Real Heroes and Fake Heroes

(Note: This essay was originally published as “A Missed Opportunity to Celebrate True Heroes,” by The Hill on September 7, 2018. http://thehill.com/opinion/white-house/405404-a-missed-opportunity-to-celebrate-true-heroes )

In his reaction to the passing of John McCain, a true American hero, President Trump regrettably has missed a genuine opportunity to bring divided America together in mourning and reflection.

At a rally in Indiana on August 30, several days after McCain’s death, the president did not mention McCain. Rather he spoke again of his 2016 election win. He railed against the media, using again the anti-democratic phrase “enemy of the people.” Once again he stirred hatred and fear by labeling Hispanic gang members as sub-human, using the word “animals.” He invited his crowd to imagine “if Crooked Hillary Clinton had won.” He sowed division rather than unity.

Almost 2,450 years ago in ancient Greece, Athenian statesman Pericles did not pass up such an opportunity. To honor those fallen in battle during the first year of the Peloponnesian War, he gave one of the most famous speeches in Western history. Not only honoring the dead, he also reminded his fellow Athenians of their common democratic ideals and of their greatness. “Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” … “everyone is equal before the law.” What counts in public positions is not class, “but the actual ability which the man possesses.” “We are free and tolerant in our private lives, but in public affairs we keep to the law.” We respect especially those laws which protect the oppressed. “Taking everything together then, I declare that our city is an education to Greece….”

It is ironic that neither our president nor Vice President Mike Pence, who did attend the McCain funeral and spoke, took the occasion to remind us of our ideals and to inspire us. It was John McCain himself who did this eloquently in his final letter. “Liberty, equal justice, and respect for the dignity of all people….” “We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.” “We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history….”


He ended with words of inspiration: “Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit, we never surrender, we never hide from history. We make history.”
About twenty years ago, I attended a conference in California where we discussed the ideas of the famous 17th century philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon. I learned much about him, but the greatest insight I gleaned was during a coffee break. I was speaking with a woman from Canada, a professor, who said, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would move to the US.” Quite surprised, I ask: “Why?” She replied: “Because in the United States, you still believe in heroes.” Canadians, she explained, seemed bent on cutting down all their heroes, except for some star athletes.

Coming of age in the 1950s and early 60s and watching TV shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Superman,” and “Gunsmoke,” my early baby-boomer generation believed in heroes. Men had their weaknesses; however, they sought to do right, to seek justice, to be driven by moral principles. They spoke a moral vocabulary. They possessed a moral compass. In that age, presidents didn’t lie, at least they did not lie for vanity or personal gain. If they did, we took it as an exception and continued our faith in them. They never made statements like President Bill Clinton, “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” They did not portray themselves as absolute monarchs like Richard Nixon did when he said: “Well, when the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” They, and other American heroes, did not seem obsessed with celebrity but rather with serving as exemplary citizens of our country. They had served honorably in World War II and Korea and had even led large invasion fleets to free captive continents from totalitarianism.

Heroes and stories of the heroic, real and mythical, are essential to the health and sustainability of a civilization. America’s culture wars are, in part, about our heroes—which ones are genuine, worthy of an honored place in the America’s Story and worthy of holding up to our children as role models.

Because of his 60 years—five and one half as a POW—of honorable service to our country as a naval aviator and then senator, John McCain has earned the label of “American hero.” By not taking the high road—putting past differences aside and honoring McCain—President Trump has missed an easy opportunity to elevate himself and to elevate Americans together.

Fred Zilian is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI. He is the author of “From Confrontation to Cooperation: The Takeover of the National People’s Army by the Bundeswehr.” Follow him on Twitter@Fred Zilian,

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The Battle of Rhode Island (Part II)

(This essay was originally published as “Recounting the Battle of Rhode Island,” by the Newport Daily News on August 29, 2018.)

(Note: This is the second of two essays, celebrating the 240th anniversary of the battle.)

The American victory in the Battle of Saratoga (NY) in October, 1777, had a strategic impact on the Revolutionary War. It convinced the French to ally with us. In February, 1778, France signed a treaty of commerce and friendship and also a treaty of alliance with the fledgling United States. Great Britain now faced a much different threat. The US was hopeful and emboldened.

