CHAPTER I. - NEW ENGLAND COLONIES.
4. RHODE ISLAND.
Rhode Island, owing to the practically independent and republican character of its government passed through the transition period without feeling the necessity of any change in constitution. The Governor was out of sympathy with the majority of the colonists, but he was quietly deposed in November, 1775, and Deputy-Governor Cooke elected in his place. The magistrates and other officials kept on in their duty, the Assembly was chosen as usual under the provisions of the charter, and the inhabitants were not subjected to the rule of irresponsible conventions.
In Governor Cooke the people possessed a capable executive and there was no need therefore of a committee of the assembly to take that position. But the Governor was not given independent war powers. The legislature retained as complete control in its own sphere as before, and when it was not in session it appointed during the war a Recess Committee to take its place. This Committee corresponds to the Committee of Safety of the other colonies although it did not bear that name. It was first called the Committee Appointed to Act in the Recess of the Assembly. The body that was christened the Committee of Safety in Rhode Island was a subordinate committee appointed by the legislature in the spring of 1775, whose care it was to supply the troops with arms, tents, provisions and every other necessity and to pay them. The Recess Committee was later called the Grand Committee of Safety, or sometimes only the Grand Committee.
It came into being as a means of carrying out a plan of General Washington. August 14, 1775, Washington wrote Deputy-Governor Cooke proposing that he send a ship from Rhode Island to seize the powder on one of the Bermuda Islands, which it was believed was only protected by a small guard. Such an expedition could not be undertaken without authority granted by the Assembly, but it was injudicious to lay a plan whose success was secrecy before so large a body. The Governor therefore proposed and the legislature agreed that a committee should be appointed to serve during the recess to transact all business on which the common safety depended and particularly to employ the Colony's two ships of war. Before this Committee Governor Cooke laid Washington's project and they agreed to make the attempt. Captain Whipple was dispatched with one of the ships, but the expedition was a failure, as ships from more southern colonies had previously visited the island and captured the powder.
Although its first work was thus unremunerative, similar committees were appointed to represent the legislature in its recess from this time until December, 1776. The Governor and Deputy-Governor were members, usually a part of the assistants (sometimes the whole body), and twelve or thirteen deputies, making about seventeen or nineteen in all. Such other members of the General Assembly as cared to do so could be present and vote. It was thus possible for the Committee to pass into the regular Assembly and back again to a committee, as interest in the subjects tinder discussion varied the attendance.
Such a body could not be given duties differing and sharply defined from those of the Assembly itself, since it would not be possible for the Committee to tell at the beginning of a session in what capacity it would be acting at its close. No attempt was made indeed to define its powers. In an appointment made August, 1775, it was authorizers to exert in the recess the whole force and strength of the Colony for its defense and safety upon any sudden emergency or danger, to act therefore for the time being with the authority of the provincial government. It is to be noted that this jurisdiction was to be assumed only when peril threatened the Colony so suddenly that the Assembly could not be brought together in time to act. It was not to carry on the ordinary business of the government and unless danger suddenly darkened, might not be called upon to act at all.
The powers of the Committee appointed in March, 1776, and of those chosen later, were broadened somewhat-as the progress of the war made the danger snore constant. These Committees were directed to transact all such business as the exigency of public affairs in the recess of the General Assembly might require. While, therefore, the usual civil legislation and administration were not within its sphere, such business as related to continuing the defense of the colony and stationing of the militia, the providing of fortifications, and restraining troublesome Tories were in its hands. Whatever steps it took, however, were to be reported to the next Assembly for approval. As the Committee included the Governor as well as representatives of the Assembly and was at once an executive and legislative body it would find no difficulty or friction in embodying its plans in action.
We find it raising and embodying troops and forwarding their march. One of the ships of war was sent by its order en a cruise against the British and later to Philadelphia for flour. It dispatched two row galleys and certain of the troops to New London. to cooperate with Governor Trumbull in an attempt on Long Island. When in December, 1776, the British fleet appeared and threatened the State, the Committee ordered all the militia under arms and a new regiment was drafted and its officers appointed.
