When delegates from the United States met at Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to reform their constitution, one state went unrepresented. Rhode Island—the smallest and least populous of the thirteen rebel colonies—was undergoing its own democratic experiment, one that set it very much at odds with the gentlemen revolutionaries who would soon form the new federal government. The story of Rhode Island’s radical democracy is rarely remembered among the events of the founding. But its rise and fall reflect important truths about the forces that have shaped the United States from the beginning.
More than that, the failure of Rhode Island’s experiment suggests the limits of local institutions in an age of global capital, then barely at its dawn. When elites have organized themselves across borders for the protection of their own interests, local majorities in favor of more egalitarian policies are not enough. From Syriza in Greece to Argentina under the Kirchners to Scottish and Californian independence movements, efforts to create new kinds of politics within defensive borders are destined to fail when set against a borderless hegemony backed, when necessary, by state power. The first such failed effort, Rhode Island’s experiment in radical democracy in the late 1780s, helps us rethink the historical structures within which modern democracy was formed—structures that still shape and constrain popular power today.
Rhode Island’s experiment in egalitarian democracy emerged from economic and political conditions that troubled all the newly independent American states during the 1780s. This is the moment that most textbook accounts of the founding skip quickly over. Ordinary citizens faced a combination of tax hikes and a scarcity of currency, as governments stretched to pay off wartime debts and urban elites passed the costs onto the underrepresented inhabitants of the rural hinterlands. In every state, the postwar economic slump sparked calls for reduced taxation and emissions of paper money to ease the impact of the crisis—measures that would redistribute economic burdens away from ordinary people and towards the wealthy.
In response, those men who had only recently styled themselves “revolutionaries” began to organize against a political program that James Madison characterized as “wicked.” These political leaders of the 1780s complained that the new nation was drowning in a rising tide of democracy and social disorder. Central government under the Articles of Confederation was too feeble, they worried, to deal with the emergency. Fast-rising gentlemen like Alexander Hamilton and his merchant friend Robert Morris saw the popularity of rural legislators and their redistributive proposals as a threat to the dignity and stability of the republic. For the elite, democracy was a dirty word.
This founding-era class struggle played out across the United States, especially in Pennsylvania, where Robert Morris’s faction battled with rural politicians like William Findley. But starting in 1786, it was Rhode Island where egalitarians won their most stunning electoral triumph. Under the slogan “To Relieve the Distressed,” a slate of candidates headed by paper-currency advocate John Collins swept the elections that April, placing Collins in the governor’s seat with a legislature ready to enact dramatic reforms to the state’s economic system. As one shocked supporter of the old regime reported, “We are now experiencing one of the greatest revolutions ever known in this state.”
From the very start, Rhode Island’s new government faced bitter opposition from the state’s genteel and mercantile elite. Poor and rural citizens, on the other hand, celebrated the election as if it were, like the “shot heard ’round the world” at Lexington and Concord, the beginning of a new struggle for political independence. As the Collins government brought in paper money and legal-tender laws that sought to relieve debtors while preventing depreciation, merchants declared their refusal to obey the new regime. In response, radical legislators enacted increasingly draconian punishments for those who rejected the currency, including disenfranchisement.
Governor Collins, at the head of the state’s egalitarian movement, decried the “combination of influential men” that had set itself “against the good and wholesome laws of the state.” Rather than submit to democratic rule, merchants chose to reject the paper money, shut up their shops, and wait for the ensuing economic chaos to bring down the radical government. On the streets of Rhode Island’s cities, people spoke openly about putting merchants’ heads on spikes. By September, one congressman wrote, the state was on the brink of “civil war.”
Not far away, in Massachusetts, matters were getting equally out of hand. Ordinary people defied the rule of law across swaths of the state. They intimidated judges, closed down courts, and took up arms to defend their property against the claims of government and creditors alike. This rural insurgency, known to history as Shays’s Rebellion, is a much more familiar part of the founding-era story. Elite gentlemen across the United States were shocked to learn that so soon after the revolution against Britain citizens would rise up against their own republican institutions.
“For God’s sake tell me,” George Washington asked Henry Knox, the secretary of war, “what is the cause of all these commotions?” In his reply, Knox minced no words about the redistributive impulse that lay behind recent events. “The insurgents feel at once their own poverty, compared with the opulent, and their own force, and they are determined to make use of the latter, in order to remedy the former.” Over the following winter, funded by Boston’s merchant community, Massachusetts elites raised an army to crush Shays’s Rebellion. Federalist elites quickly turned it into an effective propaganda tool—a stark warning about the need for stronger central government.
The story of Rhode Island’s radical interlude challenges that narrative, reminding us that what happened in the 1780s wasn’t simply about law and order against anarchy and chaos. It was about what kind of order would prevail in the new nation. In Rhode Island, merchants and their allies spurned the authority of a legitimate, elected government, in order to protect their own class interests. They rejected the will of the majority, and resisted the relief of the distressed at the expense of the wealthy. Crucially, they did it in full knowledge of the fact that they would have the support of gentlemen, merchants, and political leaders beyond the borders of their own state.
