Country Party (Rhode Island)
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Rhode Island's political Country Party controlled the Rhode Island General Assembly from 1786 to 1790 and opposed the Federalist Party, which supported the U.S. Constitution. The Federalists were largely from the "town" of Providence, Rhode Island, while the Country Party members were from the surrounding rural areas.
The Country Party opposed the U.S. Constitution largely because of civil liberties concerns leading to support for the Bill of Rights, distrust of distant government, opposition to slavery in the Constitution, and disagreements about monetary policy, specifically Rhode Island's desire to honor state-issued paper currency as legal tender.
Control of the General Assembly
Rhode Island's movement for state independence lasted long after the passage of the Constitution in 1788. The state was the first of the thirteen colonies to declare independence from Great Britain, passing legislation asserting its independence prior to the United States Declaration of Independence—and it was the last of the colonies to ratify the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation, and it created a stronger national government than had existed under the Articles.
Scituate's William West and South Kingstown's Jonathan Hazard were leaders of the rural Country Party which opposed the Constitution. The party "was suspicious of the power and the cost of a government too far removed from the grass-roots level, and so it declined to dispatch delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787, which drafted the United States Constitution. Then, when that document was presented to the states for ratification, Hazard's faction delayed (and nearly prevented) Rhode Island's approval."
Quakers were among those in Rhode Island who opposed the Constitution; they were opposed to it largely because of its sanctioning of slavery. Baptists were also opposed, as one of the largest denominations in Rhode Island who had historically been persecuted by various governments. Many were also concerned that the government created by the Constitution would violate natural rights, and they wanted a Bill of Rights to protect individual liberties. In the rural areas of Rhode Island, citizens wanted to ensure that their paper currency was redeemable as legal tender in the future.
William West's protest
William West led nearly 1,000 armed rural farmers to Providence to protest an ox roast celebration and toast to the Constitution on the 4th of July in 1788 (shortly after the ninth state had ratified it). A compromise was reached between the federalists and anti-federalists and civil war was averted; the federalists agreed to celebrate only independence and not the adoption of the Constitution. The incident was widely reported in newspapers throughout the thirteen colonies. Resistance to the Constitution remained strong, however, and Rhode Island was the last of the 13 colonies to ratify it in 1790.
Passage of the U.S. Constitution
The Legislature delayed a constitutional convention eleven times, then finally called for a convention in South Kingstown (specifically the village of Kingston) in March 1790. They failed to reach a majority, so another convention was held in Newport in May 1790; there, the Constitution narrowly passed after several anti-federalists absented themselves and Governor John Collins decided to support the Constitution, which eventually cost him his office. Rhode Island was the last of the original 13 states to ratify the Constitution in 1790 and ratified it by the narrowest margin of any state: 34 votes to 32. The United States Constitution went into effect when George Washington was inaugurated as president on April 30, 1789; so, technically speaking, Rhode Island was an independent nation for one year until it ratified the Constitution.
Rhode Islanders retaliated for Collins's switch to supporting the Constitution by electing anti-federalist Arthur Fenner as governor for the next 15 years. After passage of the Constitution, some Country Party leaders were left bankrupt, such as William West, because the federal government refused to honor the state's paper money as legal tender.
The Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution in 1791, largely because of Rhode Island's and North Carolina's concerns for the protection of natural rights.
- "Chapter 3: The Revolutionary Era, 1763-1790". Rhode Island General Assembly. Retrieved July 7, 2014.
- Staples, William R. (1843). The Town of Providence, From Its First Settlement, to the Organization of the City Government, in June, 1832. Providence, RI: Knowles and Vose. pp. 332–335. Retrieved July 7, 2014.