The highest civic honor that can be conferred upon a resident of Bristol is the position of chief marshal of the Fourth of July parade, an event first held in 1826. The local observance of independence actually began much earlier. It dates from 1785, entitling Bristol to claim that it stages the oldest consecutive Fourth of July celebration in America.
I have joined with then-governor Philip Noel as the chief marshal of the huge Providence bicentennial parade in 1976, and with the support of Robert Lynch and the Pawtuxet Rangers, I served as grand marshal of a very soggy Gaspee Days parade in 1977. After a quarter-century of residing in Bristol, however, it is unlikely that I will bear the chief marshal’s banner in my adopted hometown.
My good friend and historical colleague Richard V. Simpson has written a detailed account of Bristol’s local observance entitled Independence Day: How the Day is Celebrated in Bristol, Rhode Island, which shows that the oration of the “patriotic speaker” or “speaker of the day” was the event that began Bristol’s long, unbroken celebration streak. From 1785 through 1837, except for four years, a Congregational minister, the Reverend Dr. Henry Wight, performed this function. Simpson states, however, that contrary to popular belief, “Wight did not, in fact, deliver the oration for those years, but rather provided an invocation for the patriotic exercise.” Since religious invocations and sermons were then interminably long, sometimes of three hours’ duration, I would assume the Reverend Dr. Wight’s remarks on those occasions were much lengthier than mine, though more religious and less historical.
Given the stature of my predecessors, my selection as patriotic speaker in 2007 by the industrious and dedicated Bristol Fourth of July Committee was a singular honor, and one much more suited to my temperament and public persona than the role of chief marshal. My remarks follow.
Today Bristol celebrates American Independence in a manner as grand and patriotic as anywhere in our vast nation. However, my thoughts as your patriotic speaker extend well beyond the mere Declaration of Independence that the Second Continental Congress ratified on this date in 1776. My concept of this celebration is to extol the significance of the American Revolution–a transformational era in world history that elevated and inspired mankind to a new level of self-determination.
The American Revolution spanned more than a quarter-century. It began with a dozen years of unavailing protest against British imperial impositions, both economic and administrative, that American colonists deemed unwise, unfair, and sometimes oppressive.
These perceived threats to our liberty and property caused Americans to take up arms against the mother country at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. England’s unyielding and forceful response prompted the declaration we commemorate today.
It took over eight years of bitter conflict, heroic sacrifice, and tenacious determination to compel England and the world to accept the independence that we so boldly proclaimed on July 4, 1776. But the Treaty of Paris that ended the War of Independence in 1783 by recognizing the United States of America as a sovereign nation did not end the American Revolution. The men whom we now call Founding Fathers realized that liberty without order could degenerate into chaos and conflict. When the Articles of Confederation–adopted in 1781 as our first national constitution–appeared inadequate to the needs of the new nation, the Founders saw the United States becoming thirteen squabbling sovereignties, with no unified power to command respect abroad or to insure order, stability, and fiscal integrity at home.
Thus on March 28, 1785–a little over three months before my predecessor, the Reverend Dr. Henry Wight, delivered Bristol’s inaugural Fourth of July oration–George Washington hosted a conference at Mount Vernon to deal with the inadequacies of the Articles in the areas of commerce and currency. The Mount Vernon meeting, involving only Virginia and Maryland, led to the Annapolis Convention of 1786, and that gathering issued a report, drafted by Alexander Hamilton, recommending that commissioners be sent to yet another convention at Philadelphia on the second Monday in May 1787 to discuss not only commercial problems but “all matters necessary to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.”
As we all know, that Grand Convention met and drafted the new Constitution of the United States. Despite the repeated urging of Bristol, Newport, and Providence, however, the dominant Country Party, with its power base in the rural towns, prevented Rhode Island from sending delegates to Philadelphia.
When the Constitution was drafted and sent to the states for ratification, the Country Party continued its opposition to the proposed basic law, in part because many of its members in their remote rural setting feared a strong central government too far removed from local influence and control. This opposition, called Antifederalism, contrasted sharply with the Federalist or pro-Constitution stance of Rhode Island’s port towns of Bristol, Newport, and Providence, where the commercially minded citizens were more optimistic, cosmopolitan, and nationalistic.
The Philadelphia Framers of the Constitution specified that the document should be approved by state conventions. Rhode Island alone defied these instructions; instead, it held a popular referendum in March 1788. When outraged Federalists boycotted this unauthorized procedure, twenty-six Bristolians could not restrain themselves from voting to ratify. When the ballots were tallied, Bristol became one of only two Rhode Island towns to support ratification.
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 Bristol’s Benjamin Bourne, who led the fight in the state legislature to secure the passage of a convention call. In January 1790 he finally succeeded.
Rhode Island’s ratifying convention held two sessions, one at South Kingstown in March1790, which was inconclusive, and the crucial Newport gathering in late May. Benjamin Bourne served as one of the four delegates from Providence, where he had established his law practice. His brother Shearjashub Bourne Jr. and former lieutenant governor William Bradford were the two 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. Bristol’s three votes–Bradford, Bourne, and Bourne again–carried the day, but it was the eloquence of Bradford, Benjamin Bourne, and Henry Marchant of Newport during five-days of intense debate that set the stage for Rhode Island’s belated and grudging entrance into the American Union.
