American history books are filled with incidents which led up to the American Revolution. Who hasn’t heard of the Boston Tea Party? Who doesn’t know of the infamous Stamp Act? Who hasn’t felt outrage over the story of unarmed American civilians gunned down by British regulars in the Boston Massacre? Those tales are a part of the fabric of this nation, taught everywhere.
And yet, there is an event which was far better known at the time than any of the three I just mentioned. It was an actual act of war against England, one which caused great unrest among the colonies. In fact, its influence on the colonial legislatures led to steps that ended in the Declaration of Independence.
How can that be? How can an event of such great importance have somehow managed to end up on the pressroom floor instead on the pages of history?
We’ll get to that in a minute, but first let us — you and I — view the events of June 10, 1774, and watch the original Sons of Liberty march onto the stage of history.
It can be said with great truth that the most significant cause of the American Revolution was a form of financial slavery practiced against the colonies by a foolish king and Parliament. The British government, far across the Atlantic, separated from its own people by distance and attitude, created a situation that no self-respecting Englishman could tolerate. The Revolutionary War was not a war of Americans against Englishmen; it was a sad and wholly unnecessary war of Englishmen against Englishmen, some of them sitting aloof and haughty on their polished benches in the halls of Parliament, and the others standing tall and proud in a once wild and hostile land they had tamed with little more than courage and callused hands.
The settling of an untamed land is no easy matter. Any tale of exploration and settlement is a tale of woe. Why, our own Plymouth Colony, founded by 102 souls who landed in America on the Mayflower in December 1620, saw the loss of 45 of those souls by the end of that first bitter winter, and by the time the harvest of November of 1621 prompted them to kneel down and thank God for His blessings, there were only 53 of them left alive, barely half.
People who have passed through the fires of hell to tame an unknown land are not going to sit still for an absentee-landord government which treats them as suppliers of raw materials to be sent back to the home country, processed, and returned to them at outrageous prices. The tariff laws and import laws foolishly passed by Parliament turned England’s own colonists into slaves of British industry, and were as incendiary as they were unwise.
The colonists reacted in the obvious way by trading with other countries, even including France when it was at war with England. American ships stopped at French and Spanish Caribbean ports, and returned with cheap goods they smuggled into American harbors. The British, instead of realizing that they would never cower other Englishmen into submission, especially ones who had tamed part of a raw continent, only made matters worse by sending in customs ships empowered to stop the smuggling.
Rhode Island, though the smallest of our states in land area, was not a place small on courage, nor was its shore short of small coves and quiet rivers suitable for smuggling. So British customs vessels tended to hover off its coast. Rhode Islanders, however, had an answer for that. In 1764 they attacked H.M.S. St. John, and in 1769 they boarded and burned H.M.S. Liberty on Goat Island in Newport Harbor, both of them civil customs vessels.
As usual, the British response was predictably wrong-headed. In they upped the ante by sending in the British naval vessel in 1772. And so H.M.S. Gaspée, sailed threateningly into Narragansett Bay. But Lieutenant William Duddingston, its master, made two mistakes. One was to antagonize the merchant interests in Rhode Island. The other was to chase the packet boat Hannah into shallow waters, where he promptly ran aground.
Is it any wonder then, Johnny, that at the break of dawn on June 10, 1772, a small, determined group calling themselves Sons of Liberty, headed by Joseph Bulkley, a merchant, swarmed over the rails of the Gaspée and took over, after first having shot and wounded the good lieutenant who foolishly challenged them? And then they proceeded to burn the Gaspée to the water line.
Well, setting fire to customs vessels was one thing, but burning a Royal Navy vessel was deeply frowned upon. And King George, not the brightest bulb on the tree, reacted by creating a Royal Commission of Inquiry to find and hang the offenders. He forgot, I suppose, that the men on the Royal Commission, though the chief justices of New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, along with the governor of Rhode Island, were also colonists.
They just could not learn who had done the nasty deed.
But a far reaching effect swept the colonies as a result of the fact that American colonists could have been taken to London, tried, and hanged. It prompted the Virginia House of Burgesses to form the inter-colony Committee of Correspondence, the first step toward the Declaration of Independence.
The threat of American colonists being taken to England for trial also prompted the writing of pamphlets printed in many editions which spread throughout the 13 colonies. In fact, one Sunday sermon given by a little known Baptist preacher in Boston went through seven printings of five editions. And in his pamphlet he characterized the burning of the Gaspée as an act of “self defense,” marking a critical change in American thinking.
So how come you’ve never heard of the burning of the Gaspée? Why is it almost unknown today? Almost purely by accident. The first book on the American Revolution, written in 1796 by Richard Snowden skipped the entire period prior to 1773. And the second book, written in 1805 in two volumes by Mercy Otis Warren skipped from the period from 1770 to 1773. And later histories, being based on the first two, have followed in line, continuing right up to today to overlook the first actual act of war against England, the sinking by Americans of an armed vessel of the Royal Navy.
But fear not. Rhode Islanders, being troublemakers, still remember the event. The City of Warwick, Rhode Island commemorates it with annual Gaspée Days, ending with a parade in which poor H.M.S. Gaspée is burned again every year.
Can’t keep them damn Yankees down, can you?
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