5:03 p.m. December 18, 2012

The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Five: Rhode Island, The Little State that Wouldn’t

(Previously: Day Four: The Wimpy So-Called Burning of Washington)

One of the funniest, weirdest stories of the War of 1812 is Rhode Island’s brave, lonely stand for states’ rights and black-market profits. You don’t usually think of Rhode Island as a states’-rights place; that’s more of a Dixie thing, has been since the South Carolina Nullification Crisis of the 1830s.

To tell the truth, if you’re a California hick like me, you don’t usually think of Rhode Island at all. It’s one of those places that hits its peak when you’re in the fourth grade and have to memorize all those crummy state capitals, and you end up really hating the ones jammed up there in the north east corner because you can’t even use a map to help you out, they’re too squeezed into each other. I can still tell you the capitals of most of them, even Rhode Island: Providence. If you grow up in California, you sit there in the back waiting for the quiz thinking, “Why should there even be a Rhode Island?”

Rhode Island turns out to be a corner of coastline east of Connecticut and south of Massachusetts, claiming a random parallelogram of suburb around the city of Providence. Since I’m way more interested in West Africa than friggin’ New England—which I personally don’t believe actually exists (I have a strong suspicion it was invented by that Robert Frost guy, who by the way was actually from San Francisco)—I sorta see things in West African terms, and when you apply that to Rhode Island, you see instantly how these borders got started: these were colonial coastal trading outposts, just like Equitorial Guinea, Benin, Togo, Ghana. Which is why their land borders make no sense.

Turns out the one moment of glory Rhode Island ever had was 1812, when it took on the South and West in the glorious cause of not losing money. Whenever any American starts yammering about states’ rights, it’s because they’re scared they’ll lose money. In South Carolina in the 1832, every preacher screeched from every pulpit about “the Tariff of Abominations.” I love that—“tariff of abominations,” like this tax ruling was drafted by the Devil and his accountant-imps, sitting around in little green visors in some D.C. basement office working their steam-punk calculators overtime. What it came down to is that it’d cost the Dixie planters money, and losing money for those slave-drivers was the root of all evil, hands down.

It never takes long for any good American sleazeball churchgoer to make the transition from “Hey, this could cost me money” to “It is a thing of Satan!” and 1812 gave New Englanders a chance to show they could be just as sleazy about it as any Dixie planter.

Rhode Island has this official history where it’s one of the good states, the moral states, like there are any, because its official founder was Roger Williams, one of the less bloodthirsty Puritans, who actually tried to get along with the local tribe, the Narragansett. Rhode Island has been trading on Roger’s decency for about 380 years now, but the truth is, once he was out of the picture they got down to the business of making money by ocean trading in anything that made money, mostly rum and slaves.

And the one constant of Rhode Island history over the last four centuries is that when anybody messes with their noble tradition of sleazy trading, they get violent. When war’s a-brewing, Rhode Island has a long tradition of asking one simple question: Is there money in it or is it gonna cost us? If there’s money in it, they’re first in war, first in smuggling, first in the pocketbooks of anybody they can rob. If it’s gonna cost’em, they can come up with a million oh-so-moral New Englandy reasons to let somebody else do the dying and starving.

In 1776, the main obstacle to free trade in rum’n’slaves, the Rhode Island Cocktail, was the British Revenue ships that patrolled the coasts. Get rid of the Union Jack and profits would soar. So Rhode Island was gung ho for that war. In fact, Rhode Island showed the way for the rest of the colonies, sneaking aboard a revenoors’ ship in Narragansett harbor and burning the shit out of it in 1772, four years before the real festivities kicked off.

Fighting for free trade—meaning the slave trade--worked out big-time for Rhode Island. The most amazing thing I found out about the place is that late 1700s, Rhode Island ran 80% of the slave trade on the East Coast. No wonder this coastline keeps reminding me of West Africa; half the population of the Bight of Benin passed through jolly olde New England in transit to the Carolinas, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti or Brazil. And not all of them passed through, either; 8% of the population of Rhode Island consisted of African slaves.

With that background, you can guess what happened in Rhode Island when those smelly winds of war came blowin’ off the sea: The town fathers asked themselves the deep moral question, will we make money or lose it on this war? And the answer was simple: We’ll lose it.

In 1776, war was good for the merchant marine business; in 1812, it was a disaster. The Great Powers were already learning to play total war, using economic blockades to try to starve or bankrupt each other into surrender. After they won at Trafalgar, the Brits tried to blockade all of French-controlled Europe. That was bad enough for the shipowners of Rhode Island, but it got way worse in 1808 when Jefferson declared a counter-embargo on trade with anybody overseas at all.

