authority to fire on a royal vessel, Vaughan and other Newport residents knocked the officer down. He was a witness to Aaron Briggs' story on the Beaver, and testified that Aaron's confession was forced.
58. Joseph Wanton - Governor of Rhode Island; member of a major Rhode Island merchant family.
59. Samuel Ward - Governor of Rhode Island during the 1760's; Joseph Wanton replaced him.
60. Abraham Whipple - Ship captain employed by the Browns, and one of the leaders of the Gaspee raid.
A note on the Gaspee raiders: their names, and how their identity was revealed.
Of the approximately 65 men involved in the burning of the Gaspee, we are certain of the names of only fourteen or fifteen -a little more than one-fourth the number. Most of them were identified in later written accounts by Ephraim Bowen, John Mawney, and John Howland. These participants were:
John Brown, the leader, a Providence merchantFrom Bristol:
Simeon Potter, a well known merchant and sea captain.Various other people have been mentioned, but not proven, as having taken part. Every witness who mentioned names included the name "Greene". The Greene family were owners of the Fortune, seized by Dudingston, and had a strong grievance against him. The Gaspee sailors told of one man harassing Dudingston about payment for his rum. We do not know whether the Greene on board the Gaspee was Nathanael, the owner of the rum; Jacob, the owner of the Fortune, or Rufus, Jr., the Fortune's master. Nathanael's biographer George Washington Greene, denies that he was there, on the word of Ephraim Bowen.
Any of the merchants who signed the complaint against Dudingston is a likely candidate. In addition to John Brown, they were Joseph Nightingale, Thomas Greene, Ambrose Page, Nathan Angell, James Lovett, Job Smith, and Nicholas Brown. However, just about any merchant, large or small, as well as any master of a small boat, might have been eager to go along.
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All of the sources listed below were used in the preparation of this Study Guide. They are available at the library of the Rhode Island Historical Society, 121 Hope Street, Providence. The library is open to the public as a reference library. None of its collections circulate.
The two volumes of printed documents, one edited by William R Staples and the other by John R. Bartlett, provide a fairly complete record of legal and official papers and of the correspondence relating to the Gaspee incident. They also include Ephraim Bowen's and John Mawney's eyewitness accounts. Bartlett's collection, which is the later of the two, draws heavily upon the Staples material and duplicates most of it. However, Bartlett includes some correspondence not available at the time Staples' edition was published. Bartlett's edition is also set in larger, easier to read type.
The Rhode Island Historical Society's manuscript collections cited below contain several important items not available in the library's printed collections. Among them are letters to and from Moses Brown containing references to repercussions of the Gaspee incident; correspondence of Ezra Stiles bearing upon the event and reaction to it; the widely circulated sermon delivered by John Allen of Boston; John Howland's recollections of the night of the Gaspee incident; and the minutes of Lieutenant Dudingston's court martial.
The major secondary source included, a doctoral dissertation, provides a wealth of detailed narrative information and numerous documentary quotations. Among the most useful and interesting are articles excerpted from colonial newspapers, particularly those of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Gaspee papers. Rhode Island Historical Society manuscript collections.Published Documents
The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee. Compiled for the Providence Journal, by Hon. William R. Staples. Providence, 1845.Secondary Sources
Joel A. Cohen, "Molasses to Muskets -- Rhode Island 1763-1775," in Rhode Island History, volume 34, number 4, November 1975
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