Joseph Bucklin Society
Show American history!.
Site Summary. A national history center both for the Gaspee Affair of 1772 and also for
Bucklin History 1600-1899. We emphasize the pre-Revolutionary history of
Massachusetts and Rhode Island and the events and people involved in the
Americans' 1772 attack on the Royal Navy ship Gaspee. We maintain a 4,000 person biography and genealogy database
and history for the Bucklin family.
Gaspee Hist Ed. 2011 - K
2000 through 2011.
See Copyright Information, Warnings, Disclaimers.
Background - The circumstances and events leading
up to the attack on the Gaspee.
The attack on the Gaspee was driven by circumstances and events that were
viewed through conflicting views of right and wrong.
The Rhode Island colonists had come from England where English people
received the governmental services and military defense provided by taxation
enacted by a Parliamentary House of Commons whose members were elected by the
But from 1600 to 1760, when Englishmen emigrated to Rhode Island, Parliament
left the colony to fend for itself, providing its own services and military
defense. Parliament had other more pressing business during those eventful years
in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and taxation of a few people far away was not
a part of the legislative agenda. The Rhode Island government, left to its own
devices, was elected by the people. For generations, only those elected
representatives imposed taxes on Rhode Island people, property, and
businesses. By 1750, Rhode Islanders and their businesses accepted as a
constitutional fact that they could only be taxed by their own legislature. As
for regulation of business, again the same historical background led to Rhode
Islanders to the view that only Rhode Island’s legislature could regulate what
Rhode Island merchants did.
In contrast the Parliament of England always believed they had the
constitutional right to tax any English person and control the businesses
conducted in the English colonies. That Parliament had not done so for the
initial years of the existence of the New England colonies was, according to
the Parliament's thinking, simply a matter of Parliamentary grace in not taxing
a struggling and weak colony.
The British victory in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), known in British
America as the French and Indian War, had been won only at a great financial
cost. England had spent large sums of money providing the colonies with English
Navy ships and English Army men to fight the French and Indians. During the war,
the British national debt nearly doubled, rising from £72,000,000 in 1755 to
almost £130,000,000 by 1764. Post-war expenses would also be high because it was
decided in 1763 to keep ten thousand British regular soldiers in the
American colonies, as a cost of about £225,000 per year. The primary reason
for retaining such a large force was that demobilizing the army would put 1,500
officers, many of whom were well-connected in Parliament, out of work. This made
it politically prudent to retain a large peacetime establishment, but because
Britons were averse to maintaining a standing army at home, it was necessary to
garrison the troops elsewhere. Stationing 10,000 troops in North America made
strategic sense because Great Britain had acquired the vast territory of New
France in the 1763 peace treaty, and troops would be needed to maintain control
of the new empire.
How was the national debt for the war and the expense of the troops in North
American to be paid. Raising taxes in Britain was out of the question, since
there had been virulent protests in England against a new 1763 cider tax. This
left the colonies to be a source of tax revenue. Taxing the American colonies
was something new: Parliament had previously passed measures to regulate
trade in the colonies, but it had never before directly taxed the colonies to
raise revenue. The common method of taxation of the day was levying import taxes
on certain goods, and Parliament proceeded to enact taxes on certain goods
imported into New England. When after the French and Indian War the English
government for the first time started to impose taxes on the colonists,
Parliament thought the taxes just and proper.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Americans thought the new taxes
were illegal and unconstitutional taxes. and an English attempt to put American
merchants at a competitive disadvantage. Rhode Island merchants regarded
themselves as doing a lawful business and not having to legally pay the
"unlawful and unconstitutional" taxes. They acted by simply not paying the
taxes, smuggling goods into the colony.
The terms "Whig" and "Tory" were at this time now being used in
Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Politics in the late eighteenth
century England could be broadly divided into two parties.- Whigs and Tories.
Broadly defined, the Tories believed in the divine right of Kings to rule - that
they were ordained by God. Whigs believed that the King was there at the request
and consent of the governed people. The Whigs in England who believed in those
principles which had lead to the English Civil War of 1640, the
establishment of the Commonwealth, and the beheading of King Charles were termed
"Real Whigs" or "Radical Whigs." They believed that enactments of the King
which opposed the good of the people or the consent of the elected
representatives of the people were illegal and not "real law;" further, that the
people had the right oppose and even use violence to prevent the imposition of
those uses of force by the government which attempted to enforce illegal laws.
Politics in the late eighteenth century New England could also be broadly
divided into groups. While not a political party in American, those
persons called Whigs were those who thought and taught the politics of the
"Radical Whigs." of England. Generally, in America, anyone supporting the
English government or Parliament, in opposition to the colonial government< was
labeled "Tory," regardless of any belief in the divine right of Kings.
Adding to the background for the Gaspee attack was conflict in understanding
who could enforce the law in Narragansett Bay. Narragansett Bay is huge, 3 to 12
miles wide, extending 28 miles inland, almost completely cutting Rhode Island in
two. It was the site of numerous ship wharfs of various merchants, and it was
from there that Rhode Island conducted its extensive merchant business.
The Royal Navy Regulations before the American Revolution defined the
territorial waters of a country or colony by the “cannon shot” rule. The "cannon
shot" (the French called it the portée du canon ) doctrine is that a coastal
country can only claim enjoys sovereignty over the waters it can physically
control from the land, and thus its sovereignty is only as far seawards as a
cannon can fire a cannon ball. The English Royal Navy therefore considered
Narragansett Bay as mostly international waters, in which it had the
jurisdiction and right to use military force to enforce English customs taxes.
In contrast to the Royal Navy Regulations, the Rhode Island courts considered
the border of the colony to cross the mouth of Narragansett Bay from the land’s
furthest points out into the Atlantic Ocean on either side of the Bay. Rhode
Island law even defined the jurisdiction of the counties on either side of the
Bay to extend outward until they met the opposite county in the middle of the
Bay. Thus, under Rhode Island law, it was the sheriffs of the counties who had
jurisdiction to enforce the civil law for events on the entire Bay. When asked
for a legal opinion on the operations of the Gaspee ship, the Chief Justice of
Rhode Island, declared that an English Navy ship had no jurisdiction to take
action in Narragansett Bay unless the Governor granted such authority to the
ship captain (although, the Justice stated, if the Governor was shown a Royal
command to allow it, the Governor would have to grant it).
Rhode Island attorneys pointed out that constitutionally, in English law, the
military have no jurisdiction or right to enforce civil law where the county
officials such as the Sheriff were maintaining law and order. In fact, they
said, in the previous century Englishmen had revolted and cut off the head of
King Charles who was using the army to enforce his decrees in England in a time
instead of using the sheriffs and courts. Using the Royal Army or Navy
force to enforce civil law when the Rhode Island colonial government was keeping
order in the colony was just plain illegal, according to the Rhode Island
lawyers, many of whom had been trained in London.
The stage was thus set for the colonists to decide to get rid of the Royal
Navy armed schooner Gaspee, which was enforcing English customs law by seizing
ships and cargos in Narragansett Bay. In the thinking of Rhode Island merchants,
the Gaspee commander was illegally using military force, and he was using the
illegal force to enforce an unconstitutional tax.
Now read about the planning of the attack: th tasks and schedules to accomplish the
goal of capturing the Gaspee.