Nathanael Greene & the Formation of the American Republic

Production of a Patriot: The Gaspee Incident

Nathanael Greene was born July of 1742 in the colony of Rhode Island.  Young Nathanael grew up under the loving, but strict, care of his devoutly Quaker family and learned how to be a blacksmith, which was his father’s trade.  Nathanael, however, had his own desires. In a letter, Greene wrote, “I lament the want of a liberal education.  I feel the mist (of) ignorance to surround me”1  Nathanael began to educate himself.  He read as much as he could, whenever he could. Biographer Terry Golway mentions that Greene even went as far as to read while engaged in his work as a blacksmith.2  Greene later befriended, and was encouraged by, Ezra Stiles, future president of Yale University.  Soon, Greene’s interests wandered towards military science.

Armed with his new education, Greene began taking a more active role in his community, culminating in his service with the Rhode Island Assembly from 1770 to 1772.  1772 was a pivotal year for Nathanael.  It was the year he became a patriot.  Until then, Greene’s correspondences had been fairly apathetic in regards to politics.  All that changed with the appearance of the Gaspee in Narragansett Bay. The resulting events, and later the passage of the Intolerable Acts and Greene’s susceptibility to conspiracy theory, would make Nathanael an extremely zealous patriot.

The Gaspee was a British sloop-of-war sent by customs officials to bring a halt to the smuggling activities of Rhode Island merchants.  On February 17, The Gaspee seized a merchant vessel, searched the ship, assaulted her captain, towed the ship back to port, and illegally sent the case to an Admiralty Court rather than a local court.  The seizure was not uncommon in and of itself; however, the vessel was the Fortune, owned by Nathanael Greene’s iron forge and captained by his cousin Rufus.3

This was probably the turning point in Greene’s life.  After this event, the clamoring for rights and liberty in Boston and Newport were no longer matters pursued by scholars or philosophers.  Now, it was personal. Nathanael was seething with anger at the seizure of his goods.  He wrote, “The illegality of (the) measure created such a Spirit of Resentment That I have devoted almost the whole of my Time in devising and carrying into execution measures for the recovery of my Property and punishing the offender.”4  In his quest for self-education, Nathanael had taken the time to read William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.  He decided to file a lawsuit against Lieutenant Dudingston, commander of the Gaspee.  The case of Greene v. Dudingston was remarkable for its audacity.  To bring the commander of a Royal Navy schooner to court was no small matter.  As Greene prepared for the case, Dudingston avoided coming to port.

Dudingston continued admirably performing his duties until one day in June when a Rhode Island merchant attempted to flee the Gaspee.  The merchant captain undoubtedly knew the coastline better than Dudingston, who soon ran his ship aground.  A very organized mob was hastily assembled and by morning, His Majesty’s Ship was a burned wreck.

This event was important in Greene’s development for two reasons.  First, Dudingston was arrested and brought to court to face Greene.  Little is known about the ensuing legal battle.  However, we do know that Nathanael Greene was at least partially victorious.  He was awarded restitution of three hundred pounds sterling.5  Thus, Greene, a colonist, was victorious over a natural-born Englishman in court.  The fact that it was a jury of Greene’s, and not Dudingston’s, peers is irrelevant.  What matters is that Greene was provided with an example of his equality with a native Englishman.  This certainly would have fostered a sense that the rights of Englishmen extend to all in the Empire.  This belief could only lead to conflict with the concept of virtual representation and English condescension towards colonists in general.

More importantly, Greene saw how the law should work.  It provided context for how Greene saw the legal system in the period after the Gaspee Affair.  Given Nathanael’s ongoing legal battle with Dudingston, it is unsurprising that he was named as a suspect in the attack.  Testimony that a man “named Greene” was involved only brought suspicion closer still.6

While there is little doubt Nathanael approved of the assault on the reviled Gaspee, he was infuriated by accusations that he was involved.  He had no desire to be identified with the raiders, especially when rumors spread that suspects would be transported to London for trial.  Colonists frequently escaped punishment for their crimes because the jury was composed of the defendant’s peers, who would often listen to the evidence with a knowing smirk on their face and proceed to find the defendant not guilty.  A jury in London would provide no special treatment.

Although Nathanael was eventually cleared of all suspicion, the Greene spoke of likely being Rufus, he continued to spout vitriol at the special commission set up by King George III.  He wrote to his young protégé, Sammy Ward, that the commission was “Justly Alarming to every Virtuous Mind and Lover of Liberty in America.”7  He continues in the letter, stating if this “Mode of Trial is established into a Precedent it will naturally Affect all the other Colonies.”8  The commission further felt Nathanael’s wrath as he decried the offer of monetary rewards for evidence, claiming that they encouraged perjury.  Nathanael had seen a “fair” trial system, and this was certainly not how it was conducted.

His dealings with, and contempt for, the Gaspee Commission provided another critical moment in his life.  Previous to this point, Nathanael’s disagreements with the Mother Country consisted of matters concerning property.  This was the reason he took a Royal Navy officer to court and likely smiled at the vengeance wreaked by his fellow Rhode Islanders.  Now, not his property, but his person was in jeopardy.  This gave Nathanael an intimate connection with the colonial struggle for rights.

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