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Rhode Island: A History (States & the Nation) Paperback – June 17, 1986
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From the Back Cover
High atop the Rhode Island capitol in Providence, a bronze likeness of ""The Independent Man"" keeps watch over a state that historically has put the ideal of individual liberty before all others. Like many ideals, this one was freighted with many meanings. As the colony grew in the seventeenth century, the belief in religious liberty and freedom of conscience espoused by its founder, Roger Williams, led to the development of political liberty and practical democracy.
About the Author
William G. McLoughlin, prize-winning historian at Brown University, has lived and worked in Rhode Island for many years. He has written and edited a dozen books, including New England Dissent: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State, which was awarded the Melchior Prize.
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Top customer reviews
The author demonstrated detailed knowledge of the religious happenings of the state. He gave a lot of coverage to the life and activities of Roger Williams. Rhode Island residents were known for being non-conformists and independent minded people. The state was derisively referred to as "Rogue's Island" by puritanical leaders from neighboring Massachusetts.
The author gave detailed coverage of "Dorr's War," a unique time in Rhode Island history where a rival legislature formed in the state between 1842 and 1844. There were not a lot of actual fatalities, but some blood was shed in sporadic skirmishes. This was a fascinating era in Rhode Island history.
McLoughlin covered the Gilded Age era and the prominence of pseudo-aristocratic families like the Browns. The state was more conservative and business-oriented in the late 1800's and early 1900's. The author described how the state transformed into a bastion of Democratic politics. T.F. Green was an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal. Claiborne Pell was instrumental in educational reforms. John O. Pastore became a Great Society liberal icon.
This is a well-written and informative book. The book is a bit dated and only covers events into the late 1970's and early 1980's. Still, the book is an essential resource for those who are interested in the key events in Rhode Island history. This is an outstanding book writtten with passion and precision from a historical master.
I knew William G. McLoughlin many years ago. I never perused his book on the history of Rhode Island until recently.
In the midst of the Great Recession, Rhode Island asked its citizens to suggest ideas for the improvement of its economy with special relevance to what had been done in the past. So I wrote a letter to the editor of The Providence Journal, as my contribution. I give it as follows.
Letter / Editor
The Renovation of Rhode Island
Regarding the article titled “Business community hears upbeat message of opportunity” that appeared in the Journal issue of 02-09-2013: Do you think somebody in the state could actually do real things other than plan and strategize in the abstract?
The “Reinvent RI” boosters have advised that improvement should focus on what is amenable to the history and culture of the state.
However, there is difficulty in viewing the industry of the past in RI. (I use the word “industry” in its widest sense, as trade or manufacture in general – the main economic activities of a region.) The problem is, what was it?
As I see it– In Colonial times, RI was part of the Triangular Trade of Rum-Molasses-Slaves. That industry lasted until early Post-Revolutionary times. I doubt that we would want to return to it.
Then Sam Slater stole the technology of textile manufacture from his British employers in the 19th century, in the Gilded Age, and brought it to Pawtucket, RI. The textile industry served RI well and lasted until the middle of the 20th century, for about 125 years. Then the mill owners outsourced textiles to the South, as they thought it was getting too expensive to manufacture in RI because of the demands of Labor.
In addition, once the Post-WWII consumer economy got going, RI developed jewelry and machine tools. Despite my view that jewelry is a third-world industry, some fine products were made by companies such as Speidel in what is now known as the Old Jewelry District, since renovated for small businesses. (I have a Speidel watch that I use as a backup but it’s made neither in RI nor in the U.S. Guess where it is made? It is a fine product, as even the jeweler I patronize commented on its quality.)
But jewelry and machine tools have left, and to Third World nations. Many in RI remember the names of the companies.
Rhode Island had the Navy in Newport. That was easy money for the state because the federal government gave it millions for naval installations, ships and sailors. But the former Governor and Senator John Chafee, after he was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Richard Nixon decimated it, as per the goals of the U.S. Navy at that time. While a few technological defense schools remain in Newport, there are no longer lots of sailors walking around the City by the Sea, and few warships stationed there. Whatever you thought of them, the sailors spent money – and Newport was a more interesting place at that time.
Thus, I do not know what the state can redevelop that it had. There was the container port but that was not implemented, and now impossible to do. (Short-sea shipping remains viable, if, indeed, the state can organize it.)