On July 29, the French fleet arrived off Pt. Judith. Under the command of Charles Henri Théodat, Comte d’Estaing, it consisted of 16 ships, with 12 ships of the line and about 4,000 army troops. The British naval forces were clearly overmatched so they took defensive measures. They withdrew their forces spread throughout the island to defensive positions near and in Newport. They also scuttled about 10 ships to prevent them from falling into French hands.

On August 8, d’Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport harbor. However, the next day British Admiral Howe and his fleet, a relief force, were spotted off Pt. Judith. On August 10, the fleets were maneuvering for position in the Atlantic south of the bay; however, Mother Nature stepped in. A tremendous hurricane arrived and raged for two days, disabling both fleets.

During this same time, the American forces, led by Maj Gen John Sullivan, had launched an offensive from Tiverton across Howland’s Ferry and landed unopposed in Portsmouth. They quickly occupied the fortifications which the British had evacuated, most prominently, Fort Butts, where the Portsmouth town wind turbine now stands. Gen Sullivan decided on a siege of Newport to try to strangle the British until the French fleet returned to the bay. American forces advanced in the east as far as the high ground east of Valley Rd. (Honeyman’s Hill), in the west as far as the high ground north of Miantonomi Ave.

Worried about the British relief force enroute, Adm d’Estaing informed Gen Sullivan that he was taking his fleet to Boston for repairs. The Americans were stunned and angry; Gen. Sullivan was indignant.

Thus began the unraveling of the allied offensive operation. To make matters worse, the terms of enlistment for several of the militia units were expiring. They wanted to get back to their farms and families. Lastly, sickness, especially dysentery, began to take its toll. On August 24, the siege ended and American forces began a retreat. British commander, Gen Robert Pigot, sensed an opportunity.

By August 29, the American force had declined to about 7,800 men; British-Hessian forces totaled about 6,000 soldiers and marines. The enemy line ran from Quaker Hill to Turkey Hill to Almy Hill. The forces on the western flank were mostly German regiments and they faced, among other units, the 1st RI Regiment, called the “Black Regiment” because of its many black and mixed-race soldiers.

Commanded on this day by Maj Samuel Ward, the regiment was situated behind a “thicket in the valley,” which gave them a strong defensive position. They also used the stone walls in this area as defensive positions from which to fire on the advancing troops. The Regiment had the primary responsibility for holding an important fortification on Durfee’s Hill, now called Lehigh Hill.

Disposition of British, French, and American Forces, Aquidneck Island, French Map, August 1778

(Library of Congress)

Three full assaults by Hessian forces failed to break the line. All the while Hessian cannon were firing on them from Turkey Hill. In his diary, one of the Hessian commanders, Captain Friedrich von der Malsburg, noted that during these assaults, “they found large bodies of troops behind the works and at its sides, chiefly wild looking men in their shirt sleeves, and among them many Negroes.”
In seven hours of combat that day, the American line held. This allowed for the successful retreat and evacuation of General Sullivan’s Army to Tiverton across the Sakonnet River. Regarding casualties, Gen Pigot’s official report stated combined British, Hessian, Loyalist casualties of 260 with 38 killed. Gen Sullivan reported casualties of 211, with 30 killed.

Tactically, the battle is considered a draw. Neither commander wanted a full-scale battle. British Gen Pigot was happy to get the American force off the island. He had no desire to risk his military force or Newport for a chance to gain a decisive victory. Gen Sullivan was happy to get his force off the island before the British reinforcements arrived.

Strategically, most historians would call the entire campaign a win for the British. They were not captured or pushed off the island. They remained another 14 months until they decided to end the occupation in October 1779.

Nonetheless, this was the first time that American and French forces had planned an allied military operation, one they would have executed, but for the hurricane. Finally, it was the largest battle of the war in New England and the last significant battle in the northern theater, one which unfortunately has never made the US history texts.

A monument to the Black Regiment now stands in Patriots’ Park, Portsmouth, and is dedicated to the “first black slaves and freemen who fought in the Battle of Rhode Island as members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, writes for The Hill and the History News Network, and is a monthly columnist.

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The Battle of Rhode Island (Part I)

(This essay was originally published as “Recounting the Battle of Rhode Island” by the Newport Daily News on August 28, 2018.)

(Note: This is the first of two essays, celebrating the 240th anniversary of the battle.)

Beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764 to 1776, the British government tried in various ways to recoup from the American colonies expenses incurred from defending them during the Seven Years War (1756-1763).
Rhode Islanders became increasingly belligerent to what they viewed as unjustified British coercion. In July 1764, Newporters went to Fort George on Goat Island and began firing on the British schooner St. John, after the ship had seized a cargo of sugar from a New York merchant ship. Soon afterwards the HMS Maidstone appeared at Newport with a similar mission: confiscation and impressment of Americans into military service. Incensed Newporters stole one of its boats, dragged it to the Parade (Washington Square) and burned it.
In July 1769, Newporters stripped and burned the Liberty, an armed sloop which had been harassing merchant vessels on the Bay. On June 9, 1772, John Brown of Providence and 60 men seized the HMS Gaspee by force, brought its crew ashore, and set the ship ablaze. Historian Rockwell Stensrud states: “The total destruction of the HMS Gaspee … was a direct assault on the Royal Navy and thus an offensive action against the king and Great Britain itself.”
The so-called “shot heard round the world” came at Lexington on April 19, 1775. British regulars and American militia exchanged fire, and eight Americans lay dead. There was more fighting at Concord that morning, five miles away, before the British retreated to Boston. The war was on.

On May 4, 1776, the colony of Rhode Island severed its relation with the British Crown. The colony’s General Assembly listed the many grievances against Great Britain and its king and declared that all allegiance to the king by “his subjects, in this his colony and dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, BE, AND THE SAME IS HEREBY REPEALED.”

Though we celebrate this day as our Independence Day, actually it was not until July 19, that the RI General Assembly approved the Continental Congress’s resolution declaring full independence.

The British decided to seize and occupy Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay for several reasons. The British military viewed the bay and the island as a good base of operations in New England. From the bay British forces could launch operations to other parts of New England, as well as defend New York City merchant ships from revolutionary privateers operating from Boston and other ports. The fleet could spend the winter in a protected, deep-water port. At the same time, the Royal Navy could blockade Narragansett Bay and prevent pesky colonial privateers and commercial vessels from Providence, Bristol, Warren and other port towns from exiting the bay.

Politically, Newport was home to many Loyalists, Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown. Many Loyalist Newport merchants, for example, could be counted on to support British efforts so that the strained economic and social connections could be restored.

When the British force arrived offshore on December 7, 1776, Newport’s population had plummeted from a prewar high of about 9,000 to 5,000 or lower. The main cause of this was the fear of bombardment from Royal Navy warships and of British occupation. Later that day the armada dropped anchor west of Weaver’s Cove (near Melville, Portsmouth). The force consisted of seven ships of the line (the battleships of the day), four frigates (lighter warships), and seventy transports. Onboard were about 7,000 soldiers and about 1,500 civilians. The military forces consisted of both British soldiers and their German allies called Hessians (Germans), about equal in number, as well as some Loyalist units. Certainly a good number of Newporters welcomed the arrival and shared the reaction of Hessian officer C. Wende, who recorded in his regimental journal, “One can hardly imagine how majestic the arriving fleet looked.”

In January 1777, Americans began planning to attack Aquidneck Island to end the British occupation. They estimated that they would need at least 8,000 troops. Calls went out to the New England states to send units, which were slow in coming. In the early fall, Massachusetts and Connecticut promised more militia units, and planning for the operation increased. Major General Joseph Spencer was given command, and so the operation was soon called “Spencer’s Expedition.”

All forces were to rendezvous in Tiverton by October 1, 1777. Getting enough boats to transport the troops presented a substantial problem; however, by October, Nannaquaket Pond in Tiverton was filled with 130 boats. In place at Howland’s and Fogland Ferries were units from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. These 8,000 troops would face an estimated force of 3,600 British and Hessians.

By the middle of October, the force was ready; however, boat logistical problems arose. Also, over the next few days, British intelligence learned of the operation. Finally, on Oct 22, the weather turned bad; desertions increased.

By Oct 25, the force had diminished to 5,300, lessening the chances of success. The next day, Gen. Spencer cancelled the operation and released the remaining troops, causing great disappointment and recriminations.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @Fred Zilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, writes for The Hill and the History News Network, and is a monthly columnist.

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We Must All Be Historians Now: Exploring the inequality of sources with my students

(Note: This essay was originally published as “Perhaps Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg Should Not Have Dropped Out of Harvard,” by the History News Network on July 22.)