Funny thing is, that sudden cut off in trade turned out to be the best thing that had happened to New England in a long time, because it started people thinking about building their own textile mills, using river power along those hilly coastlines, instead of just buying cheap stuff from abroad. And that’s how so many little kids got the opportunity to work ten or 12 hours a day in what they call “America’s nascent textile industry.” But in the short run these dueling embargoes hurt trade profits and drove the shipowners crazy.

You can guess what came next: Secession fever. Madison, the pro-war, pro-embargo Jeffersonian candidate, lost every NE state except Vermont—the only one that's landlocked. The Rhode Island legislature voted that it had the power “to interpose for the purpose of protecting [the people of Rhode Island] from the ruinous inflictions of usurped and unconstitutional power.”

Rhode Island just plain opted out of the war and into the business of supplying British warships with everything they needed. The Rhode Island militia declined to participate in the war, with the official blessing of the legislature. The Supreme Courts of Massachusetts and Connecticut officially declared that their states’ citizens didn’t have to fight in any war that didn’t occur on their states’ soil. Rhode Island supplied less than a thousand soldiers for the whole war and had virtually no casualties. The last thing they worried about was an attack by the Royal Navy, which might seem a little weird when you look at Rhode Island’s totally exposed position out there at the corner of the NE coastline. But if the Brits had attacked Rhode Island harbors, they’d have been burning and destroying their main supply base for the American war, so it never came close to happening.

You might wonder how the official Rhode Island state history deals with this awkward moment. It’s simple: they don’t. Go to most histories of Rhode Island and they jump from the Revolution to the Civil Wars—both nice profitable wars that the Gimme State was 100% in favor of. Either they don’t mention RI in the war of 1812 at all, or they say that it was “unpopular” in the state, which is like saying that Lincoln was “unpopular” in South Carolina in 1861.

They can get away with this because, like I said, most Americans know nothing and care less about 1812. But the Rhode Island apologists have another distraction strategy for more serious war buffs who are gonna wanna know something about 1812: they talk your ear off about Captain Oliver Hazard Perry! Oh, dear Oliver! They can’t get enough of him, the brave Rhode Islander who won the Battle of Lake Erie!

And he did, too. And he was a Rhode Islander, and a good officer. But, uh, look at a map. See Lake Erie, waaaaaaay over there? And see Rhode Island, waaaaaaaaay off in the other direction? That’s how far a patriotic Rhode Island citizen had to go to get into the war, because nobody anywhere near his home state wanted anything to do with it.

As long as the British were busy with Bonaparte, the war was a sluggish draw and the merchants of Rhode Island were happy enough to make huge profits supplying the Royal Navy at gigantic markups. All that changed with the Battle of Bladensburg and the so-called Burning of Washington D.C., which I discussed in my last two articles.

Those losses turned Rhode Island and the rest of coastal NE into active traitors, not just passive ones. You know how all of Europe discovered that Nazis’r’bad, mmmmmmmkay? at the very minute, the exact second, they learned that the Germans had lost at Stalingrad? Well, at exactly the second they found out that American forces had broken and fled from Bladensburg, and the British Army had occupied D.C., New Englanders decided the time had come to make a principled stand in favor of treason against their defeated nation. Yes, folks, the moral of this story is simple: People are scum.

Four months after the occupation of the capital, New England politicos met at the Hartford Convention to talk secession—seriously this time, because rats get serious about deserting when they think the ship’s sinking. And NE would very likely have jumped the Union as a bloc, if the professional pols running the convention hadn’t defied the radicals and settled for something less than an open break.

It’s not like they had anything like an emotional commitment to their country; they just weren’t totally 100% sure that the US would lose, and if it didn’t, then… well, what does every soulless office drone worry about more than death itself? A problem with his resume. And that’s exactly what made these pigs flinch away from secession, as one of their own said at the time: "Separation would have severed their last chance for preferment at the national level." You have to admire the pure scummery of it. The way these proto-yuppies, these stone-age media execs, saw the situation, was real simple and clear: there’d be plenty of time to secede if America lost once and for all; in the meantime…why take a chance? Man, tell me you don’t see every boss you ever had in these creeps. They were ahead of their time, and that’s no compliment.

And they were right, like they always are, the bastards, because it’s their world, not ours. The “moderates” prevailed, which disappointed the Hell out of hardcore NE Federalists like the President of Yale, who whined that the convention’s Connecticut delegates had "not done as much as was expected of them by the great Body of the people of this State," but those sleazy bet-hedgers were proved right when the war fizzled out in a stalemate, with Jackson’s huge victory in New Orleans counting as a kind of overtime TD, even though, as every amateur knows, it came after the war was officially over.

The Union survived to make America safe for soulless overcautious moneymakers forever, and Rhode Island wants you to know about its glorious stands in our glorious Revolution and our glorious Civil War and… say, you ever hear about that glorious victory by our own native son, Oliver Hazard Perry?

(Next: Day Six: Tecumseh’s War Part I)

Back channel chatter

There is a scribble about this dispatch in the backroom, with four contributors.