The Traditional Narrative of the Gaspee Affair
Patriot fervor seemed to have cooled in the months and years following the Boston Massacre in 1770. All of the taxes of the 1760s had been repealed, save on tea, and the famous Boston Tea Party was still more than one year off. The Admiralty had purchased several sloops and schooners after the French and Indian War to patrol the rich fishing areas off of Eastern Canada and Cape Cod. The Sons of Liberty in Rhode Island were not pleased that one of those vessels, His Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee was patrolling, quite effectively, the waters of Narragansett Bay. Rhode Island’s patriots followed a time-tested script of issuing warrants for the arrest for those they considered “rogue” sea officers; but one night something went horribly wrong.
The common account of the Gaspee affair tells the story of the spectacular burning a small, British Royal Navy two-masted schooner by parties unknown. The Gaspee was a revenue cutter, a vessel charged with enforcing trade laws and preventing smuggling. While patrolling Narragansett Bay in the spring of 1772, the Gaspee’s commander, the much-maligned Lt. William Dudingston, stopped and harassed the crew of every vessel, large and small alike. Powerful merchants, whose trade was disrupted by the Lieutenant, grew so irritated with his practices that on the afternoon of June 9, 1772, they lured the British naval and customs enforcement schooner Gaspee into hot pursuit a shallow-drafted trading vessel belonging to prominent merchant John Brown. Local pilots knew the dangers of Namquid Point (now renamed Gaspee Point) but Dudingston did not have his pilot with him that particular day. By evening, the Gaspee was aground, and would have to wait many hours for a higher tide to float her free. Upon hearing this news, a boy beat a drum in the streets of Providence calling patriots to gather at Sabin Tavern. Following their discussion there, they quietly rowed eight longboats out to the stranded Gaspee,, shot and wounded Lieutenant Dudingston, ferried the crew to shore, plundered the vessel’s papers and cargo, and burned the ship to the waterline.
By morning’s light, the whole colony of Rhode Island seemed to suffer from collective amnesia. Nobody claimed to have seen anything or know anything. One African-American man, Aaron Biggs (most colonials spelled it Briggs), confessed to having participated in the attack, and Admiral John Montague, in command of the North American fleet stationed in Boston, took it upon himself to look after Biggs’s bodily protection while the attack’s perpetrators were pursued. The small colony offered a reward for information about the attack; the crown in London offered a larger reward and ultimately formed a Royal Commission of Inquiry. While previous attacks on customs vessels had not had significant administrative follow-up, the Gaspee was a Royal Navy asset, so its destruction could not be ignored. Rhode Island’s Governor Joseph Wanton was put at the head of the Commission, and despite their zeal to discover the leading culprits, they came up empty-handed.
Challenging some of the traditional narrative
Three mid-nineteenth-century Rhode Island historians left an indelible mark on our understanding of the history of the Gaspee Affair. Rhode Island Chief Justice William Staples, who was also the vice-president of the Rhode Island Historical Society, wrote a small pamphlet in 1845 that compiled copies of important contemporary correspondence and documents which had been sent to Whitehall in London after the Commission of Inquiry submitted its findings in 1773. Shortly thereafter, Samuel Greene Arnold and John Russell Bartlett each published accounts similar to that of Staples and those three remained the authoritative full-length, non-fiction accounts.
After investigating archival material and weighing it against later scholarship, three aspects of this traditional narrative can be challenged. First, British observers and American Loyalists complained at the time of the investigation that no one would be tried as long as Governor Wanton was at the head of the Commission. Staples asserted that the governor was zealous in his pursuit of the truth and made every effort to round up the leaders of the mob, but primary sources suggest otherwise. Second, the traditional narrative downplays the actual “trigger” for the event and fails to consider any alternative narratives (including Dudingston’s own account). Delving into Rhode Island’s colonial economy powered by illegal rum and slavery was probably not something nineteenth-century Whig historians relished. The Gaspee affair shed light on smuggling and mob justice in a way that would make some readers uncomfortable. Finally, Staples and his peers tried to show that some Committees of Correspondence emerged as a direct result of the Gaspee affair, but did not explore those origins deeply enough to tie the Gaspee directly to the committees that led to the First Continental Congress and a radical separation from the British Empire. Staples and the others did not even mention a little-known, slightly scandalized Baptist preacher who may have done more to re-ignite patriotic passions before the Port of Boston Act than even Boston’s Samuel Adams.