The full-page ad that Facebook recently ran (May 26) in the Wall Street Journal was a history teacher’s dream. However, rather than taking out the expensive ad, the social media giant might have simply sent a message to its over 2 billion users and held a press conference, advocating forcefully for the study of the humanities, especially for history. In this era of high falsehood and fakery, clearly the American citizen seeking truth needs to understand and adopt the historian’s mindset.

Given the challenges the company has faced in recent months, it is not surprising that the company choose to take out the ad. In mid-March, the New York Times and The Observer of London reported that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm founded by Stephen Bannon and wealthy Republican donor Robert Mercer, had harvested private information on more than 50 million Facebook users, a figure later raised to 87 million.

This added to questions Facebook was already facing about the use of the social media platform to spread false news and Russian propaganda to influence US elections in 2016.
On April 10 and 11, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg faced questioning before committees in both the Senate and the House. The primary issues included: the use of user data by third parties without the user’s knowledge, the proliferation of “fake news” and its impact on the 2016 presidential election, and the censorship of conservative media.

Zuckerberg admitted that Facebook had been “slow” in correcting problems but maintained that Facebook was taking corrective actions: boosting its disclosure rules for issue ads, committing more resources to delete troll accounts spreading disinformation, ensuring real people own the accounts, adding helpful links next to articles to assist readers in checking information, and giving priority to trusted sources.

Costing probably several hundred thousand dollars, the ad which ran prominently in the paper’s first section had a collaborative and instructive tone. Using the pronoun “we,” the title was a positive assertion and also encouragement to all: “Together We Can Fight False News.” Thankfully, it used the more direct, less Trumpian phrase “false news,” instead of honoring the phrase “fake news,” even though the latter was the Collins Dictionary Word of the Year of 2017.

The ad continued by indicating what Facebook is doing to meet the challenge and what the reader can do. “We are taking action by removing fake accounts and working with fact-checkers. You can learn what to trust with our tips to spot fake news.” It then offered the reader ten pithy and pointed recommendations, most of which align beautifully with the principles history teachers seek to inculcate in their students on how to think critically in evaluating historical documents and images.

Number 1: “Be skeptical of the headlines.” The history teacher strives to instill in students a healthy, dispassionate, respectful skepticism, a trait Amir Bhidé of Tufts University recently emphasized in the Wall Street Journal. Early on in my own history classes, I conjure Thomas Jefferson and his keys words now part of the American Creed: “all men are created equal.” I follow quickly with: However, all sources are not created equal!

Number 3: “Investigate the source.” This relates to the first level of questions history students learn to ask: the who, what, when, and where of a document.

Number 7: “Check the evidence.” This relates especially to documents which are argumentative. What are the document’s major points? What evidence is given? Is the argument logical? Does the author present sufficient evidence? Also, in the essays students write throughout the course, they must use sound, sufficient, text-based evidence.

Number 8: “Look at other reports.” History students learn to compare one document to another which may have conflicting claims and evidence. Especially in World History courses, the students also learn to engage in cross-cultural comparison and analysis. For example, in my classes once we finish the ancient world, teams of students go to the white boards and compare the world’s major religions.

Number 10: “Some stories are intentionally false.” The final, deepest set of questions history students learn build on the previous questions and strike to the veracity, reliability, and credibility of the source. What was the author’s intent and why? How reliable and credible is the source? Using all this information, the student is then prepared to make judgments about the overall quality of the source and how much weight it should merit in the search for historical truth.

Beyond the study of history, the humanities include other fields essential for the conscientious American citizen, seeking understanding and truth in this “post-truth” era. While mathematics and science enable us to investigate, understand, and even shape our world, the humanities’ fields of religion, philosophy, and ethics help the citizen deal with ambiguity and irrationality, give insights into civic virtue, and help the citizen grapple with important questions which have no right answers.

The challenges for Facebook continue. On June 8 the Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook had arranged “customized data-sharing deals” which gave certain companies special access to user records well after the point in 2015 that it said it was protecting this information. One wonders whether Mark Zuckerberg and the other executives at Facebook should take time to turn to the humanities.

Beyond helping the good American citizen, the humanities can also offer help in this Age of Grand Manipulation to benighted technological behemoths, engaged in Great Power Capitalism and blinded by the god of gold.

