Swallow up R.I., circa 1862

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Map of colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, circa 1778. (boundless.com)

The British writer Anthony Trollope, born in 1815, wrote over forty novels plus various nonfictional accounts, including a two-volume North America, published in 1862 and based on a nine months’ sojourn here. In 1823, his mother, Frances Trollope, wrote a controversial but popular dishing of the United States called Domestic Manners of the Americans. Her son’s own book, whatever its merits, features this curious passage on Rhode Island:

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Anthony Trollope

Rhode Island, as the State is usually called, is the smallest State in the Union. I may perhaps best show its disparity to other States by saying that New York extends about 250 miles from north to south and the same distance from east to west; whereas the State called Rhode Island is about forty miles long by twenty broad, independently of certain small islands. It would, in fact, not form a considerable addition, if added on to many of the other States. Nevertheless, it has all the same powers of self-government as are possessed by such nationalities as the States of New York and Pennsylvania; and sends two senators to the Senate at Washington, as do those enormous States. Small as the State is, Rhode Island itself forms but a small portion [of its name]. The authorized and proper name of the State is Providence Plantation and Rhode Island [sic]. Roger Williams was the first founder of the colony, and he established himself on the mainland at a spot which he called Providence. Here now stands the city of Providence, the chief town of the State; and a thriving, comfortable town it seems to be, full of banks, fed by railways and steamers, and going ahead quite as quickly as Roger Williams could in his fondest hopes have desired.

Rhode Island, as I have said, has all the attributes of government in common with her stouter and more famous sisters. She has a governor, and an upper house, and a lower house of legislature; and she is somewhat fantastic in the use of these constitutional powers, for she calls on them to sit now in one town and now in another. Providence is the capital of the State; but the Rhode Island parliament sits sometimes at Providence and sometimes at Newport. At stated times also it has to collect itself at Bristol, and at other stated times at Kingston, and at others at East Greenwich. Of all legislative assemblies it is the most peripatetic. Universal suffrage does not absolutely prevail in this State, a certain property qualification being necessary to confer a right to vote even for the State Representatives. I should think it would be well for all parties if the whole State could be swallowed up by Massa- chusetts or by Connecticut, either of which lie convenient for the feat; but I presume that any suggestion of such a nature would be regarded as treason by the men of Providence Plantation.

I trust that my former editor Bob Whitcomb will enjoy this. Submerging Rhode Island in either of its two neighbors was an intermittent proposal of his, often in the councils of the editorial board of the Providence Journal, and occasionally even in his published  editorials and opeds. To my recol- lection he was never chastized for his treasonable apostasy by voices either on the inside or the outside of 75 Fountain St.

In colonial times, however, the colony was indeed targeted for elimination by a combination of Connecticut, Plymouth, New Haven and Massachusetts Bay called the United Colonies of New England. No action was ever taken. (The colony and state have been named Rhode Island and Providence Plantations since 1644.)

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Swallow up R.I., circa 1862

  1. A Subscriber says:

    From a billboard on the I-80 in Nebraska that will never exist:

    “Visit Rhode Island! We’re So Delicious, All Our Neighbors Want To Eat Us!”

    1) insert photo references to Federal Hill, Aunt Carrie’s, Allie’s Donuts, Walt’s Roast Beef, Del’s, and a huge tuna being weighed on the scales in Galilee.

    2) affix gargantuan, 3-dimensional clam cakes around the billboard frame.

    Interesting post, Dave! Sorry for the lame humor.

    I don’t know about Connecticut, but the Massachusetts Bay Colony used to refer to Rhode Island as a “cesspool” because of its ‘welcoming’ stance to differing religions. MA has always been the alpha-dog (and neighborhood bully) of New England but I’ve never been able to determine any concrete identity for Connecticut. Does it have one? They’ve always seemed to be more of a shadow than a real state. Greater New York appears to have co-opted its western half a long time ago, so what’s left that could really be called ‘Connecticut’? Eastern CT is more of a shadow Rhode Island than anything that can stand in its own right.


    • Michael Tyrrell says:

      Subscriber: Connecticut is like New Jersey; a powerful go-between whose wealthy and notable inhabitants make it relevant, but whose landscape and architecture are boring if you don’t know where to look. Still, the state is much larger than Worcester County (RI is smaller), and its proximity to Manhattan beats the slog up to Boston. To your question, the most distinguished part of Connecticut is hardly in the state(!)… The stretch of the Connecticut River between Enfield/Longmeadow, Mass and Brattleboro, Vermont (AKA, “The Happy Valley”) is deeply distinct for its river topography and native history, with as much to do with Massachusetts Bay as Massapequa has with Niagara Falls.


  2. Eric Daum says:

    God bless the State of Rhode Island And Providence Plantations, long may she be vastly superior to her two Puritan neighbors, especially the vile one to the north.


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