Judge Benjamin Bourne

Inducted: 2010
Born: 1755 - Died:
1808

Benjamin Bourne (1755- 1808), a leading advocate of Rhode Island’s ratification of the federal Constitution, was born in Bristol, the son of Shearjashub and Ruth (Bosworth) Church Bourne, the product of two old-line Bristol families. His father served as chief justice of Rhode Island’s highest court from 1778 to 1781.

Bourne received a bachelor’s degree from Harvard College in 1775, just in time to play a role in the political and military events of the American Revolutionary era. In the year following his graduation, young Benjamin was appointed quartermaster in the regiment of Colonel Christopher Lippitt and saw service in New York along the lower Hudson in 1776.

Returning to civilian life, Bourne married Hope (Child) Diman, the widow of Captain Benjamin Diman, and embarked upon the practice of law. He was elected as deputy (state representative) from Bristol in 1780 and later in the year became a member of the powerful Council of War, which directed Rhode Island’s military efforts. He soon moved to Providence to advance his law practice and won election as a deputy from that town, serving from 1787 to 1790. In this capacity, he became a prime mover in the Federalist campaign to win ratification of the Constitution and bring Rhode Island into the new federal Union.

With Rhode Island boycotting the proceedings, the Philadelphia framers of the Constitution specified that the document should be approved by state ratifying conventions. Rhode Island alone defied these instructions, holding a popular referendum in March 1788. Outraged Federalists boycotted this unauthorized procedure. As the other twelve states, one by one, convened ratifying conventions, debated and approved the Constitution, and entered the new Union, Rhode Island’s Federalists became more insistent, especially Henry Marchant and Benjamin Bourne, who led the fight in the state legislature to secure the passage of a convention call.

They finally succeeded in January 1790, in part because of the threat by Congress to levy import duties on Rhode Island goods. In November 1789, Bourne and James Manning of Rhode Island College (Brown University) had been delegated by the citizens of Providence to present a petition to Congress urging it to refrain from such coercive pressure until a ratifying convention was authorized by the General Assembly.

Rhode Island’s ratifying convention held two sessions, one at South Kingstown in March 1790, which was inconclusive, and the crucial Newport gathering in late May. Benjamin Bourne served as one of the four delegates from Providence. His brother, Shearjashub Bourne Jr., and former lieutenant governor William Bradford were the two pro-Constitution delegates allowed to Bristol at this momentous ratifying convention.

At 5:20 P.M. on Saturday, May 29, 1790, with Providence threatening to secede from the state if the Constitution was rejected, Benjamin Bourne, in the phrase of convention secretary Daniel Updike, “moved for the grand question of adopting or rejecting the federal government.” Bourne’s motion squeaked through by a vote of 34-32, the closest margin of any state. His eloquence and that of William Bradford, Theodore Foster, and Henry Marchant during five days of intense debate set the stage for Rhode Island’s belated and grudging entrance into the American Union.

Bourne was rewarded for his leadership in the drive toward statehood when the voters elected him as Rhode Island’s first United States congressman in August 1790. He served until 1796, when he resigned to replace Federalist leader Henry Marchant, who had died in office, as judge of the federal district court for the district of Rhode Island. Bourne vacated that post in 1801 to accept an appointment from John Adams as chief judge of the U.S. court for the First Circuit–a post that was abolished by the incoming Jefferson administration, ending Bourne’s judicial service on July 1, 1802.

Returning to Bristol, Bourne practiced law there until his death on September 17, 1808–the twenty-first anniversary of the signing of the Constitution by its framers. He is buried in Bristol’s historic Juniper Hill Cemetery.

Judge Benjamin Bourne was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2010.

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

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