There are health facilities able to be developed in the so-called “Knowledge District” (that I don’t know why is not called the Old Jewelry District – OJD – that would keep the historical perspective of it.) That is, if it ever gets going. So far, the acreage freed by re-locating I-195 remains a weedy, rubble-strewn field. To make a self-generating health sciences complex would take 20-30 years, and so the Governor/General Assembly should start signing contracts for health providers right now!
I had thought the state, since it gets 1/3rd its revenue from gambling, should go the whole nine yards for gaming and make the head of the Bay in Providence the site of major gambling facilities like those in Las Vegas and Macau --- and starting with the old Shooter’s building. But when I submitted this idea, there was no response. The reason must be moral, because despite the state getting so much of its revenue from gambling, it is ashamed of it. Gambling is too low class for the elitists and meritocracy in the state.
The state might also try to get the Navy reestablished in Newport.
I had further thought that Rhode Island could become an inexpensive incorporation state like Nevada and Delaware for the New England Region. It could provide impetus for start-ups. It would give work to legions of attorneys who would hire staff; and companies that incorporated in RI might like it and expand their presence.
There are a few relatively new insurance companies and drug manufacturers, but not enough, evidently, to bring the state out of recession.
The problem is that Rhode Island has absolutely NO VISION of anything for its economy except getting another pizza joint or adding burger flipping jobs; or, getting a railroad in Wickford to take workers to Boston! (In fact, if it weren’t for so many Rhode Islanders having jobs in Massachusetts, the state might have to dissolve.)
The state is small and thus has limited resources but the leaders (the Governor and major officers and the General Assembly) never decide to do anything. They never act on anything important. At this writing (01/2013), the General Assembly is concerned with Same-Sex Marriage, Gender-Appropriate School Dances and repealing the sales tax on Pet Grooming – and issuing studies to do things.
But what I mentioned above should be enough for the state to thrive: Health facilities, short-sea shipping, big gambling, and a renewed U.S. Navy presence and, for the lawyers, an inexpensive incorporation industry. The problem in RI, though, is not lack of ideas but in actually doing something, anything at all!
Of course, none of the above was done.
Very recently, I bought McLoughlin’s book for one dollar at the Weaver Library book sale in East Providence. Once home, I decided to look through it since it was sitting in a pile of books near my coffee table. I thought it was a pedestrian work of history. McLoughlin proves, by misdirection, my contention in the letter that Rhode Island has absolutely NO VISION --- and never had any. Further, McLoughlin shows that the state was filled with crooks from the beginning. Block Island (New Shoreham) was the preserve of pirates, as per Captain Kidd, Thomas Tew, Palsgrave Williams and many others. Block Island was a redoubt of piracy. But the entire state was overrun by pirates. The colonial governors skimmed the loot of the pirates in return for them not being prosecuted or even harassed. This is why the state was known and is still known as “Rogues’ Island.” In strict fact, there were more ordinary pirates from the towns on the East side of Narragansett Bay than from anywhere else in the world. As for Roger Williams: While he paid the Indians for the land, he did not pay them what it was worth, even at the time, and he later abandoned the land he had bought because it was within Plymouth Colony and not within anyplace that became Rhode Island. (Further, the native people did not realize they were selling the exclusive right to the land in perpetuity.) Then, the first massacre of Indians in the New World took place during William’s tenure, in 1675-76. While the massacre did not occur in the delimited areas at the time known as Rhode Island or Providence Plantations, Rhode Island was and remains such a small place that in effect it is all one place. Again, while Roger Williams attempted to be a peacemaker between the Indians and the colonists of Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, once war broke out he did not take their side but urged them to make a peace that would have destroyed them. As it worked out, the tribes that had rebelled were broken as tribes and nearly exterminated. In fact, the Great Swamp Fight of December 19, 1675, a massacre of the Narragansetts and Wampanoags, is considered to be the first attempted genocide of the native peoples in America, and it took place in what is now known as South Kingstown, Rhode Island.
There is the Brown family who were slavers, John, Nicholas and Moses. They founded and gave their name to Brown University and that university never repudiated it. Slavery, of course, is the theft of persons, a sort of continuing and aggravated kidnapping. They justified it by claiming that Africans were not fully human. But I would never believe it because when white slave owners or their brothers, sons or nephews or other male relatives had sex with African (or native) women they discovered that they were exactly like white (or European) women in all their parts, sexual and emotional. Their racial views were convenient for their interests.
As for Samuel Slater, he was a common criminal. The English had passed a law restricting mechanics/engineers from going to the colonies, specifically to keep their industrial technology from being stolen and used by the colonists against them. Slater came to the colonies against that law. Then he stole the technology of machine textile making from his former British employers.
