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29. Rhode Island Holds Out

Almost on cue, now the Constitution received its first positive and emphatic setback. Predictably it came from Rogues’ Island. Little Rhode Island had been the only state that had staunchly, though by a close margin, refused to send delegates to the Constitution Convention. Now, in March 1788 the Rhode Island Assembly refused to call a state convention, and instead, by a heavy majority, it very democratically decided to turn this momentous decision over to the people in the various towns of the state. The Assembly thus overrode the absurd decision of the Federalist minority that the state was somehow duty-bound to hold a convention even if the majority were opposed.

The Federalists had quickly squashed an attempt in Massachusetts to turn the voting over to the towns, and now they boycotted the vote in most of the towns of Rhode Island. Hence, the vote of twenty-eight towns against the Constitution as against two in favor (Bristol and Little Compton) is quite misleading. The fact that almost no one voted in the two big port towns of Providence and Newport shows that both places were overwhelmingly Federal. Professor Main, correcting for the towns with an abysmally low total vote, estimates the true reflection of town sentiment in Rhode Island as twenty-three or twenty-four opposed to the Constitution, seven or six in favor (including the two main commercial centers of Providence and Newport, the bay towns of Bristol, Little Compton, Warren, and Jamestown, and Westerly on the old Narragansett coast). Once again the struggle over the Constitution was commercial-navigational versus rural-interior. Of the fourteen Rhode Island towns on the coast or bay, half were for and half were against the Constitution (and the two large ports were in favor); of the sixteen inland towns every single one was Antifederalist. The slave-plantation owners of the Narragansett lands also tended to be much less inimical to the Constitution than the rest of the interior.17

  • 17. [Editor’s footnote] Main, The Antifederalists, pp. 212–13.
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