The impact of the gaspee affair on the coming of the revolution, 1772-1773

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On an unseasonably warm Sunday for January, with temperatures reaching fifty degrees, Captain Symonds arrived at Newport with the commission and instructions. Boarding the Mercury he delivered his packet to Captain Keeler.1 At noon on the following day, January 4, the five commissioners met together at the Colony House, a distinguished two-story red brick building on the town square. Since their meeting was an informal one, the commissioners did not receive the royal documents at this time. In fact, the Governor pondered whether it was proper to defer opening the session until the Admiral had arrived.2 In the Admiral's absence Captain Keeler's attendance was requested.3 A disagreement among the commissioners and the British officers was one of the results of this meeting. The Reverend Mr. Stiles made mention of an exchange ". . . in which the Navy Officers shewed


1 Ezra Stiles to Rev. Elihu Spencer, at Trenton, New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Franklin Bowditch Dexter, ed., The Literary Diary of Ezra Stiles (New York: Charles Scribners, 1901), I, 345.

2 Joseph Wanton to Captain Keeler, Newport, 4 January, 1773, W. R. Staples, The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee (Knowles, Vose and Anthony, 1845), p. 24, University Microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

3 Ibid.



some Loftiness; but the Judges with some Spirit quickly gave them to understand their Subordination." 4 Whatever the misunderstanding the commissioners decided to open their hearings the next day.

Late Tuesday morning, January 5, Captain Robert Keeler, with ". . . about a dozen officer of the Men o' War," forming two ranks, ". . . marched in procession up the Parade . . ." to the Colony House.5 They waited in the council chamber for the commissioners who arrived about 11:30 a.m. An impressive crowd assembled in the chamber to hear the Governor's naval officer, James Clarke, read the commission:6

George the Third, by the grace of God, of Great Britain, France, Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c., to our Trusty and well beloved Joseph Wanton, Esquire, Governor of our Colony, called the English Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, in New England, in America; our trusty and well beloved Daniel Horsemanden, Esquire, our chief justice of our province of New York; our trusty and well beloved Peter Oliver, Esquire, our chief justice of our province of Massachusetts Bay, in New England; and our judge of our vice admiralty court, established at Boston, with jurisdiction in all causes arising within the limits of our colonies of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island and Connecticut, greeting . . . 7


4 Ezra Stiles to Rev. Elihu Spencer, at Trenton, New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 345.

5 Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 330. Newport Mercury, 11 January, 1773. Commissioners to John Montagu, 5 January, 1773, John R. Bartlett, ed., Records of the Colony of Rhode Islam! and Providence Plantations in New England (Providence, 1857), VII, 121. Stiles referred to the Colony House as the Courthouse.

6 Dexter. Stiles Diary. I, 330.

7 Royal Commission to the Commissioners of Inquiry, relative to the Destruction of the Gaspee," Bartlett, Records, VII, 108-110. The inclusion of Connecticut within the Jurisdiction of the Boston vice-admiralty district court was perhaps responsible for the earlier and erroneous idea that the Governor of Connecticut was one of the commissioners.


The commission described the surveillance of the colony's trade as the primary objective of Lieutenant Dudingston while he was stationed in Rhode Island. The document made reference to ". . . very many ill-disposed persons [who] dared, from time to time, in defiance of our laws and authority, to insult and otherwise hinder and obstruct . . ." Dudingston in his endeavors. The consummate insult had come on the evening of June 9 and early morning of June 10 when,

. . . great multitudes of people were assembled in our town of Newport, and places adjacent, in our said colony, and led on by two persons whom they called the head sheriff and the captain, and so proceeded in warlike manner, with armed boats, to attack our said schooner; and having dangerously wounded the said lieutenant, overpowered the crew, took, plundered and burnt our said vessel . . . .8

Because the King and his ministers wished to know how such an offense could have materialized in the very town where the Governor resided, his Majesty had instructed his appointees ". . . to inquire into and report . . . a full and true account of all the circumstances relative to the attacking and burning of our said schooner. . . ." The document designated Newport as the location of the schooner's destruction, and this error had not gone unnoticed by the assembled audience of Rhode Islanders.9


8 Ibid.

9 Ezra Stiles to Rev. Elihu Spencer, at Trenton, New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 346. In a letter of June 16, 1772, Joseph Wanton told Lord Hillsborough of Dudingston's harassment of large and small merchants in Rhode Island port towns, ". . . and particularly, the town of Newport, its metropolis [the colony's], whose inhabitants are principally supplied with the necessaries of life by water. . . ." Because Newport appeared to the town most inconvenienced by Dudingston's activities, and because two other vessels had been destroyed by Newporters, viz., the St. John and the Liberty the ministry might have assumed that Newporters destroyed the Gaspee.