Having taught history at the high school and college level for 25 years, Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor (history and politics) at Salve Regina University, RI. He writes for The Hill and is a contributing editor for The History News Network.

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1968: High Water Mark of Turbulent 1960s

(This essay was originally published as “1968 was the high water mark in a decade of discord,” by the Newport Daily News on June 12, 2018.)

Fifty years ago Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, having just won the California Democratic primary. Sirhan Sirhan, a Jordanian and resident alien, shot him in the head with a .22 cal. pistol.

This was only one of many significant events of the 1960s—tragic, turbulent years in which American civilization seemed to be coming apart at the seams. Americans were divided like no other time since the Civil War. For those of us who lived through it, it was a decade in which we knew history—for good or bad—was being made, and we were witnessing, living, and even making it.

The year 1968 was the high water mark of the decade for our discord and disunity, and for some the height of their hope for a new America, indeed a new world. It was as if a volcano of turbulence, its core temperatures beginning to rise in the 1950s, its lava beginning to flow at that lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, spewed forth its molten lava in the 1960s and reached its furious peak in 1968.

Twenty years later, Lance Morrow, writing of the year in Time, said: “…the air of public life seemed to be on fire, and that public fire singed the private self.” … “Nineteen sixty-eight was a knife blade that severed past from future.”

There were significant events in 1968 for all the major “movements” of the decade: anti-Vietnam War, civil rights and social equality, counter-culture, and women. (The environmental movement was inchoate.) Thanks to TV, Americans watched these events unfold in their living rooms.

On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces launched a widespread offensive against South Vietnam, including attacks on 36 of 44 provincial capitals. The Tet Offensive belied statements by American officials that we could see “the light at the end of the tunnel” of this war. Trusted and venerable news anchor Walter Cronkite was incredulous and asked: “What the hell is going on?”

Weeks later President Lyndon Johnson signaled his personal disillusionment and defeat when he announced on national TV: “… I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President ….”

On April 4, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher of non-violence and beacon of the black civil rights movement was assassinated by James Earl Ray in Memphis, TN. Race riots erupted across America in 130 cities, including Newark, NJ, 20 minutes from my home.

Nineteen days later, radical students at Columbia University, NYC, began occupying five buildings on the campus, continuing for almost a week. The students moved into the office of the university president and smoked his cigars. Columbia student Mark Rudd wrote an open letter to him and ended it with: “Up against the wall, m——-r, this is a stickup.”

As America was falling apart in the spring and summer, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang out forlornly in their song, Mrs. Robinson: “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” The hit “rock-musical” Hair opened on Broadway in April 1968 and sang of the “age of Aquarius.” When the stars are aligned properly: “Then peace will guide the planets/And love will steer the stars.”

In August, young protestors in the streets of Chicago demonstrated and taunted police during the Democratic National Convention. Eventually they were violently assaulted by police with tear gas and nightsticks, and over 1,000 were injured.


In early September, members of the National Women’s Liberation Party picketed the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, NJ, denouncing it as degrading to women. At the same time there, the first Miss Black America pageant was held in protest against the all-white pageant.

In October at the Olympics in Mexico City, Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gold and bronze medal winners in the 200-meter race, raised their fists in a Black Power salute as the national anthem played.

With the election of Richard Nixon to the presidency in November, the volcano began to subside. In a few months the Democrats departed the White House and a new Republican Administration arrived with a new mindset and a new cast of characters, including Henry Kissinger, John Ehrlichman, and John Mitchell. There was still much turmoil to come in the early 1970s: the invasion of Cambodia, Kent State, and Watergate; however, American civilization had been through the worst of it.

The year ended on an upbeat note. On Christmas Eve astronauts Frank Borman, William Anders, and James Lovell made revolutions around the moon in Apollo 8. Lovell later said: “It was the final bright star in the last gasp of 1968.”

For me personally, it was the year I began my junior year at West Point, thus committing myself to West Point and at least five years of service to this fractured country.

Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.

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Slavery in Narragansett Country

(This essay was originally published as “In 1843, slavery was banned in Rhode Island,” in the Newport Daily News on May 29, 2018.)
(Note: This is the second in a series of essays on slavery in Rhode Island.)