These men, R. Williams, the Brown Family and Slater are honored by the state of Rhode Island. They set the pattern for all the corruption that followed in Rhode Island even to this day.
I had tossed the book onto the floor and meant to recycle it, but then thought that I would review it for a verification of my statements in the letter, as I might possibly use it in another work. I am exactly right: That was the history of Rhode Island in the main, part of the Triangular Rum-Molasses-Slave industry (and its ranking university founded and named for a slaver); then having the textile industry founded by a thief until the early post- WWII Era; and then, because of consumer demand after that war, the location of machine tool and related companies in the state (Brown & Sharpe, Universal Winding, Uncas, Bostitch, Fram, Leesona, Imperial Knife, Carol Cable, Gorham, and though some of them had started as early as the 19th century, they expanded in the post-WWII Era) --- followed, starting about in the 1980s, by their relocation and outsourcing. (Many older Rhode Islanders remember the names of these companies.) So that now and for the past six years Rhode Island has had the third highest unemployment rate in the nation and has no real plans for improvement. (Just recently - 12/2013 - the state became the highest in unemployment of all the states of the Union.)
What, though, have these comments to do with McLoughlin and his book? The book is as boring as is the history of the state. Further, McLoughlin verifies that, other than the above “once-upon-a-time” economies, there was (and remains) nothing else in the state except a long series of politico-crooks along with a cultural milieu of snobbery, cronyism and ethnic hatred, (though ethnic hatred has abated in the last few generations). Thus a history of the state could be nothing other than pedestrian.
*To be sure, there were significant events in the Revolutionary era by Rhode Islanders. To me, it was a power grab by the colonists who wanted neither to obey the legitimate authority, that of the United Kingdom, nor wanted to pay for their defense by the English from the predations of the French and Spanish in the New World, the reason for the tea tax. The colonists wanted to run what became the United States for themselves and their descendants – of their class, and default on the debt for their defense. As such, Rhode Islanders were avid for it and that is why they were first in attacking British ships --- and why they did not want to become part of the federal union, the United States, and thus were the last of the original thirteen states finally to accept the Union in 1790.
Specific to the book, McLoughlin ends it with a chapter entitled “Changing, Surviving, Hoping.” Well, change is universal, survival is rather a basic virtue, but - THERE IS NO HOPE FOR RHODE ISLAND! The book expresses the moral and economic bankruptcy of the state. The history of Rhode Island is the sorriest story I ever read; perhaps the history of Lower Slobovia is worse. Yes, yes, I know: there are some small venues that are interesting and that have thrived despite the policies of the politicians but these are individual triumphs. But without them, the state would be so dull that its residents would rush to leave even faster than they are doing now. Even some of these enterprises have closed or left the state.
Rhode Island has one thing, and that is its natural beauty. But the politicians with their policies foul it to such an extent that people can rarely perceive that beauty: the filth obscures it. This is why Cotton Mather, in the colonial era, called Rhode Island “the sewer of New England”. (McLoughlin, to his credit, quotes Mather in his Preface.)
The state is so small that it has one, only one, trash area, called The Central Landfill. But the landfill always has problems with fees, corruption and noxious odors. (At the time of this editing – 12-19-2013 -, the Conservation Law Foundation has sued the landfill because their operators have allowed polluted gases to escape in violation of the Clean Air Act.) But there may be a way to supersede the issues I have explained. There is gathering talk in the media that the various states are too unequal in size and thus influence and prosperity. For this, I would suggest that all the six New England states become one state. It would thus be about the size of New York State. Further, Rhode Island could then, with the possible exception of Newport and Narragansett and a few other communities in South County, become the Central Landfill of New England, and validate Cotton Mather’s perception.
*While the book may be dated, as it was published in 1978 and issued in paperback in the mid-1980s, there is nothing that has happened since in Rhode Island of importance ---, except the persistent dithering of the politicians in and out of office as the result of the Great Recession begun in 2008. I have expressed the political trundling of Rhode Island in the letter to the editor of the Providence Journal as given above. Further, I have lived in the state over the time since – and before, even - the book was published and was privy to some of the shenanigans of the politico-crooks that transpired.
Yes, long ago I knew McLoughlin and never thought much of him either as a man or as an historian. The history of Rhode Island that could be adequately described as provincial in its full pejorative meaning was an appropriate subject for him. McLoughlin liked Rhode Island because he had friends here and thought the state was cute.
Nor did the Journal print my letter, as it was too close to the truth for them.