An embargo was laid on privateers and merchant vessels in order to aid in recruiting the Rhode Island ships of war and the live stock on exposed parts was driven into places of more security. The Committee's acts seem to have met the approval of the Assembly and the records show no instance in which any of its acts was repealed.
We have seen that the indefinite size of the Committee prevented its having well-defined powers. It must also have been a hindrance to a consistent policy, since one day's or one hour's majority might be outvoted in the next. It was too large as well. Its permanent nucleus was about nineteen members and the addition of others from the Assembly must soon have changed it to a deliberative body with divisions and factions, and every difficulty to prompt action. It was, therefore, an improvement when it was superseded by the Council of War.
This Council which was definitely composed, on its first appointment, of the Governor, Deputy-Governor and eight members of the House of Deputies, was chosen by the Assembly in December, 1776. The British had taken the island of Rhode Island and it was necessary to secure to the Colony a continuous and capable government to deal with the crisis. That no time might be lost in waiting for absent members the Governor and his Deputy with four Assistants were declared a quorum of the upper house and twenty-one deputies a quorum of the lower house. To take their place in the recess, the Council of War was appointed. Any five of its members were authorized "to transact every thing and matter for the well-being and security" of the State and of the United States. It was to make all orders and rules for governing, disciplining, clothing and supplying the army raised by Rhode Island and by the neighboring States for its aid, and all such rules were to be of as full force as if passed by the General Assembly. The Governor was asked to write the other New England States, informing them of the appointment of the Council and requesting them to appoint committees to meet with it at Providence to discuss the question of raising an army against the British.
The name, "Council of War" was familiar to Rhode Island. In 1740 when the alliance of France and Spain made the Colony look closer to its arms and revise its militia system, a permanent Council of War had been appointed, of the Governor, the Council, the field-officers and captains. Again in 1755 a Committee of War had been chosen by the Assembly to have general direction of military matters, during the Seven Years War.
In accordance with the wish of the Assembly, Governor Cooke wrote to New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Connecticut that the authority of the government of Rhode Island considered itself inadequate to organize and direct an army collected front the different States : that a Council of War had therefore been appointed with full power to act in this matter with such committees as should be chosen by the rest of New England. The States responded by sending three delegates each, to Providence. Three members of the Council of War represented Rhode Island and Stephen Hopkins was chosen President. The Convention thus formed voted to raise six thousand men and assigned the quotas that each State should send. All act to prevent monopolies and a recommendation. that no more paper money be issued were also passed.
The activity of the Council of War was not bounded by this Convention. however, since it carried on the government in the military department in the recess of the Assembly. Like councils were appointed from 1776 to October, 1781. The surrender of Cornwallis then brought the hope of peace, and tile war pressure being removed, the ordinary organs of government Were found sufficient. The Council was, until the spring of 1781, a large body, vary-Ill- after the first appointment from seventeen to nineteen members, but in the last two appointments the number was reduced to five. It always included the Governor and Deputy-Governor, representatives of the lower house and usually a few of the Assistants. Complaints having arisen that the State was unequally represented in the Council, in October, 1778, and thereafter the members were drawn proportionally from the different counties. Unless four (later three) counties were present the Council was deemed incapable of passing any resolution.
It was always given some remuneration and the different amounts received are indicative of the common currency troubles. The members of the first Council were paid nine shillings a day, if they lived outside of Providence, where the meetings were held, six if they were residents of that town. A later Council received six dollars a day, another six pounds, and by Hay, 1780, each man Was entitled to a nominal salary of thirty pounds a day in lawful money. A year later their compensation, reckoned in silver, amounted to fifteen shillings a day. Whether the Assembly, placing but a moderate estimate on its utility, wished to limit its sessions, as a matter of economy, is not certain, but two acts were passed in 1778 to thus restrain it. Bar the first it was recommended to the Council of War to meet at the expense of the State no more than six days in every other week unless the Governor should consider it imperative. Sunday meetings were forbidden except on great and urgent occasions. In September it was voted that the Council continue in session but four days at a time in its monthly meetings.