Who were Bristol’s principal architects of statehood? The Bournes, whose father was chief justice of Rhode Island and whose mother was the former Ruth Bosworth, were prominent in town affairs. Shearjashub was a merchant, state legislator, justice of the peace and the proprietor of a public house on Hope Street where the town council often met. Benjamin Bourne, who had been a Revolutionary War officer, lawyer, and state legislator, was rewarded for his leadership in the drive towards 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 as a judge in the federal district court for the district of Rhode Island. The Harvard-educated Bourne vacated that post in 1801 to accept an appointment from John Adams as a judge in the U.S. Court for the Eastern Circuit, a post that was abolished by the incoming Jefferson administration. Bourne then returned to Bristol, where he practiced law until his death on September 17, 1808–the twenty-first anniversary of the signing of the Constitution by its framers.
William Bradford, Bristol’s other constitutional champion, was as important to Bristol as his renowned ancestor and namesake was to Plymouth Colony. Born in Plympton, Massachusetts, Bradford studied medicine and opened a practice in Warren a few years after coming to Rhode Island. In 1751 he married Mary LeBaron, the daughter of a Plymouth physician. After gaining a reputation for his skill as a surgeon, he moved his practice to Bristol, where he soon became active in town government.
Bradford’s name first appeared in the town’s records in 1758 and remained prominent therein for the next fifty years. In 1761 Dr. Bradford was elected representative from Bristol in the General Assembly, and in 1765 he became House Speaker for the first of his eighteen nonconsecutive terms. He was chosen as Bristol town moderator in 1762 without relinquishing his post in the state legislature. His success in politics turned him away from medicine towards the practice of law. From 1767 onward the public records list him as “Esquire,” rather than “Dr.” In 1775 the General Assembly made Bradford deputy governor when Nicholas Cooke moved up from that position to replace deposed Loyalist Governor Joseph Wanton. During the American Revolution Bradford served in numerous civil and military capacities; most notably, he arranged a cease-fire in October 1775 when Captain James Wallace of the HMS Rose bombarded Bristol.
Bradford was a member of the Rhode Island Committee of Safety and the powerful Council of War, and he served on several committees to coordinate the war effort with neighboring states. In 1780 he chaired a convention of the New England states, held in Hartford, which had been called for the purpose of furnishing supplies to our French allies. Bradford was elected a Rhode Island delegate to the Second Continental Congress in 1776, but the British threat to Rhode Island prompted him to stay home, where he was most needed.
In 1777, when he was deputy governor, Bradford was appointed to lease the estates of Loyalists whose property had been confiscated. After the war’s end he purchased one of those estates, the home of Bristol’s Isaac Royall, now known as Mount Hope Farm.
Bradford continued to represent Bristol in the General Assembly during the 1780s, but from 1786 to 1790 he was relegated to minority status when the Antifederal Country Party seized the reins of state government. He nonetheless campaigned strenuously to persuade the legislature to participate in the framing and adoption of the federal Constitution. His efforts culminated with his aye vote for ratification on May 29, 1790, as one of Bristol’s two convention delegates.
Bradford’s influential support for the adoption of the Constitution and his long years of public service to his town and state were crowned by his election to the United States Senate in 1792, replacing Antifederal leader Joseph Stanton of Charlestown. Bradford served from March 4, 1793, until October, 1797, when he resigned. From July 6, 1797, until his departure from Philadelphia, Bradford held the prestigious post of president pro tem of the Senate.
During the last decade of his eventful life, Bradford once more represented Bristol in the Rhode Island General Assembly, again holding the position of Speaker. He died on July 6, 1808, at the age of seventy-eight, but in his splendid house and farm his memory lives on.
Does the scenario I have described offer a lesson to Bristolians? Let me presumptuously suggest one!
Bristol embraced the Declaration of Independence in 1776, but even more to our town’s credit, Bristolians engineered the completion of independence in 1790. Union and statehood under the Constitution fulfilled and secured the promise of independence. Here Bristolians led the way!
At one time the town must have remembered the greatness of its achievement, for Bristolians named their major east-west thoroughfares Union, Constitution, State, and Bradford. Sadly the Bournes were slighted, with only a short road between Wood and High Streets commemorating their heroic efforts.
Perhaps it is now time for our Fourth of July Committee to expand its observance and to begin its annual celebration on Rhode Island Statehood Day, May 29, rather than on Flag Day, June 14. Let us remember not only what originated in Philadelphia but also what emanated from Bristol. This town’s major contribution to the momentous American Revolution was its leadership in the drive to complete it by cementing the bonds of the Union. The great American orator and statesman Daniel Webster expressed the connection between the Declaration and the Constitution best in concluding his epic 1830 debate with states’ rights advocate Robert Y. Hayne. Said Webster, “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!”
To those who annually stage Bristol’s renowned patriotic celebration: may Webster be your guide!
-Dr. Patrick T. Conley