On May 4, 1776, Rhode Island renounced its allegiance to the British Crown, the first American colony to do so. This was not the first time the state, which celebrated its independence day on Friday, set an example for the rest of the nation.
The original colony, Providence Plantations, was founded on what would become a bedrock American principle—freedom of religion. But at the time, this radical proposition got Roger Williams banished by the Massachusetts General Court for spreading “new, and dangerous opinions.”
Williams, a minister who fell out with the Puritan church, argued publicly for separation of Church and State, and championed the rights of local tribes. When Massachusetts Bay Colony finally banished him in 1636, Williams walked 105 miles in the snow to find refuge with his Wampanoag Indian friends. The settlement he founded, Providence, was the first in the New World with complete religious liberty. Others persecuted for their religious beliefs followed, including Quakers, Jews, and Anne Hutchinson’s Anabaptists. The legacy of religious toleration persisted in the state. The oldest standing synagogue in America, Newport’s Touro Synagogue, has a letter on its wall to the congregation from George Washington, promising that the United States would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
Rhode Islanders’ independent spirit played an essential role in the lead up to the American revolution. Before Lexington, Concord, or even the Boston Tea Party, Rhode Islanders were resisting British laws violently. They fired cannons at HMS St John in 1764, boarded and burned HMS Liberty in 1769, and torched the grounded HMS Gaspee in 1772. Fittingly, Rhode Island was the last state to ratify the Constitution in 1790, considering the possibility of maintaining independence as a sovereign nation. They only signed once they were promised that the new Constitution would include a Bill of Rights.
Throughout its history, the state was a pioneer. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment was the first American all-Black unit during the forgotten Battle of Rhode Island, an engagement that brought together George Washington, Nathanael Greene, marquis de Lafayette, and Lord Richard Howe. America’s Industrial Revolution began at Slater Mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It was the first state to send troops to the Union Army after President Lincoln’s call for volunteers at the beginning of the Civil War.
Despite its powerful unions and influential Democratic establishment, it has kept its quirky individualism through the centuries. The state never ratified the federal prohibition on alcohol, legalized prostitution (only indoors), and recently voted to preserve the longest American state name, The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It remains the only majority Catholic state in the country.
So let’s take a moment to remember the important contributions our smallest state has made to our nation’s history.