Rhode Island declared its independence two months before the other 12 colonies got around to formally breaking ties with King George III.
On May 4, 1776, the General Assembly of the Colony of Rhode Island declared its absolute independence from Great Britain. The members voted nearly unanimously, thus making Rhode Island the first independent sovereign state in the western world.
The colony drew on its traditions of radical religious dissent and protection of its commercial interests. Newport and Providence, both prosperous centers of transatlantic trade, sheltered pirates and smugglers. Britain wanted that stopped. Rhode Island merchants chafed at the mother country’s attempts to tighten control over commercial shipping in Narragansett Bay.
Insult and Injury
Many Rhode Island merchants engaged in the triangle trade. They sold rum to Africa in exchange for slaves. Then they sold slaves to West Indian sugar plantations in exchange for molasses, an ingredient in rum.
Parliament passed the Sugar Act of 1764, raising the tariff on molasses. That provoked Rhode Islanders into attacking the customs ship HMS St. John that year. In 1769, Rhode Islanders burned another customs ship, HMS Liberty, in Newport Harbor.
In 1772, the British customs ship HMS Gaspee grounded near Warwick. Abraham Whipple and John Brown led the Sons of Liberty in attacking, looting, boarding and burning the vessel. A Royal Commission of Inquiry charged the men with treason, and the prospect of Americans going to England for trial sent an alarm through the colonies. Ultimately the Commission dropped the matter.
Rhode Island Independence
Fast forward to 1776, when Rhode Island was in the thick of the American Revolution. The colony’s long coastline had little protection from British naval forces, which harassed the islands and mainland. Eventually, the British occupied Newport.
That is why Rhode Island independence happened two months before the rest of the colonies got around to it.
On May 4, 1776, the General Assembly met in Providence to perform the last official act in colonial Rhode Island. Jonathan Arnold drew up the bill that repealed an act of allegiance to the king. It enacted an oath of allegiance to the state. It also decreed that all court proceedings should be performed in the name of the state, not of the king. The bill replaced “God save the King” with the phrase “God save the United Colonies.”
The General Assembly also gave instructions to William Ellery and Stephen Hopkins, Rhode Island representatives to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia.
Two days later, Gov. Nicholas Cooke wrote a letter to Gen. George Washington, saying, “I also enclose a copy of an Act discharging the inhabitants of this Colony from allegiance to the King of Great Britain, which was carried in the House of Deputies, after a debate, with but six dissentient voices, there being upwards of sixty members present.”
On July 4, 1776 in Philadelphia, Stephen Hopkins picked up a pen and supported his shaking right hand with his left as he signed the Declaration of Independence.
The Rhode Islander famously remarked:
My hand trembles, but my heart does not.
This story about Rhode Island independence was updated in 2022.