Floor Speech

Date: June 7, 2023
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, every year, I come to the Senate floor around the anniversary of June 9 of 1772 to educate our pages--and anyone else listening--about an event that took place that night in Rhode Island as the United States moved towards its revolutionary conflict with Great Britain.

And the lead-up to this was that Rhode Island was a shipping and a trading State; and Newport, in particular, was an extremely wealthy and active trading community. And the British government very much wanted to tax all of that trading, and the Rhode Islanders very much wanted not to be taxed.

And so there was considerable back-and-forth between the colonists in Rhode Island and what was then the mother country. And when the obstreperousness of the Rhode Islanders reached a certain point, a new ship and a new captain were detailed to Rhode Island to do a better job of collecting taxes from the shipping traffic.

The captain was named Dudingston--Lieutenant Dudingston--of her majesty's royal Navy. And he came in with a rather very poor attitude about Rhode Island and behaved quite badly. He seized ships without much provocation. He would grab them and send them off to be sold for salvage. He would steal cargoes out of ships.

He made himself extremely unpopular to a point that the chief justice of Rhode Island said: Excuse me, you don't get to do this. Under Rhode Island law, under our colonial charter, if you want to operate Rhode Island waters, you actually have to declare yourself and show your commission to our Governor.

And the rather undiplomatic response of Lieutenant Dudingston was, if anybody tries to interfere with my operations, I will hang them.

So things were not all that great between Lieutenant Dudingston and Rhode Island. And his ship, which is this one, was called the Gaspee, as in the Gaspe Peninsula up in Canada. She was an armed revenue cutter of fairly good size. And it was her job to basically pull over ships, search their cargoes, seize their cargoes, demand taxes, if necessary, seize the vessel.

One of his early seizures was a boat called the Fortune, which was owned by Nathanael Greene, who had not been particularly active in revolutionary matters until he had his fortune seized by Lieutenant Dudingston. And after that, he became quite active in revolutionary matters to the point of becoming, essentially, the adjutant for George Washington and then being sent by George Washington down to run the southern campaign of the revolution where the commanding British general in the Revolutionary War said: That damn Greene is more dangerous than Washington, because he was so successful running the southern campaign, much of it provoked by this Lieutenant Dudingston and his seizure of Greene's boat, the Fortune.

On this occasion, June 9, 1772, a boat called the Hannah, captained by Benjamin Lindsey, was sailing up Narragansett Bay to deliver cargo to Providence. And the Gaspee approached and signaled the Hannah to heave to, to be boarded and searched. And the Hannah refused. Captain Lindsey kept sailing.

So the Gaspee gave chase, and the two boats sailed, one after the other, with occasional gunfire from the decks of the Gaspee north towards Providence.

Before you get to Providence, there is a point that sticks out. And where the river flows in, there is a sand berm that sticks out into the bay. And Captain Lindsey, who knew the waters of Narragansett Bay very well, sailed over this sandy shallows off of what was called Namquit Point and kept going on his merry way up to Providence.

The Gaspee was a bigger vessel. It drew more water, and it ran into the sand berm in a falling tide. It was stuck. It was trapped. It was helpless.

The Hannah kept going up. Captain Lindsey went up to Providence. When he got to the Port of Providence, he rounded up John Brown, who later became heavily involved in setting up Brown University, and another Rhode Island worthy named Abraham Whipple, who continued to have an interesting naval career.

Brown and Whipple and others went to Sabin's Tavern, and people beat drums in the street to get attention. People gathered, and a crowd assembled. After suitable refreshment, they filled in a number of long boats--five or six long boats. And that night, in the dark, with muffled oars, they rowed back down to the stranded Gaspee.

There they challenged Lieutenant Dudingston to surrender his vessel, and, when he refused, they rowed to the vessel and, from multiple sides, boarded it.

During the altercation, Lieutenant Dudingston was shot. I am pleased to report that he was not killed. He recovered from his wounds, retired, ultimately, from naval service, and went back to Scotland and raised many children. But the injury that he received, I believe, was actually the first blood spilled in what became the Revolutionary conflict between the Colonies and Great Britain.

So after they had seized the vessel, the Rhode Islanders bound up the crew and rowed them ashore. There is a pub right up the street, right now, from where they were rowed ashore, with a little monument you can see that recognizes the evening that they rode ashore, June 9, 1772. Then they went back out to the stranded Gaspee and set her afire.

Now, the Gaspee had cannons, and cannons use powder, and powder is kept in a magazine. So when the fire got to the powder magazine, this happened. The Gaspee was blown to smithereens, and that was the end of her predatory behavior in Rhode Island Sound and Narragansett Bay.

Now, by way of point of contrast, up in Massachusetts, more than a year later, a number of Massachusetts colonists went onboard a British ship, and they pushed tea bags off of the boat and into Boston Harbor, which, I am sure, was a very brave and wonderful thing to do. But from Rhode Island's perspective, we outsmarted the British, we got the boat stuck, we seized the boat, we captured the entire crew, and then we blew it up, more than a year before the tea bag incident in Boston Harbor. I think we are entitled to some credit for that.

But Massachusetts produced Adamses who became Presidents. They produced Harvard, which wrote histories. And the story of the Boston Tea Party is now known to--do you guys know the story? Yes, every page head nods. They know the Boston Tea Party story.

I don't know what Rhode Island has to do to get out of the shadow of the Boston Tea Party, but we blew the damn boat up and I think that is pretty good.

The final of the story is that King George was furious about this. He took this as an enormous insult to his kingdom, to his crown, and to himself. And so he decreed that all of the insurgents who had rowed down in those boats were to be caught and were to be hanged. And a bounty was put for information leading to the identification of the Rhode Islanders who participated in the Gaspee raid.

I will say with some pride that no credible testimony ever emerged. The trials never took place. The nooses hung empty. And Rhode Island-- against all of that pressure and with the allure of these bribes and bounties from the King--refused to give up their secrets. So it is a very strong story in many regards.

And we now have created a brandnew license plate. It is not out on cars yet, I don't believe. This one says ``SAMPLE.'' But there is the Rhode Island license plate with the ``Gaspee Days 1772'' logo and the exploding Gaspee on it. I can't wait to get one and to drive it up to Massachusetts and park it near Boston Harbor and have some tea.