In addition to a thorough examination of all ". . . insults and obstructions which have been given to the said Lieutenant Dudingston," 10 the commission was also instructed to investigate the preparations which had preceded the armed attack as well as the measures which had been taken by colonial magistrates for apprehending the conspirators. The commissioners were given full powers to summon any "persons, papers, and records" that might be of value to them. The Governor, Deputy Governor and other magistrates in Rhode Island were instructed "... to be in all things helpful, aiding and assisting ..." the commission.11

When Clarke had finished reading, the spectators were ordered from the council chamber.12 While some, including the ministry, had supposed that Newporters would offer resistance to the seating of the royal commissioners, no incident had in fact marred the opening session. On the contrary, the commissioners noted that the people ". . . behaved with great decency." 13


10 Royal Commission," Bartlett, Records, VII, 109.

11 Ibid.

12 Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 330.

13 Commissioners to the Earl of Dartmouth, 21 January, 1773, Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. A printed copy appears in Bartlett, Records, VII. 159. The Providence Gazette reported that Commissioner Oliver (the article did not mention him by name) ", . . writes to his brother in this town [Boston], that they are received there with great respect, and that they are like to make that place their winter quarters--others write, that their motions are carefully watched, and that it is not probable they will be suffered to execute a Commission so inconsistent with their own and Magna Charta." Providence Gazette, 23 January, 1773,


The commissioners began their deliberations with the interpretation of the five articles in their instructions.14 In the first article they were delegated powers to inquire into and report upon the burning, along with ". . . all such other powers and authorities as are judged necessary for that purpose." 15 In article two they were specifically instructed to uncover all the circumstances resting upon the vessel's destruction, the causes thereof, and the role of the civil magistrates in the affair. 16

Article three dealt with the power and authority of the colony's


14 Ezra Stiles to Rev. Elihu Spencer, at Trenton, New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 346. "Royal Instructions to the Commission of Inquiry," Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Island State Archives, Bartlett, Records, VII, 110-12.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid. Ezra Stiles spoke of two surprises in the commission and instructions; one being the error referring to Newport as the scene of the crime, and the other, the realization ". . . that they the Commissioners were impowered to inquire into and take Information concerning any Misdemeanors and Oppressions of the Officers of the Navy and Customs: This was a humbling stroke, very unexpected, and rendered them, not even the Admiral excepted, at the Mercy of all the Merchants, &c., whom they had Injured--for it is probable they had all to a man, by taking fees and bribes &.c. become liable to a loss of Office—at least it was a Rod over them. By this the Tory Bellowing and insolence was hushed." Stiles was probably alluding to this clause in the commission and instructions, viz., inquiring into all the circumstances. Lord Dartmouth's letter to Governor Wanton, however, was more explicit on this particular item. Perhaps Stiles derived his broader interpretation from the Dartmouth letter rather than from what he heard in the council chamber on the morning of January 5. Ezra Stiles to Rev. Elihu Spencer, at Trenton, New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Dexter, Stiles Diary, I. 346.


courts. The King commanded the civil magistrates and officers of Rhode Island to arrest and commit to custody anyone concerned in the attack. Since the local justices were to be partners in this judicial process the commissioners were instructed

. . . from time to time, [to] communicate to the said civil officers and magistrates, such informations as you shall be able to collect, touching the persons concerned in that daring attack upon our authority and commission, to the end that they may be accordingly arrested and delivered to the custody of the commander in chief or our said ships and vessels in North America, pursuant to such directions as we have thought fit to give for that purpose.17

In the fourth article the King asked his appointees

. . . to ascertain with the greatest precision, whether the offence was committed and done within the body of the colony; and if so, within what county or district thereof; and if not so, in what other place the said offence was committed and done.18

Finally they were empowered to draw upon the assistance of the commander-in-chief of military forces in North America, in the event that ". . . any disturbance shall arise, with a view to obstruct you in the execution of your duty. . . ." 19

After examining their instructions the commissioners concluded that Admiral Montagu's presence was necessary. In supporting this contention, they utilized a section in their instructions stating that any persons who should


17 "Instructions to the Commissioners of Inquiry," Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Island State Archives.




be arrested as a result of the commissioners' inquiry, shall be "... delivered to the custody of the commander-in-chief of our ships and vessels in North America, pursuant to such directions as we have thought fit to give for that purpose." 20 On that basis, the commissioners wrote Montagu a letter requesting his presence in Newport.21