Up to 1780 the Council's power over the militia was substantially that of the legislature, save that it was always
in the latter's power to repeal or reverse any of the orders which it considered ill advised. It might within this limit raise and equip the forces, call them into service and order them to different stations. Its control of the Colony's continental quota was hampered by the superior authority of the continental officers. Here it did not command but recommended, and its suggestions were not always followed. In May, 1780, the Council advised General Heath to order Colonel Green's regiment to march at once to join the army. Washington, however, considered the regiment too small to give material reinforcement at that time and therefore decided that it should remain where it was. Later in the same year the Council wished a part of Colonel Green's men to be used to make hay, but the request was refused, because Washington desired the regiment kept in close and constant discipline.
The Council had power to appoint and commission officers. It was also occasionally given authority to examine them for misconduct and dismiss them if found culpable. Any commissioned officer in the navy of the State could be tried before it in court martial.'
While the Committee of Safety generally furnished the war supplies the Council of War not infrequently acted independently in this matter, procuring the articles of which it saw the army was in immediate need, which included a miscellaneous list of beds, wheelbarrows, soap, duck, sulphur and leather. Ships were permitted to leave for southern ports to bring back war stores of which the Council of War was to have the refusal, and occasionally the Council sent a venture ill a ship of its own. Wood for the soldiers' fires was a pre=sing necessity and the Council arranged that it should be supplied weekly by the different towns, the town councils assessing it on the individuals. Often men were excused from militia duty on condition of bringing in wood to sell to the State.
While the continental embargo lasted permits for exports were granted from the Council of War. It attempted at one time to impose further restrictions within the State by prohibiting any provisions necessary for the army from being taken from the town of Providence, but this act was found so injurious in its operation that it was promptly repealed by the legislature when it met. When commercial restrictions imposed by another colony injured Rhode Island the Council was quick to protest against the impolicy of the system and urge the abrogation of the laws. Besides license to export, permission to leave the State or to remove into it was to be obtained from the Council of War.
The Assembly gave to the Council as full power over the treasury as it enjoyed itself, and no money could be drawn thence without an order from one of the two bodies. Certain. accounts were given from time to time into the hands of the Council to adjust and settle. Thus the Committee of Safety was ordered to lay its account relative to paying certain demands against the State before it for adjustment. The same order was given to the State Commissary and to the tax-gatherers who had been given the duty of collecting stockings for the troops in different towns. In September, 1780, it was directed to appoint a stated time when all persons having accounts with the State should appear before it, in order that they might be settled. The Council authorized the issue of paper money and negotiated loans.
The Tories of Rhode Island were subject to the same espionage and to the same arbitrary treatment that were their portion throughout the thirteen colonies. In the recess of the Assembly the Council of War often took its place in the arrest, examination and punishment of suspects. The legislature referred cases to them which it was probably too busy to handle, without other advice or restriction than that it should proceed in such manner as should be most consistent with the "safety of the state;" a phrase which might countenance the most arbitrary measures. The Council of War, combining as it did judicial and executive functions and given free rein by the legislature, was well adapted to administer speedy retribution to any Tory who could not satisfy his neighbor of the purity of his sympathy with the American cause. The Council of War was not the only court of trial for the Tories. There existed as well special committees appointed by the Assembly to examine into the conduct of those who were suspected of hostility to the cause or who carried on forbidden intercourse with the enemy. Suspects were in the later years of the war often tried before the Superior Court of Judicature.
The commission given the first Council of War was followed in subsequent appointments till 1780, when the pressure of danger which had justified its extensive authority was passing away, and the Assembly held it expedient to place some limitation on its power. It enacted therefore that the Council of War should be authorized to make all orders and regulations of an executive nature in both civil and military matters, but only in cases that required immediate attention, while the power of legislation was definitely denied. In May, 1781, it was further restricted to making only such regulations of a military nature as needed sudden and immediate dispatch. The limiting of the Council's activity to cases of pressing and sudden necessity which lasted to the close of its career, placed it in the position of the first recess committees, thus bringing it from the height to which danger had raised it to the level from which it had sprung. November 24, 1781, the Council adjourned sine die.
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