Jonathan Hazard (1744-1825) was born to a Newport Quaker family in 1744. As a young man, he moved to rural Charlestown, became a small farmer, and worked as an itinerant tailor. He was passionately involved in the independence movement. During the Revolution, he served for a time as the paymaster of the Rhode Island regiment of the Continental Army.
In the mid-1780s, when a postwar depression and the taxing policies of the merchant-controlled state government caused hardship in the rural, agricultural areas of Rhode Island, Hazard emerged as the legislative champion of Rhode Island’s agrarian debtors. First elected to the General Assembly in 1776, he gathered a forceful group of rural politicians in 1785 to form a protest group styled the Country Party. This new organization devised an ingenious fiscal program based on the issuance of ℒ100,000 of paper money, an amount about equal to Rhode Island’s war debt. According to Hazard’s plan, farmers could borrow this money to pay their overdue taxes and other debts, using their land as security at an interest rate equivalent to the rate the state was paying on its war bonds. If taxes were continued at existing levels, they would be easier to pay because of the increased money in circulation.
Hazard predicted that these taxes would be sufficient to retire the state debt at par in seven years, thus lifting the burden of debt service from the backs of farmers, who paid a hefty land tax to support state government operations. Since the paper money was legal tender and could also be used to discharge private debts, merchants and other creditors, fearing the paper’s depreciation, opposed Hazard’s plan vehemently. Undaunted, Hazard’s Country Party seized control of the General Assembly in the 1786 annual election, sent Hazard as the state’s delegate to the Confederation Congress, and implemented the party’s paper-money program.
Since adopting the proposed federal Constitution could disrupt the new fiscal system by banning state issues of paper currency, the Country Party strongly espoused the cause of Antifederalism. Hazard, a democratic localist, also feared the loss of state rights to a powerful central government, and as a Quaker, he criticized the Constitution for its three concessions to slavery.
“Beau Jonathan” (as he was called because of his fondness for courtly manners and dress) used his great oratorical skills both in the General Assembly and the Confederation Congress to frustrate the supporters of ratification. In 1790, however, when pressure from Congress made ratification inevitable, Hazard modified his opposition to the Constitution in the hope of gaining Federalist support for election to the U.S. Senate. This maneuver backfired, and the eloquent Beau Jonathan became a scapegoat in the bitter contest over the composition of Rhode Island’s first congressional delegation. Federalists unleashed their hatred for the domineering Hazard, the apostle of paper money; the Country Party resented his opportunism and blamed him for its failure to block the Constitution; and the powerful Arthur Fenner of Providence successfully moved to displace him as the party’s leader. These factors sealed Hazard’s political demise.
The deposed leader, clearly the most influential political figure in Confederation-era Rhode Island, continued to represent Charlestown in the General Assembly until 1805, but his dominance was gone. That year, Hazard departed Rhode Island with his wife Patience and their younger children to reside in Verona, a new Quaker settlement in Oneida County, New York. Two decades later, the man who dominated Rhode Island politics during one of its most critical periods died unheralded; even the date of his demise is uncertain.
Jonathan Hazard was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.