Ah those irascible Rhode Islanders of colonial times…They saw things a bit differently and often took matters into their own hands. Roger Williams founded the colony with the help of the Narragansett tribe. The cooperative relationship that existed between them, in and of itself, was a bit different. In 1635, Williams sought refuge, in the area we know as Rhode Island, after being convicted of sedition and heresy by the Massachusetts General Court. After repeated threats, charges had been brought against him after he continued to express views concerning civil and religious freedom which were in opposition to local authorities. Williams’ initial settlement quickly became known as a political and religious refuge for those unhappy with matters in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the 1760’s, Rhode Islanders, like other colonists, objected to the mounting level of regulations and taxes thrust upon them by the British Parliament. The Parliament viewed crops, natural resources and other products made in the colonies as an untapped pocket which could be picked in order to offset the mounting British debt and interest thereupon. As the level of taxation and regulation increased, increasing numbers of colonial producers and merchants smuggled goods in order to retain profits from their own labor.
Enter John Robinson. Robinson was one of the new breed of customs collectors empowered by the Sugar Act, also known as the American Revenue Act, of 1764. Mounting debt in Britain and increasing doubts about colonial loyalty led Parliamentary leader, Lord Grenville, to seek changes which would minimize the practice of smuggling and maximize revenue from the colonies. Amongst those changes was the presumption that accused merchants were guilty of the act of smuggling, and that the accused must establish his own innocence. When John Robinson arrived at his new post as a customs officer in Newport, Rhode Island, he was approached by a group of merchants. He was offered the customary “payment” of 70,000 pounds in local currency so that he would not fully enforce the new regulations of the Sugar Act It should be noted that in 1759, a teacher’s salary averaged 60 pounds a year, and a pistol might sell for one and a half pounds. Consequently, 70,000 pounds was a pretty pence or shilling, to use the common currency of the day, with which many customs officials used to live a lavish lifestyle. Not only did Robinson refuse to accept the bribe, but he voiced outrage at another common practice. Routinely, judges in the local, or provincial, trial courts called the case of a smuggler to trial while it was known that the customs official would be unavailable to make an appearance. Consequently, many of those smugglers walked away because there was no witness to support claims made by the prosecution. Robinson, in concert with other customs officials, invoked the Sugar Act which required that such cases be tried in vice-admiralty courts rather than colonial-friendly provincial courts. Vice-admiralty courts were officiated by judges who were paid by the Crown, and those judges were generally unsympathetic to plight of the colonists. While John Robinson was, no doubt, an honorable man, the Sugar Act also raised the salary of customs officials. Further, it awarded a share of the profits from all seized goods to those officials, as well as officers of the Royal Navy who took part in uncovering unreported cargo. Consequently, there was a great incentive not to turn a blind eye to smuggling. The Sugar Act was actually the first act passed by Parliament which openly declared its purpose was to collect revenue from the colonies. The first paragraph of the Act specifically stated it was “an act for the better securing and encouraging the trade of his Majesty’s sugar colonies in America;) for applying the produce of such duties, and of the duties to arise by virtue of the said act, towards defraying the expences of defending, protecting, and securing the said colonies and plantations…and more effectually preventing the clandestine conveyance of goods to and from the said colonies and plantation, and improving and securing the trade between the same and Great Britain.”
As you can imagine, customs officials were not well liked by the colonists, and John Robinson was specifically not well regarded by local members of the Newport community. There were repeated incidents in which groups of angry colonists confronted him, and at one point he was fearful of leaving his own home. However, Robinson was committed (or financially motivated) to succeeding in his appointed mission. In April, 1765, he followed a sloop named the Polly approximately twenty miles from Rhode Island to Dighton, Massachusetts. He did so because he suspected there was unreported cargo aboard the vessel. After boarding the ship, he found that it was carrying more than twice the amount of molasses as had been claimed on the cargo manifest. The amount was not merely a few casks, but more than sixty casks of smuggled goods. Robinson should have realized things would not go well for him when he was unable to find sailors who were willing to guide the ship back to the Newport area. Robinson left his two assistant to watch the ship while he searched for a crew. In another turn of bad luck for Robinson, the assistants decided to leave the vessel in order to visit a tavern. Soon afterward a group of more than forty blacken-faced colonists boarded the Polly. When the assistants returned to the ship, they saw the commotion and wisely decided to seek safety elsewhere. The colonists stripped the ship of its rigging, its sails, its cargo, and then ran it aground. Just for good measure, holes were cut in the ship’s hull to insure that it could not be moved. When John Robinson returned to the scene, he was not met by his assistants or the men who had boarded the Polly. Instead, he was met by the local sheriff. It seems that the owner of the ship, Job Smith of Taunton, Massachusetts, had been informed about the damage to his ship and its contents. He then filed a complaint and demanded 3000 pounds as repayment for the absence of the cargo and damage to his ship. Robinson suspected that Smith had been given the molasses by the group who boarded the ship, but the sheriff could not be dissuaded. He arrested Robinson, and the customs official was forced to walk eight miles to Smith’s home. He was followed on his journey by an angry group of local residents. Of course, it is altogether possible that many in that group who followed Robinson were the same men who boarded the Polly. The sheriff eventually jailed Robinson, and he incarcerated for several until several sympathizers arrived to post his bail.
What have we to learn from the story of John Robinson and the Polly? Americans have a long history of resistance to burdensome rules, regulations and taxes which have been thrust upon them. Please take a moment today to consider the cost of taxes and regulation on your life. Samuel Adams stated: “What a man has honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken without his consent.” How might your life change if you retained what you had honestly acquired? That change might be What IS Right With America.