In the years leading up to the beginning of the new federal government in 1789, a national elite was still in the process of formation. Mistrust of democracy, and fear of power in the hands of ordinary Americans, helped drive the interstate cooperation necessary to ratify the Constitution. Rhode Island lawyer William Ellery shared the view of many in his class when he wrote that “unless power is lodged somewhere to control the vice and folly of the people we shall soon be involved in all the horrors of anarchy and confusion.” Real power could, they believed, be concentrated somewhere beyond the reach of local majorities. In the end, as one opponent of Rhode Island’s government surmised, “the state itself is but of very little consequence in the great scale of the union.”
There was, of course, a time-honored way to locate power beyond the reach of ordinary people: by giving it to a king. To remain within the republican tradition, however, American elites in the 1780s had to do some rather innovative thinking. Most republicans believed that political power without kings was in fact best organized in the smallest units—something like the city-states that still dotted Italy, or the confederated republics of Switzerland and the Netherlands. For the ordinary citizens of Rhode Island, it was common sense that they should wield control over their own state, including its currency, trade, and system of justice. That was how republics were supposed to work.
Yet the most visionary of elite Americans saw something else. Inspired in part by what Britain had achieved in the preceding century, they imagined what was, in essence, an empire without an emperor. This empire would be bound together, not by the rule of men, but by laws. Above and beyond the reach of democratic majorities, certain principles of justice would determine the shape and limits of republican society. It should be no surprise, given the nature of the new elite, that these principles were drawn from the world of merchants and lawyers. Above all else, in other words, came the rules of property and contract.
“There is not a spot in the United States where the solemnity of contracts and grants has been so sacrilegiously violated—and the rights of men so wantonly and perseveringly abused, as…in the little detestable corner of the Continent, called Rhode-Island,” wrote the future lexicographer Noah Webster in 1787. He was only giving voice to the views shared by other supporters of the new Constitution, people who believed Rhode Island’s experiment in egalitarian democracy represented a threat to the kind of society they hoped to create. Rhode Island was merely one corner of the continent, and men like Webster had begun to think on a continental—and a transatlantic—scale.
It was a court case in the fall of 1786 that signaled the beginning of the end for Rhode Island’s egalitarian experiment. When a butcher named Weeden refused to accept the state’s new paper money and was sued, he had the full weight of the commercial elite arrayed on his side. Citing the Swiss jurist Emmerich de Vattel, Weeden’s attorney convinced the judges—sitting in the mercantile stronghold of Newport—that they were “bound by the laws of nature in preference to any human laws.” While the elected legislature rejected the decision, holding fast to its own power to make laws for the state, the case was a portent of the inability to break elite resolve.
Collins’s government held out until the end of the decade, but to little avail. In the face of an increasingly cohesive ruling class, which had control of most of the state’s economic apparatus, democratic politicians found themselves largely impotent to enact their program. They lived in a world increasingly dominated by commerce and its rules, and, though they hadn’t yet ratified its new Constitution, in a United States with a government constructed to forestall “wicked” projects like their own. That government’s leaders placed its public credit, and its position within the global mercantile system, above its commitment to popular rule. In short, the ill-fated republic of Rhode Island existed on the threshold of the modern world.
There has been no more poignant 21st-century echo of the rogue-island scenario than the Greek election of 2015. Alexis Tsipras’s left-wing umbrella party entered office with a radical anti-austerity mandate, only to be forced, within six months, to adopt the cost-cutting agenda imposed by creditor banks and the European Union. In some respects, that moment presaged the new wave of anti-globalist, anti-neoliberal protest politics that came to fruition a year later with Britain’s vote to exit the European Union, and Donald Trump’s election to the presidency. What drives such movements is an inchoate rage against a system that is unresponsive to the will or needs of the majority—a ghostly empire without an emperor that seems to be both everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
It’s important to remember, then, that just such a system was part of the design for the United States from the beginning. The world’s first modern nation was constructed with the intention of muffling democratic voices, and enshrining the rules of a globalizing commercial economy. While the legacy of the American Revolution has continued to hold out the hope of democracy and equality, the reality is that it helped build a world where such projects are all but impossible.
Global neoliberal hegemony has not abolished borders—far from it. But the borders that exist work best for those states like Singapore or the United Arab Emirates that are already fully signed up to a system in which flows of capital beat out democracy every time. There is optimism, innovation, and solidarity to be found in new movements for radical change, including those, like the Scottish National Party, that promise to create new borders in the name of equality, inclusion, and freedom. But Rhode Island’s case, like that of Tsipras’s Greece, suggests that going it alone can only get these movements so far.
What gave gentlemen revolutionaries like Madison and Hamilton the chance to recast the foundations of the United States was their ability, as a class, to organize across state boundaries. That was something their opponents, men like John Collins and William Findley, failed to do. To reclaim control of the future, to rebuild an egalitarian politics, democrats today need to look past national projects to the global, mobile, and increasingly connected working class.