1 // Questioning Governor Wanton’s undisputed zeal for the truth
Staples asserted that Governor Wanton’s enthusiasm for impartially gathering all the facts surrounding the case and identify raiders from that fateful night cannot be questioned. He noted, “There is little room to doubt that Gov. Wanton…exhibit[ed] great zeal and loyalty…[in his duties]” and explained that the governor was above reproach. Using 20/20 historical hindsight, he pointed out that Wanton ultimately sided with the crown when Rhode Island declared its independence, even prior to the Continental Congress doing so in July 1776. This was cited as evidence that Wanton would have turned his own countrymen over to the British authorities if given the opportunity.
The actions of the commission do not indicate that Governor Wanton was, in fact, eager to catch the culprits. Although named as possible ringleaders, John Brown, Joseph Brown, Simeon Potter, and Rufus Greene, Jr. were never summoned to appear before the commissioners. In the sixteen days that they met in January the commissioners only managed to examine ten people, citing poor weather as detriment to doing more. This was still more than they saw when the weather was milder the following June. The “severe weather” complaints seemed hollow. Additionally, Newport Reverend Ezra Stiles recorded that January 1773 was unusually mild. Chief Justice Daniel Horsmanden wrote to the Earl of Dartmouth, “My Lord, the commissioners did not enter upon counter evidence, though I, myself, was inclined to do it, as we proceeded; and bring the witnesses face to face,…” Governor Wanton asked the mariners from the Gaspee to provide physical descriptions of the raiders. If they were able to give names, the governor frequently dismissed the testimony, explaining that there were many, many people with that name in the colony and they could not possibly know about whom they were referring. Wanton and his family were well-connected in the political and business life of the colony. He had no incentive to see his friends and colleagues brought before a criminal court in London where they would be charged with treason.
2 // Missing from the traditional narrative: The reason for the attack and Dudingston’s account at his court martial
Many authors begin the story of the Gaspee with a caustic correspondence between Governor Wanton and Lieutenant Dudingston in March of 1772. They mention that Dudingston was disliked and arrived in Narragansett Bay with a bad reputation already formed: he was not just tough or strict, he was violent. As the story usually goes, patriotic merchants had little tolerance for his harassment of their trade and they lashed back. Most historical accounts do not mention the exact seizure which set off the chain of events or why the Admiralty and Customs Service thought Rhode Island was in need of aggressive enforcement. Actually, Rhode Island’s colonial raiders were following a well-rehearsed script of putting out a warrant for the arrest of a sea officer they believed overstepped his orders. When they boarded the Gaspee, the raiders rifled through the lieutenant’s papers looking for his written orders. Land-based mobs also had patterns they followed when seeking justice, similar to these maritime actions.
By March, Dudingston had already been in Narragansett Bay for two months and gotten himself into trouble with powerful interests in Rhode Island. At least part of the reason Admiral Montague ordered a customs patrol in Rhode Island was that this tiny colony was able to produce much more rum than should have been possible within the strict limits of the Navigation Acts. Rhode Island imported 14,000 hogsheads of molasses a year, of which only 2,500 came from within the British Empire. To add to their difficulties, Rhode Island’s merchants and politicians were already held in low regard by many political leaders in London, as during the last war with the French they openly traded with the enemy through Caribbean island ports.
