June 7, 2017

Whitehouse Delivers Tenth Annual Speech on the Burning of the Gaspee

Rhode Island’s Gaspee Affair was an early spark of the American Revolution

Washington, DC – As Rhode Island prepares for the annual Gaspee Days celebration this weekend, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse yesterday evening delivered his tenth annual speech on the floor of the Senate to recall the story of the bold Rhode Islanders who stood up to the British and burned the HMS Gaspee in 1772.  Whitehouse takes to the Senate floor every year to recognize the Gaspee Affair for its role in sparking the American Revolution, as it took place more than eighteen months before the Boston Tea Party.

“Schoolchildren’s history books tell the tale of those Bostonians who dressed up in funny outfits and dumped tea into the harbor,” noted Whitehouse.  “But few Americans know of the bravery of the Rhode Islanders who years earlier fired the first shots and drew the first blood in the quest for American independence.  Rhode Islanders are quite proud of our role in rebellion.”

The text of Whitehouse’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, is below.  Video is available here.



Mr./Madam President, we Rhode Islanders have always had a pretty fierce independent streak.  The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was founded by Roger Williams and others fleeing the harsh ideological conformity of the Massachusetts theocracy.  Our 1663 charter, which described the colony as a “lively experiment,” is the first formal document in all of history granting to a political entity the separation of church and state, along with extraordinary freedoms of speech.

Rhode Island was the first colony to declare its independence from Britain, on the Fourth of May, 1776—two months, of course, before the Fourth of July.  And we were the last colony to join the Union.  Like I said—independent streak.

Colonial Rhode Islanders chafed at the inequities of British rule, especially the egregious disruption of their liberty at sea.  We’re the Ocean State.  Living and working on the water has always been the Rhode Island way of life.  As tensions with the American colonies grew, King George III stationed revenue cutters, armed customs patrol vessels, along the American coastline to prevent smuggling, enforce the payment of taxes, and impose British authority.  And the waters of Narragansett Bay were the scene of some of the earliest overt acts of rebellion against the Crown.

In 1764, after a British ship called the HMS St. John stole goods from Newport merchants, a group of Rhode Islanders seized control of Fort George on Goat Island in Newport Harbor and fired its cannons on the vessel.

In 1769, the HMS Liberty, a sloop confiscated by the British from none other than John Hancock and repurposed as a customs vessel, was boarded, scuttled, and burned by a mob of angry Rhode Islanders.

And in 1772, on a dark night, a band of Rhode Islanders destroyed the HMS Gaspee, one of the most hated imperial ships, drawing what the Rhode Island abolitionist Frances Whipple McDougall called in 1844, “the first blood in the Revolution.”

The Gaspee and its captain, Lt. William Dudingston, were known for destroying fishing vessels, seizing cargo, and flagging down ships only to harass, humiliate, and interrogate the colonials.  As historian Steven Park describes in his new book “The Burning of His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee: An Attack on Crown Rule Before the American Revolution,” the Gaspee was an unwelcome presence in Narragansett Bay.  Rhode Island Deputy Governor Darius Sessions complained to Governor Joseph Wanton in March 1772 that Dudingston had “no legal authority to justify his conduct, and his commission … [was] more of a fiction than any thing else.”

When British authorities assured Governor Wanton that Dudingston was there to protect the colony from pirates, he governor replied that he didn’t know whether Dudingston was protecting them from pirates or was a pirate himself.

On June 9, 1772, the tension came to a head.  On this day, Rhode Island Captain Benjamin Lindsey was en route to Providence from Newport, in his ship the Hannah, when he was ordered by the Gaspee to halt for inspection.  Captain Lindsey refused and raced up Narragansett Bay—despite warning shots fired at the Hannah.  The Gaspee gave chase, and Captain Lindsey, who knew the waters of the Narragansett far better than Dudingston, steered his ship north toward Pawtuxet Cove in Warwick, right over the shallow waters off Namquid Point—known today as Gaspee Point.  The lighter Hannah shot over the shallows, but the heavier Gaspee ran aground and stuck firm in a sand bar.  The British ship and her crew were caught stranded, and would need to wait many hours for a rising tide to free them.

