This week’s column continues with the political theme we began last week. The takeaway here is that the 21st century does not have the market cornered on political controversy. Imagine if our tiny little Rhode Island had been sliced up into two even tinier states. It nearly happened; read on!
I guess it is common knowledge that Rhode Island was the last of the original thirteen colonies to ratify the Constitution of the fledgling democracy which George Washington and his compatriots were attempting to form, but I don’t believe everyone is aware of how close a vote it truly was. The final tally on the third convention on the subject was 34 to 32 in favor of adoption, and that was only after much arm twisting, hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth by the powers-that-be in both Providence, where the majority of the pro-Constitution folks were centered, and Congress itself. Every time a vote was taken, North Kingstown, like most of the other southern agriculturally-based communities, voted against ratification. The responsibility to cast those dissenting votes fell into the hands of two able locals, Bowen Card and William Congdon.
Card and Congdon were North Kingstown born and bred. They were men of importance in the community; Bowen Card was the collector of excise tax for the county in 1787, the surveyor for the port of North Kingstown in 1789, a Justice of the Peace, and a ranking member of the local militia. William Congdon was a respected man of law. They were most certainly busy men in those heady days of 1789 and 1790. The state at first refused to even hold a convention to vote on the constitution. Frustrated, the Congress struck back by saying that once nine states ratified it, it would become the law of the land and those not under its umbrella were on their own. Finally the General Assembly voted to refer the question to each individual town, and after much heated discussion, it was summarily rejected. Rhode Islanders on the whole were against the idea of a united Federal government having the ability to tax the people of the state. George Washington called Rhode Island’s position “scandalous” and James Madison spoke of the “wickedness and folly that reigned.” The ever-envious colony of Massachusetts, who had always coveted Narragansett Bay, as expected, called for Rhode Island to be divided up between herself and Connecticut. The folks in Congress struck again with tariff restrictions which hit the businessmen in Providence and the metropolitan communities that surround it hard. They started to come around, but still the townsfolk in the rural west and the Swamp Yankees of southern RI held out saying no to taxes. (Not much has changed when you think about it.) Card and Congdon were certainly in the thick of it as North Kingstown’s representatives. Another Convention was called for and held in South Kingstown and still the results were the same—no Constitution without weaker Federal powers and stronger State’s rights. Congress and Providence had had enough. Finally, in May 1790, Providence, with the backing of the Federal Congress, threatened to break away from the agricultural western and southern portions of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Rather than become two separate states, another convention was held, and it was voted, with that plurality of two, to ratify the Constitution. Card and Congdon, independent to the bitter end, voted against it.