January 20, 2017
6 Weird Political Facts from RI History
Today is inauguration day for President-elect Trump, shown by polls to be one of the most unpopular presidents in decades. Some say the country is entering a new period with untold potential; others feel that America has taken a sharp right turn onto Crazy Street. Differing opinions aside, everyone can agree that politics probably won’t be the same. But, the political game has always been a bit chaotic, and Little Rhody’s history is ripe with examples. Here are six facts that prove politics (in RI at least) have always been a little nuts:
We once had five state capitals simultaneously, one for each county.
Before 1854, our little state had a whopping five state capitals. The acting government rotated between each county (it had to be fair after all). The number of capitals slowly dwindled down to two in 1854, but it wasn’t until 1901 that Providence was elected the one and only seat of government.
Roger Williams was the ultimate political rebel (and a huge inspiration to our founding fathers).
The rights and liberties we now take for granted, like freedom of religion and separation of church and state, were popularized and put into action by none other than Roger Williams. Rhode Island became a “lively experiment” for unorthodox systems of government that would later be adopted into the mainstream. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who famously penned the Constitution and Bill of Rights, drew inspiration from his work.
We were the first state to declare independence from Britain and the last to sign the Constitution.
Apparently Rhode Island has a stubborn streak. A bit miffed at the British ships prowling our waters and searching our boats, we declared independence on May 4th, 1776, two months before the rest of the colonies. Then, when the rest of the freed colonies drafted up a new Constitution for the country, we refused to send a representative. It took two years and the threat of exorbitant export taxes from neighboring states to make RI agree to the document.
The state once had two constitutions, two elections, and two governors at the same time — and a mini civil war to boot.
RI hasn’t always been the democratic utopia it is today. Back in 1841, the only people allowed to vote were the Mr. Monopolys, and they had a stranglehold on the state government. A lot of the non-Mr. Monopolys didn’t like that very much. They wrote up a new constitution that opened up the vote to a larger chunk of the population, and they unofficially elected a new state government with Thomas Dorr as governor. In response, the wealthy elite wrote their own constitution and declared martial law in an effort to crack down on the political dissidents. So began the Dorr Rebellion. Shots were fired, rebel and government troops assembled, and Governor Dorr was arrested, but major violence was avoided. In the end, the impromptu government and constitution were dissolved. Unnerved by the whole ordeal, the rich politicians granted the vote to American-born men of all races–ladies and Native Americans would have to wait.
We were the only state to skip Prohibition.
While the rest of the country decided it was best to put the booze away, RI refused to sign the 18th Amendment. Rumrunners and distillers rejoiced at the state’s decision, and Rhode Island became a hotbed of alcohol production, distribution and exportation.
Although more akin to legal history than political, we had the first automobile speeding violation.
In 1904, Judge Darius Baker arrested a Newport resident for going a whopping fifteen miles an hour, earning the miscreant a five day sentence. Proud of our heritage, we Rhode Islanders maintain the long tradition of speeding to this day.