Wasting no time, Captain Lindsey proceeded to Providence, and with the help of the respected merchant and statesman John Brown, rallied a group of Rhode Island patriots to Sabin’s Tavern, in what is now the East Side of Providence.  Together, the group resolved to end the Gaspee’s menace in Rhode Island waters.

That night, 80 or so men shoved off from Fenner’s Wharf under a moonless sky, with their faces blackened and their oarlocks muffled, paddling eight longboats down Narragansett Bay toward the still-stranded Gaspee.  The boats silently surrounded the Gaspee, then shouted for Lt. Dudingston to surrender the ship. 

As Daniel Harrington recounted in the Providence Journal, “Capt. Abraham Whipple spoke first for the Rhode Islanders, summoning Dudingston: ‘I am sheriff of Kent county, [expletive].  I have a warrant to apprehend you, [expletive]; so surrender, [expletive].’  It was a classic Rhode Island greeting!”

Surprised and enraged, Dudingston refused and ordered his men to fire upon anyone who attempted to board the Gaspee.  One of the Rhode Islanders raised his musket and fired rounds into the Lieutenant’s groin and arm.  The Rhode Islanders, outnumbering the British three to one swarmed onto the deck and commandeered the ship.  Brown ordered one of his Rhode Islanders, a physician named John Mawney, to tend to Dudingston’s wounds.

After properly plundering the Lieutenant’s quarters, the patriots removed the British crew to land, and returned to torch the ship.  Ultimately, the flames reached her gun powder chest, and the resulting blast echoed across the Bay as the dreaded Gaspee blew to smithereens.

When word got back to the King, he was furious and offered huge rewards for the capture of the rebels.  But strangely enough, no Rhode Islander would step forward to finger the perpetrators.

Word spread throughout the colonies not only of the incident, but of the Crown’s crooked brand of justice.  Samuel Adams wrote a letter in the Providence Gazette on December 26, 1772, that read, in part:

A court of inquisition, more horrid than that of Spain or Portugal, is established within this colony, to inquire into the circumstances of destroying the Gaspee schooner; and the persons who are the commissioners of this new-fangled court, are vested with most exorbitant and unconstitutional power.  They are directed to summon witnesses, apprehend persons not only impeached, but even suspected! and . . . to deliver them to Admiral Montagu, who is ordered to have a ship in readiness to carry them to England, where they are to be tried.

The Reverend John Allen delivered at the Second Baptist Church in Boston a Thanksgiving sermon on the Gaspee Affair that was distributed in pamphlet form up and down the colonies.  His words roused the spirits of a fledgling nation:

Supposing . . . that the Rhode Islanders, for the sake of the blood bought liberties of their forefathers, for the sake of the birthrights of their children, should show a spirit of resentment against a tyrannical arbitrary power that attempts to destroy their lives, liberties and property, would it not be insufferably cruel (for this which the law of nature and nations teaches them to do) to be butchered, assassinated and slaughtered in their own streets by their own King?

Mr./Madam President, schoolchildren’s history books tell the tale of those Bostonians who dressed up in funny outfits and dumped tea into the harbor.  But few Americans know of the bravery of the Rhode Islanders who fired the first shots and drew the first blood in the quest for American independence.

Rhode Islanders are quite proud of our role in rebellion.  We have made a tradition of celebrating the Gaspee Incident with the annual Gaspee Days celebration and parade in Warwick.  An independent study group at Brown University is adapting the tale of the Gaspee into a virtual reality educational experience, marrying Rhode Island history with cutting-edge technology to engage middle- and high-school students in new ways.  Someday soon, children across the country may be able to step into a virtual longboat, coast across Narragansett Bay, and watch the sky over Rhode Island alight with the fire of Revolution!

I yield the floor.


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