In February 1772 Lieutenant Dudingston and the Gaspee seized a smuggled cargo of rum from a merchant named Jacob Greene. For unknown reasons, Dudingston was not able to condemn it in the Admiralty Court in Rhode Island, nor was the Boston Court interested in getting involved. Already sensing trouble brewing, Admiral Montague ordered another vessel, the Beaver, to join the patrol in Narragansett Bay to protect the Gaspee from possible mischief. Stuck with this rum on board, and fearing his arrest on shore, Dudingston was in a difficult position. It is possible, as the traditional narrative goes, that the local sheriff may have approached Dudingston with a warrant for his arrest when things suddenly went terribly wrong. Ultimately, the illegal seizure of Jacob Greene’s rum was the only charge brought against Dudingston in Rhode Island’s courts, and he was found guilty in absentia.
The looting that took place on board the Gaspee was merely to replace the commercial value of Jacob Greene’s rum. The raiders were looking for items of value to take with them, and, as previously mentioned, the lieutenant’s orders. How and why the fire started remains a historical mystery. Some historians have reported that the famous 1772 Dockyards Act was passed in retaliation for the Gaspee, but it was passed in April, two months before the attack on the schooner. It is possible that there was never any premeditated plan to shoot Dudingston. The raiders showed mercy to all of his men by placing them on shore unharmed. Because he survived, the commissioners were looking to charge raiders they referred to as “the captain” and “the sheriff” with treason, not murder.
When Dudingston was called back to London to defend the loss of his schooner, he told a very different story than the traditional narratives. He did not report that there was only one sentinel on lookout when the raiders approached. All of the Gaspee’s small arms were locked below deck in a chest, and they did not even have matches handy to light the vessel’s deck lamps. As a Royal Navy schooner in a precarious situation, they did not seem very prepared! The commander claimed that he was headed to Providence to pick up a few sailors waiting there, and denied that he was chasing a possible smuggler. At his court-martial, he testified that he was anchored, and the ebbing tide put him on the bottom at Namquid Point. Dudingston claimed that there were many more raiding vessels and men than did the colonial accounts. History has only two brief colonial retellings to weigh against Dudingston’s account, written down many decades later, and the contemporary testimony of Aaron Biggs. Since colonial tongues fell silent, the historical record is slim.
3 // The Committees of Correspondence and John Allen’s pamphlets
Staples told his readers that one of the great legacies of the Gaspee affair was the founding of committees of correspondence. In February 1773, while the Gaspee commissioners were on a recess, Richard Henry Lee in Virginia and Samuel Adams in Boston started an important communication. Concerned about some unreliable accounts in their newspapers, they founded inter-colonial committees to facilitate communication between the colonies.  Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson looked back on the Gaspee affair as an important event that re-awakened patriotic feelings during the “lull” of activity between the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party. Newspaper editors and Patriot leaders also stirred fears about the traditional English right to a trial in the vicinage, and the possibility of rebels being sent to London for an easy conviction.
The activities of these committees seem to lead directly to the hostilities at Lexington and Concord. Actually, these particular committees engaged in very perfunctory tasks and were reluctant to project a treasonous tone. The later, more radicalized committees of correspondence, committees of inspection, and committees of safety had their roots elsewhere.
If these initial committees of correspondence did not radicalize the Patriot cause, who or what did? What re-ignited Patriot passions during the “lull” between the Boston Massacre and the Boston Tea Party? A little-known recent British immigrant minister named John Allen was asked by the Sons of Liberty to temporarily fill the vacant pulpit at Second Baptist Church in Boston. He gave the Thanksgiving Day sermon, the one Sunday of the year when it was deemed appropriate for a Protestant, Reformed minister to speak in detail about the civil magistrate and the proper Biblical role of civil government. Pastor John Allen mentioned the Gaspee affair and its resulting Commission of Inquiry seven times in his sermon that day. The sermon became an instant hit, and was circulated in pamphlet form throughout the colonies. An Oration, Upon the Beauties of Liberty, Or the Essential Rights of the Americans went through seven printings in four different cities and became one of the most popular pre-independence pamphlets in British colonial America. Oration was also the most widely read sermon and the most popular public address in the years before independence.
