It is a small body of water almost surrounded by land, and a large part of its land is entirely surrounded by water. The State is smaller and has a longer shore line, excepting Maine, than any other State in the Union. It has, moreover, the longest official name, which if placed on the map would stretch across the Atlantic. The “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” is still the official title. “But where,” asks the inquirer after truth, “are the Providence Plantations?” They exist in the preamble of the Constitution and in certain legal forms only. Evidently a real estate exploitation which never materialized was here forecasted.
Some of its territory seems to have drifted far away, for Block Island, sixty miles to the southwest, is a portion of the county of Newport. Fisheres Island, on the other hand, though only three miles from the Rhode Island mainland, is a part of New York State. It’s a wonder the Rhode Islanders did not swap with the Dutch, but the latter always were cautious.
Rhode Island is about the size of a small Western ranch, with an extreme length of forty-seven and a half miles. It is the most densely populated State in the Union, with 598 to the square mile. Yet one fourth of the State is woodland, and five sixths of it has a population of less than fifty to the square mile. Ninety per cent of the population is concentrated in one sixth of its area. In the decade from I899 to 1909, Rhode Island had a greater increase (26.6%) than any other eastern State except New Jersey.
Narragansett Bay is the chief asset of the State, making possible both Providence and Newport. Verazzano, its first European explorer, who chanced here in 1520, stayed for some time in the Bay in friendly converse with the Indians and waxed enthusiastic over the region and its “five small islands of great fertility and beauty covered with lofty trees.” In place of the “lofty trees” we now have bare rocks, but the beauty of color and water has not departed.
Rhode Island has always been different. It was founded by the people driven out of the Bay Colony, and grew through an influx of Baptists, Quakers, Jews, and others who were not tolerated in the neighboring regions. “The smallest of the New England colo
vies had features all its own,” wrote Francis Parkman, “the rest were substantially one in nature and origin.” James Bryce says,”Of all the American states, Rhode Island is that one which best deserves the study of the philosophic historian.” She ought to have her historic novelist, too, for there is much neglected material for romance. The “triangular trade” in molasses, rum, and niggers, the eighteenth-century feudal life of her lords in velvet coats on their great plantations cultivated by slave labor, the romance of her naval heroes, are all worthy themes unsung. Eighteenth-century life in Rhode Island, especially in “South County,” had much in common with Virginia. The climate and soil, the flora, wild rhododendrons and holly, the great plantations, must have floated up from the southern commonwealth in some unrecorded era.
Rhode Islandes Colonial assembly declared its independence of Great Britain on May 4, 1776, two months prior to the famous Act in Philadelphia. Rhode Island fired the first gun against the dominion of the British Crown; the first blood of the war of the Revolution was spilled in Narragansett Bay. Four years before Bostones `Tea Party,’ six years before the Battle of Lexington, the men of Newport sank his Royal Majesty’s armed sloop “Liberty,” and in 1772 they burned H. M. S. “Gaspee.”
Rhode Island was the first State to create a navy of her own. Its command was turned over to Abraham Whipple, who fired the first cannon in the Revolution, June 15, 1775, and captured the first prize, the tender of the British frigate “Rose” then off Newport. The State, elated by its success, was the first to urge upon Congress the establishment of a Continental navy, and Congress designated Rhode Island to execute the plans. The commander-in-chief and three fourths of all the officers were Rhode Islanders. The State has given us two of our foremost naval heroes, the brothers Oliver Hazard Perry, the victor of Lake Erie, and Matthew Galbraith Perry, who opened up Japan.
Rhode Island was founded as a “lively experiment” in the science of government, the first democracy based on religious freedom, and absolute separation of church and state. This was too fast a pace to keep up, and for the last century or so the State has been of the most conservative tendencies.
The citizens of Rhode Island enjoy a limited suffrage, but it has been their custom to depute minor political affairs to the blind boss Brayton, and its national affairs have been generally managed by its senior senator. With such training it is no wonder that the late Senator Aldrich finally became the General Manager of the U.S.A.
If Rhode Island is not soon relieved of its stigma of reaction, it will not be the fault of the present “Governor of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Largely to his credit is the recent record for liberal legislation of this wealthy little Commonwealth. There have been placed upon the statute books a parole law, a juvenile court law, a stronger employers’ liability law, and more recently Governor Beeckman has recommended the elimination of the property qualification for suffrage.