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Governing the affairs of the town: Continuity and change in Rhode Island, 1750-1800

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posted on 2023-09-06, 03:04 authored by Ruth Wallis Herndon

This study, based on records kept by the clerks of twelve Rhode Island towns over fifty years, identifies common factors that bound Rhode Island to the larger New England region in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Rhode Island towns shared with all other New England towns a political framework of similar officials, a self-sufficient town government economy sustained by the same patterns of income and expenditure, and a set of regionally recognized and utilized solutions for the social problems posed by poor and troublesome inhabitants. In addition, New England towns all relied heavily on their town clerks, men of great prestige, wealth, and education who stayed in office longer than any other elected officials. The clerk functioned as the "hub" of the towns, receiving and dispensing information critical to the functioning of the community. The records clerks kept serve not only as the official history of their towns but also as journals of the clerks' priorities, concerns, and cultural sensibilities. This study uses the records of town clerks to trace the rise and fall of fourteen indicators of political, economic, and social change in Rhode Island during the Revolutionary Era. Indicators such as town meetings, town taxes, and warnouts of transients are statistically analyzed and organized into graphs that illustrate variations over time. The result is a paradox of continuity and change. The "skeleton" of the towns' operating structure remained unchanged throughout the period, reinforcing the idea of a conservative Revolution and challenging the idea of radical consequences in this state. But the "flesh" on the skeleton changed during the upheaval, as the number of town meetings tripled, local taxes quadrupled, and the number of poor transients soared. The Revolution tested the durability of Rhode Island town organization, which survived by flexing to accommodate the pressures of war and economic depression. This structure endured, and in 1800, Rhode Island's towns were organized just as they had been in 1750.







Ph.D. American University 1992.


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