1765-1776 (pre-independence) pamphlets ranked in order of popularity
|Number of Editions in British America
|Number of Cities and Towns in British America in which editions appeared
|Rank (number of editions X number of cities and towns)
|Matthew RobinsonMorris Rokeby
- Note: Gravlee and Irvine created this table from Adams’s earlier work. Ranking these pamphlets can be done by adding or multiplying the two numbers together; either method produces the same ranking.
There were more than four hundred pamphlets addressing the conflict between Britain and the North American colonies published prior to the Declaration of Independence; Oration’s popularity placed it in the top one percent. Allen was not well-connected with influential patriot leaders and his sermon/pamphlet was his only claim to fame. He disappeared so quickly after this that we are not even sure of the date of his death. While his contemporary influence was broad and deep, like the Gaspee affair, he was largely forgotten after events in the Boston area overshadowed most everything else.
Judge Williams Staples left historians with a valuable documentary history that has exerted considerable influence on generations of historians. It was, in a few key areas, misleading or even inaccurate. He too easily gave Governor Wanton the benefit of the doubt about his ability to turn his colleagues, business associates, and neighbors over to British authorities who might put them on trial for treason in London. Other commissioners at the time were arguing that Gaspee mariners needed to be brought face-to-face with the accused. Wanton scheduled and summoned witnesses to appear before the Commission of Inquiry on different days from the Gaspee mariners who could identify them, thus protecting Rhode Island’s raiders.
Additionally, the traditional telling of the Gaspee affair is overly simplistic. The passive voice says that “merchants were irritated” and “the people were annoyed by” Lieutenant Dudingston and the strict enforcement of the Gaspee’s patrol. Few have delved deeply enough to discover that it was a very specific seizure that affected a very powerful and influential Rhode Island family. When Dudingston was unable to condemn that family’s cargo, he put himself in a position where he could not safely go ashore without fear of arrest.
Dudingston’s testimony at his own court-martial described a much more sizable mob with many more longboats than later historians described. He was not lured into chasing a smuggler over a known shallow-point in Narragansett Bay; Dudingston described his grounding as an intentional anchorage on a planned trip to Providence.
Finally, William Staples told his nineteenth-century readers that the Gaspee had a great legacy in the start of the committees of correspondence. Indeed, Richard Henry Lee and Samuel Adams started a correspondence from which some committees emerged, but these were not the radical committees that led to independence. The Gaspee’s greater legacy is that a Thanksgiving Day sermon, preached by an unknown minister, was re-published many times in several different cities. Even with all the drama, deceit, and cover-ups in Rhode Island, events in Boston, Lexington, and Concord soon overshadowed the small colony. Without three Rhode Island historians writing on the eve of the American Civil War, we might have lost track of the Gaspee Affair altogether.
 William R. Staples, The Documentary History of the Destruction of the Gaspee, Introduced and Supplemented by Richard M. Deasy (Providence, RI: published jointly by the Rhode Island Publications Society, The Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation and The Rhode Island Supreme Court Historical Society, 1990).
 Samuel Greene Arnold, History of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations Vol II 1700-1790 (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1860) and John Russell Bartlett, A History of the Destruction of His Britannic Majesty’s Schooner Gaspee in Narragansett Bay on the 10th June, 1772 (Providence: A. Crawford Greene, Printer to the State, 1861).
 Staples, Documentary History, 30.
 Chief Justice Horsmanden to the Earl of Dartmouth New York, 20 February 1773. John Russell Bartlett, Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in New England Vol. VII 1770-1776 (Providence: A. Crawford Greene, State Printer, 1862), 183.
 See Pauline Maier, From Resistance to Revolution: Colonial Radicals and the Development of American Opposition to Britain, 1765-1776 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972).
 David Lovejoy, Rhode Island Politics and the American Revolution, 1760-1776 (Providence: Brown University Press, 1958,1969), 33.
 It is widely believed that “the captain” the Royal Commission in Inquiry sought was Abraham Whipple and “the sheriff” was John Brown.
