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.”