Swearing allegiance to the Sovereign was one of the customary practices of commissioners appointed by the King. Chief Justice Daniel Horsmanden administered the oath to Governor Wanton, who in turn swore in the other four members.22 Two secretaries were appointed, James Brenton (who had defended Dudingston the previous July) and James Clarke, the colony's naval officer.23 Having convened nearly twelve hours before, they ended their long day with adjournment at 11:00 p.m., followed by supper at the home of one of the local residents.24


20 Commissioners to John Montagu, 5 January, 1773, Bartlett, Records, VII, 121. This is also printed in Staples, Documentary History, p. 26, University Microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

21 Ibid.

22 Proceedings of the Commissioners, 5 January, 1773, Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Island Stale Archives, Staples, Documentary History, p. 25, University Microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

23 Newport Mercury, 11 January, 1773. James Clarke is not to be confused with Samuel Clarke who served as a messenger, delivering summonses for the commissioners. Brenton, the other secretary, served only a few days, before moving to Halifax. Joseph Wanton to the Earl of Dartmouth, Rhode Island, April 15, 1774. Colonial Office 5:1285. Folio 433-36. Papers Relating to the Gaspee, compiled by Walter A. Edwards, Rhode Island Historical Society.

24 Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 330.


The next morning, Wednesday January 6, they drafted an advertisement for the Newport Mercury, inviting anyone to appear before them with information concerning the Gaspee affair.25 They adjourned until Thursday morning, at which time Governor Wanton presented his colleagues with correspondences sent to him previously. These letters referred to events prior to the burning of the schooner. Wanton also brought with him several other papers, particularly sworn depositions from various witnesses, many of whom had given their statements in the presence of the Deputy Governor the day after the attack.26

One of the accusations in the King's commission was leveled against the Rhode Island civil officials and what was thought to be their questionable diligence in attempting to uncover the identity of the people who burned the Gaspee and wounded her commander. Rhode Island's leaders were therefore more than willing to meet with the commissioners and attempt to clear the name of the colony as well as their own reputations. Deputy Governor Sessions and Chief Justice Hopkins came to Newport for this purpose on the day the Commissioners convened. An unofficial meeting was arranged at the Newport residence of Governor Wanton. When the Deputy Governor later paid a visit to the Reverend Mr. Stiles, the cleric became knowledgeable of the substance


25 Proceedings of the Commissioners, 6 January, 1773, Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Inland State Archives. Staples, Documentary History, p. 25, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

26 Bid., 7 January, 1773. Staples, Documentary History, p. 25.


of their talks. Referring to their meeting, he wrote:

The design of this was--that Mr. Sessions as Governor of one of the Chief Magistrates of the Colony, should notify the Commissioners that there had been no Neglect or Connivance in Government, that neither he nor any of the Civil Officers in Providence had knowledge of the Design of Violence to the Gaspee or her people till the next day, that he immediately issued Warrants, went in person &c. and took all measures that could legally be taken for detecting and bringing the perpetrators to Justice . . . .27

With the exception of Peter Oliver, Frederick Smythe was probably the most ardent friend of the crown. He wished to know if the forthcoming Rhode Island grand jury intended to make inquiry into the attack. He was told, probably by Hopkins, that the legal procedure in Rhode Island was to charge grand juries with general inquiries rather than examination into specific charges.28

Daniel Horsmanden asked questions also, but unlike Smythe's impersonal directness, the New York chief justice broached his queries "in a friendly manner . . ." 29 When Horsmanden inquired about the real cause of the Gaspee's destruction, Sessions and Hopkins attributed it to the Lieutenant:

. . . the true Cause was the Insolence of Duddingston, his Rapine and desultory Management, which were such, and his Conduct in general so absurd, that in Truth they did not then believe that he had a King's Commission (supposing him to be only such another absurd piratical Servitor to the Navy and Customs . . . 30


27 Ezra Stiles to Rev. Elihu Spencer, at Trenton. New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Dexter, Stiles Diary, I. 346.