One hundred seventy-five years ago, Rhode Island, after over two centuries, officially banned slavery in its Constitution of 1843.

The first slaves in the colony of Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the conflicts with colonists in southern New England in the 17th century. In 1638, New Englanders began to import Africans by trading Native Americans captured in the Pequot War (1636-37) for black slaves from the West Indies. Sometime after 1638, the first African slaves entered Rhode Island. They were sparse in the colony throughout the 17th century, with only 175 total African slaves in 1680.

In the 18th century, Rhode Island merchants, with their proximity to and affinity for the sea, engaged in the Atlantic trading system of West Africa, the West Indies (Caribbean), and North American port cities, exporting lumber, foodstuffs, rum, and horses; and importing sugar, molasses, cotton, spices, linen, woolen clothes, iron, and slaves. By 1730, the colony came to dominate the North American slave trade.

Most enslaved people imported into the colony of Rhode Island were bought by owners of farms in what we call “South County” (technically Washington County) and what in the 18th century was called “Narragansett Country.” Eventually these farms grew to be plantations comparable to those in America’s southern colonies, and with these plantations a class of “Narragansett planters” emerged. By mid-century large plantations thrived from the village of Wickford south to Point Judith and west to Connecticut.

At the heart of the economy of Narragansett Country were products grown and produced by enslaved people. This plantation system bred horses, cattle, and sheep; produced dairy products; and also grew Indian corn, rye, hemp, flax, and tobacco. The planters then, through merchants in Newport and Providence, exported these products to southern colonial ports and the West Indies. As the southern climates were harsh on livestock, horses, beef, and dairy products were in demand. The wealthiest of the planters hired ships themselves to export their goods directly.

By the 1730s, 20-30 families had established farms in Narragansett Country and had acquired slaves—generally five to 40—to work them. By 1740, this area had the highest concentration of enslaved people in the colony; by 1755, one in three residents was a slave. Though only a few Narragansett planters were large slave owners, historian Christy Clark-Pujara states that ultimately “thousands of enslaved men, women, and children” in this area produced foodstuffs and raised livestock for trade.

The planter class made fortunes on the lucrative trade rooted in slavery, especially cheese exports. Competing with dairy farms in the colonies of New Jersey and New York, Rhode Island farmers produced the most cheese of all. Robert Hazard, a successful Narragansett planter, owned seventeen acres, had about one hundred cows, and produced 13,000 pounds of cheese annually. The Champlin farm had 42 cows that produced 9,200 pounds annually.

Potter Overmantle, c. 1749, oil on pine, 31" x 64".
Portrait of John Potter (1716-1787) and his family including three women and a young black servant. John Potter was a wealthy South Kingstown planter.
COLLECTION OF THE NEWPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY

The wealth of the planter class enabled the families to lead an elaborate lifestyle, similar to southern planters. They commissioned portraits, hired private tutors for their children, took European vacations, enjoyed horse-racing, and sought to imitate the lifestyle of the landed gentry of England. They also dominated the political affairs of the region.

Richard Smith, Jr., was one of the first Narragansett planters. He inherited his farm from his father, Richard Smith, a contemporary of Roger Williams, the founder of the colony and of Providence. The site of the farm was an area called “Cocumscussoc” by the Narragansett Native Americans. Williams had established a trading post there with the Native Americans and learned their language and customs. Williams reportedly said that Smith: “Put up …the first English house…in Nahigonsik Countrey.”

Smith, Jr., died in 1692, leaving the farm to the Updikes who developed it into one the great plantations of 18th century New England. At its height, it contained more than 3,000 acres, and was divided into five farms, worked by tenant farmers, indentured servants, and enslaved people. The Updikes dealt primarily in livestock and dairy products, producing cheese, other farm crops, and a breed of horse known as the Narragansett pacer.

Cocumscussoc still exists today as a park along with a colonial house known as Smith’s Castle, seasonally open to the public. (See: smithscastle.org)

This plantation system flourished until the late 1760s. The final blow came with disruptions caused by the American Revolution and the British-Hessian occupation of Newport (1776-79). Thanks to this plantation system the state has the country’s longest official name: the “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

(For further reading: Carl R. Woodward, “Plantation in Yankeeland”)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University.

