Governor Samuel Cranston

Inducted: 1998
Born: 1659
Died: 1727

Samuel Cranston (1659-1727) was governor of Rhode Island for almost twenty-nine years, from 1698 to 1727, a tenure not only longer than any other Rhode Island governor but also exceeding the tenure of any other chief executive of an American colony or state.

Cranston was the son of John Cranston, who was also a Rhode Island governor (1678-1680); the grandson of James Cranston, a chaplain to Charles I; and a descendant of William Lord Cranston of Scotland. His mother, Mary Clarke, was the daughter of Rhode Island Colony president Jeremy Clarke (1648-1649) and the sister of the colony’s Governor Walter Clarke (1676-1677, 1686, 1696-1698). Thus, Samuel was well-schooled in the art of politics and the beneficiary of his family’s high social standing.

His first wife, Mary Williams Hart, the granddaughter of Roger Williams, bore him seven children. According to tradition, young Samuel was captured by pirates and presumed dead. However, he escaped and returned to Rhode Island to find his wife (or purported widow) on the verge of remarriage. The wedding guests had actually assembled for the ceremony when seaman Cranston appeared to abort the nuptials.

In 1698, Cranston’s family connections gained him election to the governorship, a post only death took from him. Fortunately for Rhode Island, the thirty-eight-year-old Cranston was equal to the many challenges facing Rhode Island at the time of his accession–royal displeasure, which threatened the colony’s charter; boundary disputes; recalcitrant towns; defiant land speculators; and a colonial war with France.

Sydney James, the leading historian of colonial Rhode Island, speaks glowingly of Cranston’s abilities and accomplishments in a summary worthy of extensive citation: “Such evidence as there is shows Cranston constantly at work. He was everywhere, serving as chief executive, president of the Council of War, chief judge of the Court of Trials, moderator of the Newport town meeting, presiding officer of the town council, promoter of civic betterment, committeeman for assorted tasks, spokesman for the colony in some delicate negotiations, and prime mover in four or five landowners’ organizations. It may be fair to picture him as the doge of a nascent New England Venice. “Governor Samuel Cranston presided over a transformation of Rhode Island from a beleaguered cluster of villages to a flourishing agricultural province organized to aid the growth of Newport’s trade. He did not launch new policies as much as extend, elaborate, and carry out those that had been sketched a few years before he took office. His outstanding accomplishment, the key to many things that followed, was to bring his colony into a working relationship with the imperial government in London while preserving its charter privileges. As he succeeded in doing this, it became possible to bring internal order to the colony and settle old disputes with its neighbors.”

Cranston’s role in stabilizing the colony is all the more remarkable because the governor’s position was endowed with very few powers by the charter of 1663; constitutionally, governors were the mere agents of the omnipotent General Assembly. Nonetheless, certain chief executives–by virtue of their personality, prestige, and leadership capacity– transcended the charter’s limitations. Samuel Cranston was one of these. Like his predecessor, Governor William Coddington Sr., and his colonial successors Samuel Ward and, especially, Stephen Hopkins, he temporarily transformed his office into a position of real power and influence. When the southernmost portion of the town of Providence was set off as a separate municipality in 1754, it was named Cranston in his honor.

Samuel Cranston was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.

For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.

Photograph of Samuel Cranston’s grave medallion, Common Burying Ground, Newport, Rhode Island, 22 July 2011 c. Wikipedia user Sarnold17

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