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What is Rhode Island Independence Day?

Tradition says it’s the day that Rhode Island turned its back on King George III, but some Rhode Islanders say it’s just not a thing.

Rhode Island's Act of Renunciation, with sections redacted in the 1700s.
Rhode Island's Act of Renunciation, with sections redacted in the 1700s.Office of the Secretary of State of Rhode Island

PROVIDENCE — The story goes that on May 4, 1776, Rhode Island, which already had a bit of a reputation, thanks to its radical religious dissent from the Puritans up north in Massachusetts Bay Colony, became the first Colony in North America to renounce its allegiance to King George III.

Two months later, the other 12 Colonies formally broke their ties with the crown. The State Archives vault holds the original document of the Act of Renunciation, showing sections about the king crossed out. But the actual declaring of independence didn’t occur until the General Assembly ratified the Declaration of Independence in Newport on July 18, 1776. And Rhode Island was actually the last state to ratify the new American Constitution more than 14 years later, on May 29, 1790.

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Rhode Island’s courageous call for independence is referenced in the Rhode Island State March, written by Thomas Clarke Brown, which served as the state’s song from 1946 to 1996.

It goes, “Here’s to you, beloved Rhode Island, with your hills and ocean shore. We are proud to hail you Rhody, and your patriots of yore. First to claim your independence, great your heritage and fame. The smallest State in all the Union. We will glorify your name!”

In 1996, the General Assembly replaced the march with “Rhode Island’s It for Me.” The new state song has no reference to being “the first” to claim independence.

Rhode Island Independence Day is not a state holiday, but instead, a “day of special observance.” And some people question whether it should even be that.

“The fallacy was birthed by a Slatersville man who really, really wanted a reason to hang his state flag. His successful persuasion campaign, launched in 1884, still resonates today,” Casey Nilsson wrote in Rhode Island Monthly. “The backstory: All colonies were required to sign oaths of allegiance to King George III. This Act of Renunciation, signed May 4, 1776, vigorously repealed that oath but did not declare independence from the British crown.”

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Here’s why it took so long for Rhode Island to really declare independence:

Rhode Island served as the commerce center of the transatlantic slave trade in the 18th century (an issue at the heart of calls for reparations by certain city leaders and Brown University students). West Indian molasses would be used to make rum in distilleries in Rhode Island, and traded for enslaved workers. The British attempted to tighten control over the Colonies’ trade, beginning with the Sugar Act of 1764. On June 10, 1768, British customs officials confiscated the Liberty because it had previously smuggled Madeira wine, which incited a riot on the streets of Boston.

Four years later, not too far from Providence, the British customs boat Gaspee ran aground. Rhode Islanders were angered by the British’s attempts to tax them in ways they thought were unfair. So well before any tea was tossed in the Boston Harbor, Rhode Island colonists boarded and burned the British Gaspee, wounding the ship’s captain.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea told Globe Rhode Island Tuesday that compared to the Gaspee ordeal, the Boston Tea Party was a “frat party gone awry.”

“The burning of the Gaspee is really the first act of rebellion in the colonies,” said Gorbea.

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Both Newport and Providence ports brought in wealth and trade, making Rhode Island the only small state that could have survived independence of the federal union that was proposed in 1787. But the state had no desire to lose income in the form of import duties to this new, federal government.

And so, Rhode Island held out until 1790 to be the last state to ratify the Constitution.

Gorbea said the Act of Renunciation is her favorite document in the state’s archives, because you can see the thinking process of the authors, where the entire second graph is crossed out, but is still visible.

It said, “Whereas George The Third King of Great Britain entirely departing from the Duties and Character of a good King instead of protecting is endeavoring to destroy the good People of this Colony and of all the United Colonies by sending Fleets and Armies to America to confiscate our Property and spread Fire Sword and Desolation throughout our Country in order to compel us to submit to the most debasing and detestable Slavery. And whereas Protection and Allegiance are reciprocal, the latter being only due in Consequence of the former.”

Gorbea said, “You can just see the debate in the page in front of you. The document speaks to you about what was going on at the time period.”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @alexagagosz.