June 24, 2019

Whitehouse Remarks on the Gaspee Raid

But the Gaspee raid offers so much more--a true villain, a daring escape, a vigorous call to action, the storming of a ship, the vanquishing of an enemy, a blast in the night, and an earlier stirring of revolutionary spirit.

Madam President, I come to the floor of the Senate today, as I do every year at this time, to remember what Rhode Island abolitionist Frances Whipple McDougall called “the first blood [drawn] in the Revolution.” This past Sunday marked the 247th anniversary of the Gaspee raid.

This is an image of what happened to the Gaspee. We ought to remember. Most Americans do not know about the Gaspee Affair. They have learned about a far tamer incident in Boston Harbor a year later, when some tipsy Bostonians toppled bales of tea into the water.

I get why Bostonians are proud of their tea party. It is a decent story that tea was ruined, the British East India Company was out some money, the Crown got angry, and the American patriots gained notoriety and momentum for our cause. But the Gaspee raid offers so much more–a true villain, a daring escape, a vigorous call to action, the storming of a ship, the vanquishing of an enemy, a blast in the night, and an earlier stirring of revolutionary spirit.

The story begins in the 1760s, with King George and the English Parliament trying to raise money. The Crown needed to recoup losses from expensive recent wars, and the Colonies seemed like a convenient place to turn. Their solution was to allow the powerful British Navy to enforce customs laws, transforming naval officers into well-armed tax collectors.

The Admiralty commissioned sloops and schooners to troll the Colonies’ most profitable waters for tax revenue. In Narragansett Bay the Crown sent Lieutenant William Dudingston in an eight-gun schooner, the Gaspee. The boat and its captain quickly earned a nasty reputation. Dudingston stopped virtually every vessel in sight, from the biggest schooners to the smallest packet boats. He harassed sailors, seized cargo, and annexed Rhode Island vessels, merchants, and watermen, often on shaky or nonexistent charges.

Historian George Washington Greene, a Rhode Islander and grandson of Rhode Island’s legendary Revolutionary War hero, Major General Nathaniel Greene, described Dudingston’s conduct this way: Not contented with performing the duties of his office, still vexatious even when considerately executed, he multiplied its annoyances by a thousand acts of petty tyranny. He stopped vessels of every kind without discrimination–ships just from sea and market boats on their way to Providence and Newport with their perishable freights, and to increase the indignity refused to show his commission or the authority by which he acted.

A further insult, Dudingston sent prisoners and cargo to Boston to face justice before a British tribunal, not the Rhode Island court established in Newport. This violated the Colony’s agreement with the Crown to adjudicate such disputes on Rhode Island’s soil, an offense to our Colony’s sovereignty.

From winter to spring of 1772, tensions in Narragansett Bay rose. Among the incidents involving the loathed Gaspee, Dudingston commandeered Fortune, the ship belonging to the influential merchant and later Revolutionary War hero, Nathaniel Greene. Rhode Islander Daniel Harrington notes in a 2017 Providence Journal article that “the patriotic fervor” that had swept “the colonies [had] seemed to elude [Greene]–until Dudingston snagged his Fortune and ignited the righteous spirit of resentment.”

When Greene later led the Continental Army’s successful Southern Campaign, British General Cornwallis would lament: “That damned Greene is more dangerous than Washington.” The ignited spirit was a forceful one.

On June 9, 1772, the coastal trader Hannah caught Lieutenant Dudingston’s eye as she sailed up Narragansett Bay en route to Providence. The Gaspee pursued the Hannah and ordered her to stop for inspection. The Hannah refused. The Gaspee fired a warning shot. The Hannah sailed on.

Off Warwick’s shore, near Pawtuxet Village, things came to a head. According to the account of Rhode Islander Ephraim Bowen, the Hannah’s skipper, Benjamin Lindsey, sailed his lighter boat over shallows around Namquid Point. Dudingston followed in chase taking his Gaspee, a heavier boat, into waters too shallow for it. The Gaspee ran aground in a falling tide.

The Hannah sped on to Providence. Captain Lindsey alerted respected local merchant John Brown, later a founder of Brown University. Brown “immediately concluded that [the Gaspee] would remain immovable until after midnight,” Ephraim Bowen recalls, and saw what he calls the “opportunity offered of putting an end to the trouble and vexation she daily caused.”

A Providence man named Daniel Pearce “passed along the main street, beating a drum and informing the inhabitants of the fact that the Gaspee was aground on Namquid Point and would not float until 3 o’clock the next morning,” Bowen recalled. Pearce invited “those persons who felt a disposition to go and destroy that troublesome vessel to repair in the evening to Mr. James Sabin’s house,” presumably for some strong spirits and discussion of an attack.

Once assembled and refreshed, the Rhode Islanders set off into a moonless night in eight longboats with muffled oars. The group’s “powder was prepared and bullets run” as it “set forth on its mission of vengeance,” George Washington Green recorded. Aboard the Gaspee, the seaman standing watch, Bartholomew Cheever, first thought he saw light dancing off rocks in the near-blackness. Suddenly, however, Cheever realized the glints he saw were more than rocks. The Rhode Islanders and their long boats encircled the Gaspee. Cheever alerted Dudingston, and Dudingston ordered his men to fire on the assault party. The Rhode Islanders, however, outnumbered the British crew by more than 4 to 1 and quickly overwhelmed the Gaspee. A brief and decisive melee ensued. Soon, Dudingston lay on the quarterdeck with musket wounds to his arm and groin. The Gaspee would never again be under British command.

The Rhode Islanders ferried the British crew to shore, where they were awaited by the Pawtuxet Rangers, a group that exists still today. The raiders then returned once more to set fire to the Gaspee. The fire burned until it reached the powder magazines below the Gaspee’s decks, and when the fire reached the magazines, the Gaspee was blown to bits and was no more.

King George soon learned of the Gaspee raid and was not pleased. The raiders would face charges of treason, he said, and the gallows, were they to be found guilty and convicted. The Crown put up the colossal reward of 500 pounds sterling for the capture of the rebels–50 times what a colonial farmer would earn in a year.

No Rhode Islander would give up the raiders. Try as they might, British authorities never found and never convicted the brave raiders who burned the Gaspee. Word of the Gaspee raid spread swiftly through the Colonies and stirred revolutionary spirit. George Washington was actually hosting a British officer when he heard the story. The officer exclaimed that the Rhode Islanders ought to be “phlebotomized” and that he would personally march 5,000 British regulars “from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina, and put down all opposition to the revenue acts.” To that assertion, Washington shot back:

I question not, Sir, that you could march from Boston into Charleston, South Carolina, at the head of 5,000 British regulars; but do you mean to say, Sir, that you could do so, as a friend, or as an enemy? If as the latter, and you will allow me a few weeks’ notice of your intention, I will engage to give you a handsome check with the Virginia riflemen alone.

Washington punctuated his retort, as an onlooker reported, by “[striking] the table so violently with his clenched hand that some wine glasses and a decanter near him with difficulty maintained their upright positions.”

Every year, Rhode Islanders gather for a celebration and parade through Warwick, the neighborhood off of which this event took place. We gather to remember the daring assault on the Gaspee. We recall our forebears’ resolve for independence, freedom of religion, and the rule of law. We are also glad to remember that Rhode Islanders are not to be trifled with. This is a story worth remembering.

Thank you.

I yield the floor.