 

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Colonial Rhode Island Dominates North American Slave Trade in 18th Century

(Note: This is the first in a series of essays on Slavery in Rhode Island. It was originally published in the Newport Daily News on April 27, 2018.)

One hundred seventy-five years ago, Rhode Island, after over two centuries of slavery, officially banned it in its Constitution of 1843.

Slavery by the British began in North America when they brought the first African slaves to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in about 1619.

Slavery in Rhode Island began probably with the colony’s establishment in 1636. The first slaves in the colony were surely Native Americans, not Africans. Prisoners of war from the two major Indian wars in southern New England in the 17th century—the Pequot War (1636-37) and King Philip’s/Metacom’s War (1675-76)—became slaves, many of whom were sold abroad. Many more of them became destitute and bound themselves as indentured servants to colonists, some for decades.

The slavery of Native Americans declined as the century wore on, with Providence and Warwick banning their enslavement in 1676. More and more Rhode Islanders wanted to distance themselves from Native Americans and simply did not want them in their settlements, even as slaves and servants. The Newport Town Council eventually made it illegal to sell firearms to Native Americans; Portsmouth banished them to “live in the woods.” Merchants were disallowed from trading with them, selling them liquor, or repairing their firearms.

Seeing the profit to be made, Rhode Island merchants, with their proximity to and affinity for the sea, became a part of the Atlantic trading system of the 18th century, including slave trading. Many of the names of these merchants dot Newport County today: Malbone, Banister, Gardner, Wanton, Brenton, Collins, Vernon, Channing, and Lopez. They engaged in commerce with West Africa, the West Indies (Caribbean), and North American port cities, exporting lumber, beef, pork, butter, cheese, onions, cider, candles, and horses; and importing sugar, molasses, cotton, ginger, indigo, linen, woolen clothes, and Spanish iron. This trade had positive ripple effects throughout the local economy and the economies of the trading ports.

(ncwbts150.com)

The first African slaves entered the northern colonies in the 1620s and were concentrated in New Netherland, the Dutch colony that eventually became New York City.

African slaves were sparse in the colony of Rhode Island throughout the 17th century, with only 175 total slaves in 1680. Prior to 1696, the English Royal African Company monopolized the Atlantic slave trade. However, when this was lifted, Rhode Islanders aggressively expanded into the Atlantic trading system, and therefore, the slave trade.

Within 30 years the colony of Rhode Island came to dominate the North American slave trade. Even though it was the smallest of the colonies, the great majority of slave ships leaving British North America came from Rhode Island ports. Historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, indicates that during “the colonial period in total, Rhode Island sent 514 slave ships to the coast of West Africa, while the rest of the colonists sent just 189.” Historian Jay Coughtry in The Notorious Triangle, argues that “the Rhode Island slave trade and the American slave trade were virtually synonymous” and that “only in Rhode Island was there anything that can properly be termed a slave trade.”


In 1713, Rhode Island slave traders introduced a new export into the trading system—rum. Slave traders in Africa came to prefer this rum over the previous liquor of choice, French brandy. Within 50 years there were close to 30 distilleries in the colony, 18 in Newport alone. Thus the so-called “triangular trade” system emerged within the larger Atlantic system. In its simplest form, the system entailed the rum produced in Rhode Island being exported to the slave coast of West Africa. There it was traded for slaves who made the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, most going to the Caribbean. There they were traded for sugar and molasses, a key ingredient of rum. The molasses was then brought to the colony for processing into more rum.

Slaves Processing Sugar

(John Carter Brown Library)

By 1730, most of the trades and occupations in Rhode Island were somehow related to slavery. Slave traders kept busy shipbuilders, sailors, caulkers, sailmakers, carpenters, rope-makers, painters, barrel-makers, and dock workers. Clerks and warehouse managers administered the system. In addition to these tradesmen, additional crew members were needed to control the enslaved during the voyages.

Rhode Island’s dominant role in the Atlantic slave trade explains why the colony came to have the highest percentage of slaves in New England: an estimated 543 slaves in 1720 (5%), 3,347 slaves in 1750 (10%), and 3,761 slaves in 1770 (6%).

Merchants from Newport paid significant taxes and duties to the city, which allowed public works projects. Clark-Pujara concludes: “The streets of Newport were paved and its bridges and country roads mended through the duties collected on slave imports. In many ways, the business of slavery literally built Rhode Island.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University.

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