Notes on collections at the RIHS
Yes, it’s true that July 4th is the traditional day of celebrating the 13 American Colonies’ independence from Great Britain. But on 4 May 1776* Rhode Island became the first colony to separate themselves from the crown. The broadside declaration of Rhode Island’s independence featured here is one of only two known copies**:
(The full title is actually the slightly wordier: “An Act Repealing an Act Intituled, ‘An Act for the More Effectual Securing to His Majesty the Allegiance of His Subjects in this His Colony and Dominion of Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations;’ and Altering the Form of Commissions, of All Writs and Processes in the Courts, and of the Oaths Prescribed by Law.”)***
One aspect of the American Revolution that this document illustrates clearly is the practical (and often bureaucratic) realities of declaring independence: getting rid of a king means changing a lot of letterhead, or at least removing his name from a lot of documents and ceremonies. It is, after all, technically an act repealing an act. And after the string of impassioned “whereas”-es (“. . . confiscate our Property, and spread Fire, Sword and Desolation . . .”) the bulk of the document is all about changing the wording of oaths for civil servants.
This copy of the document also displays the shift from “colony” to “state” in a moment of transition. It was not until July 18th that the Rhode Island General Assembly voted to abandon the word “colony”****, and an early hand has written “State” over each mention of “Colony” in the “General Officers” and “Town Officers” paragraphs of the newly revised oaths:
Henry Ward, the General Assembly’s secretary, signed this copy (and also the Princeton copy), as evidence of its validity.
** The other copy is in Princeton University’s Andre De Coppet Collection. This copy is signed but does not include the emendations of “Colony” to “State”. The original manuscript act is held by the Rhode Island State Archives.
***G1157 Broadsides 1776 No.6: “An Act Repealing an Act . . .”, [Providence: John Carter, 1776]. Alden #661; Evans 15056; Winship p. 34.
**** Sydney James, Colonial Rhode Island, A History, New York: Scribners, 1975.