 Dudingston’s account fits with Aaron Biggs’s telling that there were seventeen longboats. Later historians who believed Biggs’s testimony explained the higher number by arguing that some could have been held in reserve to gauge the resistance provided by the Gaspee’s guns and crew. Dudingston, in his petition to the King, claimed that there were seventeen armed longboats with about two hundred men. Navy pension: petition of Capt William Dudingston, late commander of the Gaspee schooner, concerning dangerous wounds he received on the coast of Rhode Island, America and asking for relief from the King. December 17, 1772, referred to the Admiralty. British National Archives, PC 1 15 93. William Checkley, the collector of customs in Providence believed that it was only six or seven boats. Letter to the collector of the Port of Rhode Island from William Checkley, June 11, 1772, Providence. Treasury documents, British National Archives (Public Records Office) T1/491, 131-132.
 The Virginia Gazette falsely reported a clash between British regulars and Rhode Islanders with fatalities on both sides. Perhaps this was why Richard Henry Lee was reluctant to rely on the “uncertain medium of newspapers.” Merrill Jensen, The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution 1763-1776 (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1968, 2004), 430.
 Allen must have acquired his Gaspee commission information from the newspaper. Newport Mercury, October 26, 1772 (taken from a September 2 story) and Massachusetts Gazette and Boston News-Letter, October 29, 1772. Admiral Montagu did not receive the official packet from London and Wanton did not leak the information until later in December. These early newspaper stories were inaccurate. Whether they were purposely misleading or not is a matter for debate. Lawrence J. DeVaro, Jr., The Impact of the Gaspee Affair on the Coming of the Revolution, 1772-1773 (Unpublished Dissertation: Case Western Reserve University, 1973), 170. William R. Leslie, “The Gaspee Affair: A Study of Its Constitutional Significance,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 39#2 (September 1952): 242. When Allen was writing his sermon in November he was doing so based upon inflammatory, inaccurate, and misleading information. Allen’s statement, “I have seen what is said to be an authenticated copy of your Lordship’s Letter to the Governor of Rhode-Island…” must have been added later. Captain Howe, of the sloop-of-war Cruizer, did not arrive in New York until December 10 and the official packet was rushed to Boston from there. Providence Gazette, December 19, 1772, 3.
 Bernard Bailyn attributed authorship to John Allen. Bernard Bailyn, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967), 18. John Adams attributed authorship to John Allen. Charles Francis Adams, Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States (Freeport, NY: Book for Libraries Press, 1850-56, 1969), 320. L. H. Butterfield, ed. The Adams Papers Series I: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 83. Adams indicated that “common people” were hearing and reading Oration. The local paper identified Allen as the author a week later. Massachusetts Gazette and Boston Weekly News-Letter, December 10, 1772. Historian Alice M. Baldwin attributed it to Isaac Skillman, who became pastor of the church in 1773. Alice M. Baldwin, The New England Clergy and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1928), 117. Philip Davidson showed doubt about Skillman. Philip Davidson, Propaganda and the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1941), 214. Bumsted and Clark, using Thomas Adams’s scholarship, have settled the issue beyond reasonable doubt. John M. Bumsted and Charles E. Clark, “New England’s Tom Paine: John Allen and the Spirit of Liberty,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Series 21#4 (October 1964): 561-562. Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea (Providence: Brown University Press, 1965), 68-70. Isaac Skillman is still listed in Early American Imprints as an “additional index point” so that researchers who look for Oration under his authorship will find it. Skillman was born and educated in New Jersey, so the pen name “a British Bostonian” seems an unlikely choice.
 Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 277.
 Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998), 12. Foner mistakenly identified the author as Joseph Allen on page 12 but correctly as John Allen on page 33.
 Unfortunately, this does not tell us anything about the size or volume of a particular printing. See Thomas R. Adams, American Independence: The Growth of an Idea (Providence, RI: Brown University Press, 1965), 69-70. This table was taken from G. Jack Gravlee and James R. Irvine, eds. Pamphlets and the American Revolution: Rhetoric, Politics, Literature, and the Popular Press (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1976), viii.
 Bernard Bailyn, Pamphlets of the American Revolution Vol I (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1965), vii. There were more than 1500 pamphlets published between 1750-1783. Ibid, 8.