When the customs schooner HMS Gaspée began enforcing hated British trade regulations in Narragansett Bay, it put Rhode Island Gov. Joseph Wanton in a bind.
Wanton sympathized with the colony’s merchants who were suddenly pushed around by rude and condescending British customs officials. Wanton himself was a wealthy merchant born Aug. 15, 1705 to a prominent and political Quaker family in Newport.
He had made a fortune plying the triangle trade. One of his own ships carrying rum and slaves had been confiscated – not by the British, but by a French privateer off the African coast.
But Wanton did not want war with the British.
He had been elected governor of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in 1769, serving until the outbreak of the American Revolution.
On May 20, 1772, he wrote a letter to the British secretary of state saying he understood the Gaspee ‘s crew had the authority to board American ships and inspect them. However, they didn’t have the right to seize a quantity of rum and try the owner outside of the colony of Rhode Island, he wrote. On top of that, they insulted the colonists with ‘the most abusive and contumelious language.’
Within three weeks, the Gaspee would run aground near Warwick. Colonists would board it and burn it in Rhode Island’s version of the Boston Tea Party.
Wanton would later thwart the Crown from finding the men who boarded and burned the grounded Gaspee.
He would serve as governor until the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. But since he wanted to avoid war with Britain, he was called a Loyalist. He managed to stay neutral, though, and the colonists left his property alone – unlike other provincial governors.
Here is the letter he wrote in the run-up to the Gaspee Affair.
NEWPORT, Rhode Island, May 20, 1772.
MY LORD:—In conformity to a vote of the General Assembly of this colony, I herewith transmit your Lordship a copy of a letter I received from Admiral Montagu and the answer: They have also requested me to transmit to your Lordship a narrative of all the proceedings referred to in said letter.
As Admiral Montagu has endeavored to fix a stigma on my character and administration as Governor of this Colony, by charging me with attempting to distress the King's officers from strictly complying with his orders, your Lordship will indulge me with giving a short account of my proceedings, by which the ungenerous accusation of Admiral Montagu will, I flatter myself, appear not to have the least foundation in truth.
On the 21st of March last, a number of the inhabitants of this colony, gentlemen of established character, and whose loyalty to their Sovereign is not to be questioned, exhibited to me a complaint in writing, that a certain schooner was cruising in the Narragansett river, boarding every vessel and boat that passed, and otherwise interrupting them in the pursuit of their lawful business; and not knowing by what authority the persons belonging to said schooner exercised that power within the body of the colony, requested me to make such enquiry concerning the same as was consistent with law.
It, therefore, became my indispensable duty, in order to satisfy the complaints, to demand of the commanding officer of said schooner, the reason of his thus acting, and whether he was vested with such power as would justify his proceedings, which produced my letter to him of the 22d of March. It was answered by Wm. Dudingston, of the schooner Gaspee, but, as he did not give me that satisfaction I conceived I had an indisputable right to expect, I wrote another letter, whereupon he sent me by one of his officers, an order from the Lords of the Admiralty, for his commanding the schooner Gaspee; also their letter to the commissioners at Boston requesting that board to give him a deputation in the customs, both which I returned to the officer in the same hour he brought them, without attempting in the least to distress or oppose him in the execution of his duty.—This, my Lord, is a true state of facts, and, I believe, your Lordship is convinced that, in my proceedings, I have done nothing but what was my duty, and that Admiral Montagu's accusation is as groundless as it is illiberal.
When I wrote my first letter, I do upon honor declare, that I did not know whether the schooner complained of was the Gaspee or not, and even if I did, in my opinion I am justifiable, as I was entirely unacquainted with Mr. Dudingston's authority, either as an officer in the revenue or navy; and, I do not believe, he had any right to officiate as a custom house officer within the body of this colony, before he had communicated to me, or some proper authority, his commission for so doing. I must not omit mentioning, that the information which Admiral Montagu says he has received that the people of Newport talk of fitting out an armed vessel to rescue any seizures which may be made by the King's vessels, is, your Lordship may be assured, a malicious representation, calculated, by the enemies of our happy constitution, to injure the colony, and bring upon the inhabitants his Majesty's displeasure. I acknowledge it a singular happiness, that this affair is brought before your Lordship, and that your candor and inflexible integrity will fix the charge of insolence where it really belongs. I submit the dispute, with pleasure, from a thorough conviction that your Lordship's opinion thereupon will be consonant to the strictest equity.
It is now my turn to complain of Wm. Dudingston's illegal proceedings, in carrying a quantity of rum he had seized on board a small boat, lying within the county of Kent, in this colony, to Boston, for trial, notwithstanding by the 8th of his present Majesty, it is expressly declared, that all forfeitures of this kind shall be tried in that colony where the offence is committed.
To recite every particular of his unwarrantable proceedings, would, my Lord, be tedious. Let it then suffice, that since the Gaspee and Beaver have been stationed in this colony, the inhabitants have been insulted without any just cause, with the most abusive and contumelious language, and I am sorry that I have reason to say, that the principal officers belonging to said vessels have exercised that power with which they are vested, in a wanton and arbitrary manner, to the very great injury and disturbance of the colony.
I have, my Lord, constantly afforded the King's officers all the assistance in my power in the legal discharge of their trust; if any of them through prejudice, ignorance of their duty or youthful indiscretion, insult the colony, it is my duty, as his Majesty's governor, to remonstrate against it.
I am, with the greatest deference and respect, my Lord, your Lordship's most obedient humble servant,
To the Right Honorable Earl of Hillsborough, one of his Majesty's principal Secretaries of State, Whitehall.