The circumstances and events leading up to the attack on the Gaspee
The attack on the Gaspee was driven by circumstances and events that were viewed through conflicting views of right and wrong.
The Rhode Island colonists had come from England where English people received the governmental services and military defense provided by taxation enacted by a Parliamentary House of Commons whose members were elected by the people.
But from 1600 to 1760, when Englishmen emigrated to Rhode Island, Parliament left the colony to fend for itself, providing its own services and military defense. Parliament had other more pressing business during those eventful years in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and taxation of a few people far away was not a part of the legislative agenda. The Rhode Island government, left to its own devices, was elected by the people. For generations, only those elected representatives imposed taxes on Rhode Island people, property, and businesses. By 1750, Rhode Islanders and their businesses accepted as a constitutional fact that they could only be taxed by their own legislature. As for regulation of business, again the same historical background led to Rhode Islanders to the view that only Rhode Island’s legislature could regulate what Rhode Island merchants did.
In contrast, the Parliament of England always believed they had the constitutional right to tax any English person and control the businesses conducted in the English colonies. That Parliament had not done so for the initial years of the existence of the New England colonies was, according to the Parliament’s thinking, simply a matter of Parliamentary grace in not taxing a struggling and weak colony.
The British victory in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), known in British America as the French and Indian War, had been won only at a great financial cost. England had spent large sums of money providing the colonies with English Navy ships and English Army men to fight the French and Indians. During the war, the British national debt nearly doubled, rising from £72,000,000 in 1755 to almost £130,000,000 by 1764. Post-war expenses would also be high because it was decided in 1763 to keep ten thousand British regular soldiers in the American colonies, as a cost of about £225,000 per year. The primary reason for retaining such a large force was that demobilizing the army would put 1,500 officers, many of whom were well-connected in Parliament, out of work. This made it politically prudent to retain a large peacetime establishment, but because Britons were averse to maintaining a standing army at home, it was necessary to garrison the troops elsewhere. Stationing 10,000 troops in North America made strategic sense because Great Britain had acquired the vast territory of New France in the 1763 peace treaty, and troops would be needed to maintain control of the new empire.
How was the national debt for the war and the expense of the troops in North American to be paid. Raising taxes in Britain was out of the question, since there had been virulent protests in England against a new 1763 cider tax. This left the colonies to be a source of tax revenue. Taxing the American colonies was something new: Parliament had previously passed measures to regulate trade in the colonies, but it had never before directly taxed the colonies to raise revenue. The common method of taxation of the day was levying import taxes on certain goods, and Parliament proceeded to enact taxes on certain goods imported into New England. When after the French and Indian War the English government for the first time started to impose taxes on the colonists, Parliament thought the taxes just and proper.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Americans thought the new taxes were illegal and unconstitutional taxes. and an English attempt to put American merchants at a competitive disadvantage. Rhode Island merchants regarded themselves as doing a lawful business and not having to legally pay the “unlawful and unconstitutional” taxes. They acted by simply not paying the taxes, smuggling goods into the colony.
The terms “Whig” and “Tory” were at this time now being used in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Virginia. Politics in the late eighteenth century England could be broadly divided into two parties – Whigs and Tories. Broadly defined, the Tories believed in the divine right of Kings to rule – that they were ordained by God. Whigs believed that the King was there at the request and consent of the governed people. The Whigs in England who believed in those principles which had lead to the English Civil War of 1640, the establishment of the Commonwealth, and the beheading of King Charles were termed “Real Whigs” or “Radical Whigs”. They believed that enactments of the King which opposed the good of the people or the consent of the elected representatives of the people were illegal and not “real law;” further, that the people had the right oppose and even use violence to prevent the imposition of those uses of force by the government which attempted to enforce illegal laws.
Politics in the late eighteenth century New England could also be broadly divided into groups. While not a political party in American, those persons called Whigs were those who thought and taught the politics of the “Radical Whigs.” of England. Generally, in America, anyone supporting the English government or Parliament, in opposition to the colonial government< was labeled "Tory," regardless of any belief in the divine right of Kings. Adding to the background for the Gaspee attack was conflict in understanding who could enforce the law in Narragansett Bay. Narragansett Bay is huge, 3 to 12 miles wide, extending 28 miles inland, almost completely cutting Rhode Island in two. It was the site of numerous ship wharfs of various merchants, and it was from there that Rhode Island conducted its extensive merchant business. The Royal Navy Regulations before the American Revolution defined the territorial waters of a country or colony by the “cannon shot” rule. The "cannon shot" (the French called it the portée du canon ) doctrine is that a coastal country can only claim sovereignty over the waters it can physically control from the land, and thus its sovereignty is only as far seawards as a cannon can fire a cannon ball. The English Royal Navy therefore considered Narragansett Bay as mostly international waters, in which it had the jurisdiction and right to use military force to enforce English customs taxes. In contrast to the Royal Navy Regulations, the Rhode Island courts considered the border of the colony to cross the mouth of Narragansett Bay from the land’s furthest points out into the Atlantic Ocean on either side of the Bay. Rhode Island law even defined the jurisdiction of the counties on either side of the Bay to extend outward until they met the opposite county in the middle of the Bay. Thus, under Rhode Island law, it was the sheriffs of the counties who had jurisdiction to enforce the civil law for events on the entire Bay. When asked for a legal opinion on the operations of the Gaspee ship, the Chief Justice of Rhode Island, declared that an English Navy ship had no jurisdiction to take action in Narragansett Bay unless the Governor granted such authority to the ship captain (although, the Justice stated, if the Governor was shown a Royal command to allow it, the Governor would have to grant it). Rhode Island attorneys pointed out that constitutionally, in English law, the military have no jurisdiction or right to enforce civil law where the county officials such as the Sheriff were maintaining law and order. In fact, they said, in the previous century Englishmen had revolted and cut off the head of King Charles who was using the army to enforce his decrees in England in a time instead of using the sheriffs and courts. Using the Royal Army or Navy force to enforce civil law when the Rhode Island colonial government was keeping order in the colony was just plain illegal, according to the Rhode Island lawyers, many of whom had been trained in London. The stage was thus set for the colonists to decide to get rid of the Royal Navy armed schooner Gaspee, which was enforcing English customs law by seizing ships and cargos in Narragansett Bay. In the thinking of Rhode Island merchants, the Gaspee commander was illegally using military force, and he was using the illegal force to enforce an unconstitutional tax. Next read about the planning of the attack: the tasks and schedules to accomplish the goal of capturing the Gaspee.