Welcome to the July 2007 Edition of Jud’s New England Journal, the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published for over 70 years in Dublin, New Hampshire.
Sure, It’s Only 47 Miles Long, But…
… don’t get Rhode Islanders started on the subject of their state. That is, unless you have plenty of time …
First of all, you ought to know that its official name isn’t just “Rhode Island.” Rather, it’s “The State of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations” (a little long for the license plate). Other names for it have been “The Plantation of the Otherwise Minded” and “Rogues’ Island.” At one time the greatest slave-trading colony in America, Rhode Island was the first civilized community anywhere that allowed freedom of religion. Of its Roger Williams-inspired psyche emphasizing freedom of conscience and action, Massachusetts Puritan Cotton Mather said, “If a man has lost his religion, he might find it at this general muster of opinionists.”
Little Rhody, or the Ocean State, is still a “general muster of opinionists,” and as such has just naturally developed a reputation for tolerance. I believe it still has the only fishing cooperative in New England; Brown is the only city university in our region without the “town and gown” problems one encounters in, say, Cambridge and New Haven; and it calmly tolerates crooks in various positions of power … like, for instance, colorful and beloved-by-many former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci, who was just released last month from jail. Known as “the working man’s mayor,” Buddy was occasionally seen riding horseback down fancy Blackstone Boulevard with his spurs pointing forward so they wouldn’t hurt the horse. And did you know that Rhode Island has the highest proportion of Roman Catholics of any state in the Union?
Of course, it’s small—only 47 and a half miles long and, at most, 40 miles wide— yet it has more people that either Vermont or New Hampshire. If you live in the Rhode Island countryside you can, or so they say, be in the city in seven minutes. And like a person of small stature, Rhode Island absolutely refuses to be overlooked or ignored.
“Do you realize Rhode Island was the first colony to disregard the British stamp act?” a museum curator suddenly asked me a few years ago as we were sifting through some photographs of 19th-century Cranston (pronounced “Creeanston”).
“We were also the first to officially renounce allegiance to Great Britain,” he continued, his voice now raised, “and among the first to adopt the Articles of Confederation, and first to fire a cannon at any British naval vessel.”
“Really?” I remember responding, attempting to lift the appearance of my own interest to his very earnest level. “Oh, sure,” he said, “and the first Baptist church is in Providence; the first Jewish synagogue in America is in Newport; the country’s first cotton mill, started by Samuel Slater, was begun in Pawtucket in 1790; the first lighthouse on the American coast was built at Beavertail back in 1749; the first spinning jenny in the United States was …” And it was about here I managed to interrupt him with a hearty “By gorry!” followed by “That’s something!” No telling how long he would have gone on.
But, you know, I was impressed. Still am, too.