Reaction to Gaspee Burning Helped Generate Support for
by Frances Segerson
Originally appeared as "Gaspee Program Background" (material) in the 1978 Gaspee Days souvenir program
rights are an important issue in 1978 America, but no more so than they
were in 1772. Intense concern for human rights, in fact, was what
brought the Rhode Island colonists together to keep the Gaspee raiders from being sent to
Britain to be tried for treason.
Perhaps more than any other single incident, the burning of the Gaspee demonstrated to the colonists the dangers of continuing as British colonies. It spurred them on to endorse efforts to form an American government of their own. Four short years after the Gaspee incident, on July 4, 1776, that new nation was born.
The burning of the H.M.S. Gaspee was a bold act. Despite the Rhode Island colony's near total dependence on maritime trade for supplies and livelihood, despite the hatred of the British revenue (tax-collecting) ships, especially the one commanded by the haughty Lt. William Dudingston, many Rhode Island merchants and seamen were glad to have the protection of British ships as their own crossed the oceans. They also enjoyed a wealth trading opportunities within the expansive British Empire.
The names of the Gaspee raiders, however, were never revealed until 1839, when the last of them lay on his deathbed. The British crown’s attempts to deny the Gaspee raiders the basic rights guaranteed in the Magna Charta generated the colonists' zealous withholding of those names from the British government. It also helped spread support for the raiders and ultimately for the American Revolution,.
In 1772, British law included a "Dockyards Act," giving the King the right to decide where a trial on charges of treason would take place. There existed the distinct possibility that the raiders might be taken to England and tried there on treason charges.
Americans today are probably more familiar with cases in which it is the accused who asks for a "change of venue" to guarantee a jury more impartial than one where the alleged incident took place.
But the possibility of a treason trial in England for the Gaspee raiders “accounts for the climate of suspicion, obstruction, and non-compliance in which the Gaspee inquiry found itself,” says an revised edition of The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, by William R. Staples, first published in 1845.
The colonial clergy and press were largely responsible for generating a climate of non-compliance with the British inquiry which followed the burning of the Gaspee. Before the end of 1772, a Boston preacher, John Allen, delivered a sermon calling the “new Courts of Admiralty created to appoint and order the inhabitants to be confined and dragged away from their families, from their laws, rights and liberties to be tried by their enemies” an unprecedented “cruelty, injustice, and barbarity.” The Committee of Correspondence of the Boston Town Meeting drew up a list of “Infringements and Violations” depriving colonials of the right to trial by jury and taking them to England for trial. Both the preacher's remarks and the Boston committee's list were widely reported in colonial newspapers.
Soon the newspapers said that transportation to England had been planned so that “Those devoted persons... be tried for high treason.” They called the Gaspee inquiry “an alarming star-chamber inquisition” and “a court of inquisition more horrible than Spain or Portugal.”
The press called the powers of the Commission of Inquiry “novel, unconstitutional and exorbitant” and the whole inquiry “shocking to humanity, repugnant to every dictate of reason, liberty and justice; and in which Americans and freemen ought never to acquiesce.”
The actions of the Commission of Inquiry also apparently were in sharp conflict with a Rhode Island law, passed in 1664, which guaranteed that no freeman of the colony could be tried except by his peers and the laws of the colony. Such indictments of the Commission surely served to solidify resentment against the British, and to quiet any who might have been tempted to reveal the raiders’ names to the Commission.
The Providence Gazette of December 26, 1772 said in an editorial that a trial in Great Britain would be in “open violation of the Magna Charta,” the foundation of British law since the Middle Ages which guaranteed trial by one's peers.
In January 1772, the Gazette called attention to two resolutions of the Rhode Island General Assembly enacted four years earlier, which said that all trials for treason, felony or any crimes committed within the colony by its residents would be held within the colony. Failure to do so, the Assembly had resolved, would be “highly derogatory of the rights of British subject.”
The residents of the colony of Rhode Island had not been forewarned of the burning of the H.M.S. Gaspee. The plans for “The First Blow for Freedom” had been set in the secrecy of a Providence tavern. Its participants were primarily from the wealthy merchants of that port. The residents of Rhode Island, especially the residents of Pawtuxet Village who would become involved in the aftermath of the incident off their port, had had no advance warning, no chance to prepare for their role in the Gaspee incident.
Yet the Gaspee raiders were never named, never arrested, never brought to trial. As if struck dumb, no colonists would come forward to the inquiry to name those who had destroyed the British revenue ship.
With the burning of the H.M.S. Gaspee and the actions of the British inquiry which followed, an uninvolved group of ordinary Rhode Island colonists learned that their own basic human rights, the guarantees they had assumed they had through the Magna Charta. were under serious threat from the British government.
|Back to Top | Back to Gaspee Virtual Archives|