28 Ibid.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid., 346-47.


A tacit understanding among the commissioners and the Rhode Island officials was one of the most important results of their discussions. The commissioners allayed the fears of Sessions and Hopkins by assuring them that no one would be arrested or delivered to the Admiral, by anyone other than the regular judicial officials in the colony.31 The commissioners were construing their powers rather narrowly. Few could charge that they intended to circumvent the local courts in Rhode Island. Although Stiles described the wording of the commission to be like ". . . the Oracles of Appolo, somewhat ambiguous and indeterminate . . .", he noted optimistically of the commissioners:

There became reason to think that the Commissioners themselves did not and would not understand themselves clearly impowered to take up and commit to the Admiral alone and by themselves: but that if such a Transaction should proceed from them, it should however proceed upon, in and by the executive internal Judiciary Authority of this Colony--Jurisdiction and not without it. I do not say the Commissioners communicated this. It is enough that Gov. Sessions and Chief Justice Hopkins were made assured of it.32

At the official request of the commissioners, Sessions and Hopkins made their appearance on Thursday, January 7. The Deputy Governor gave his assurance that he had done all within his legal power to bring the offenders to Justice. Hopkins made a similar pledge to try any suspects who were duly indicted by the commissioners.33 Hopkins and Sessions assured the Governor


31 Ibid., 347.

32 Ibid.

33 Ibid., 346.


and his four colleagues that they intended to deliver written statements concerning all that they knew regarding the burning. Similar promises were offered by judges Metcalf Bowler and James Helme, Hopkins' associates on the Superior Court.

When they reconvened on Friday, the commissioners examined one witness briefly and then chose to defer further examinations until hearing from Admiral Montagu. Captain Symonds brought them a letter from the


34 In part, Bowler wrote that because he was ". . . impressed with a regard for the dignity of the Crown, and the welfare of the colony, I now tender my assistance, whenever it shall be necessary. ..." He also agreed to apprehend people who had been indicted by the commission. Metcalf Bowler to the Commissioners, 11 January, 1773, Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Staples, Documentary History, p. 31, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan. Bartlett, Records, VII, 132.
Bowler later became a British spy during the American Revolution. Under the pseudonyms of "Rusticus" and "S.H." he wrote several letters to Sir Henry Clinton, one of three major generals sent to America at the commencement of hostilities. Bowler came to America from England in 1743 where he had received his early education. While in Rhode Island he became a successful merchant, politician and judge. He represented the town of Portsmouth in the General Assembly for several years. He was Speaker of the House for nineteen years, in addition to being a judge of the superior court, and successor to Chief Justice Stephen Hopkins when the latter died. Jane Clark, "Metcalf Bowler as a British Spy," Rhode Island Historical Society Collections. XXIII. No. 4 (October, 1930), 102-03. N. P. Bowler, compiler, Bowler Genealogy: Record of the Descendants of Charles Bowler England, 1740, American who settled in Newport Rhode Island (Cleveland: The Forman-Bassett-Hatch Co., 1905 ), pp., 11-12. For reference to James Helme see Dexter, Stiles Diary, 20 January, 1773, I, 338.

35 Proceedings of the Commissioners, 8 January, 1773, Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Staples, Documentary History, p. 26, University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.


admiral on Saturday. Montagu revealed his displeasure at having to leave Boston, and added that he was coming at great inconvenience to himself and at considerable disruption to naval matters at Boston and Halifax.36

He took issue with the assertion that his presence alone was required at Newport. As he interpreted Lord Dartmouth's letter, either he could attend or "'. . . such officer as he shall appoint. . . .'" 37 He complained that in addition to his naval duties his trip would require that an appropriate fleet of ships accompany him as directed by the Lords of the Admiralty.38 But Boston weather prevented their sailing at this time of the year. Ezra Stiles ascribed different motivations to the Admiral's unwillingness to travel:

. . . the Admiral felt a Reluctance at being present; probably for 2 Reasons, the slenderness of evidence he had to produce in so momentous a Cause and some Notice that he had brought a Commission over his own head. Be the reasons as they might, he was greatly adverse to coming, and with the Commission sent a dubious Notice that he might come by Wednesday, If Business permitted. I think there were three Messages to get him here; the last however whether 2d or 3d, I knew would fetch him, for it went with an Authority which the Admiral dared not to withstand--had he not come the Judges would have returned without &c. and cast the Obstruction at his Door: besides they had power at least to call all the Crown Officers before them.39


36 John Montagu to the Commissioners, 8 January, 1773, Boston, Gaspee Commission Papers, Rhode Island State Archives. Staples, Documentary History, p. 26. University microfilms, American Culture Series, University of Michigan.

37 Ibid.

38 Ibid.

39 Ezra Stiles to Rev. Elihu Spencer, at Trenton, New Jersey, Newport, 16 February, 1773, Dexter, Stiles Diary, I, 346.


On Monday, January 11, Montagu left Boston by coach. His appraisal of the condition of the rivers was correct; water travel was impossible.40 He traveled to Newport via Taunton, Massachusetts (It was rumored that he feared having to pass through Providence, and therefore chose a more circuitous route). Near Swanse
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