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This Day in History: Rhode Island declares independence

On this day in 1776, Rhode Island renounces its allegiance to King George III. The state’s action came a full two months before the Declaration of Independence was adopted.

You may remember that Rhode Island dragged its feet on ratifying the Constitution. It was the last of the original 13 colonies to do so—and the state barely wanted to do it, even then. Rhode Island’s stubborn streak played out differently in the fight for independence. In that fight, the state acted early (and often) to reject the ties placed upon its citizens by the British King.

Indeed, as early as 1765, Rhode Island’s Governor, Samuel Ward, refused to take an oath to support the controversial Stamp Act. He was the only colonial governor to do so. He later wrote to his son: “These colonies are destined to an early independence, and you will live to see my words verified.” Ward himself died in March 1776, so he missed seeing his own prediction realized by only a few short months.

Rhode Island was “the first colony to declare its independence,” “the first of the American colonies to repeal by official legislative act its allegiance to King George III,” and the first to commit an “overt act of violence against the British authorities, the burning of the revenue sloop Liberty in Newport on July 19, 1769.” (All according to the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s website.)

Of course, other colonies were growing restless, too. John Winthrop of Massachusetts perhaps vocalized this sentiment when he wrote to John Adams in April: “Our people are impatiently waiting for the Congress to declare off from [Great Britain]. If they should not do it pretty soon, I am not sure but this colony will do it for themselves.” John Adams asked for just a few weeks more. “It is my opinion, sir,” he wrote, “that We shall have but little Difference of Sentiment among the Colonies upon these great Questions in a few Weeks.”

Well, I suppose Rhode Island—sometimes called Rogues’ Island—was never one to wait patiently!

On May 4, its colonial assembly took action. The state didn’t explicitly declare independence, but it might as well have done so. The assembly repealed an Act “effectually securing to His Majesty the allegiance of his subjects, in this his colony and dominion of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” It also removed all references to the king from public proceedings and papers. And it decided to honor Governor Ward, who had so presciently refused to support the Stamp Act years before.

As the assembly adjourned, it did something new. Rather than ending with “God save the king!” it adjourned with the declaration: “God save the United Colonies!”

Don’t forget that any of these actions could have gotten our ancestors hanged for treason.

Such bravery in the face of tyranny.

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