Cities, towns, and communities all across the United States have hosted July Fourth festivities this week, but only one can accurately lay claim to “America’s Oldest Fourth of July Celebration!” That’s Bristol, Rhode Island, a small town just across the border from Massachusetts that began hosting its “Patriotic Exercises” while the American Revolution was still being fought. Those Exercises continue to this day, and have evolved into a multi-week celebration that begins on Flag Day, features many other events including fireworks of course, and concludes with the longstanding 2.5 mile Military, Civic, and Fireman’s Parade on the Fourth itself.
The Fourth of July is a profoundly symbolic occasion, an opportunity for celebratory patriotism that has the potential to genuinely connect all Americans to a sense of love for our shared community. But it’s also an important moment for the tough love that I call critical patriotism, for recognizing and challenging the gaps between our national ideals and the realities of our histories, including the oppressive and violent events that have been far too foundational and endure into this celebratory week. And in two key ways, Bristol reflects and embodies those much more painful histories, offering us an exemplary lens through which both to remember those crucial contradictions and to continue the fight for a more perfect union that includes all Americans.
The first of those two histories is Bristol’s central role in the slave trade, which emerged at precisely the same time the community was beginning to present those Fourth of July celebrations. In Unrighteous Traffick, a series of 15 compelling articles for the Providence Journal in 2006, journalist Paul Davis offered a comprehensive history of Rhode Island’s central role in the slave trade across the entire 18th century. As Davis puts it, “Rhode Island ruled the slave trade. For more than 75 years, merchants and investors bankrolled 1,000 voyages to Africa. Their ships carried some 100,000 men, women, and children into New World slavery.”
Bristol was far from alone, but it emerged as the center of the trade at a particularly fraught moment, in the post-Revolutionary period when Rhode Island had officially outlawed slave trading. As Davis notes, “almost half of all of Rhode Island’s slave voyages occurred after trading was outlawed [in 1787]. By the end of the 18th century, Bristol surpassed Newport as the busiest slave port in Rhode Island.” Those final decades of the century were the origin of the period known as the Golden Age of Sail, and a significant number of the voyages departing from and arriving at every American port in the era were intertwined with slavery through economies like the Triangular Trade. But in Bristol the connections to slavery and the transatlantic slave trade were much more overt and central.
Of the countlesseffects of that post-Revolutionary slave trade in Bristol, one of the most striking is how much it built the city’s great fortunes and families (as was the case in Newport as well). Exemplifying that trend is the story of the multi-generational DeWolf family that came to be synonymous with Bristol and even Rhode Island itself. As Davis writes, “the DeWolfs financed 88 slaving voyages from 1784 to 1807 — roughly a quarter of all Rhode Island slave trips during that period.” They used their profits to construct the city’s emerging infrastructure, as with their 1797 founding of the Bank of Bristol with $50,000 in capital. And they brought their family clout with them to Washington, D.C., where the brutal slave trader James DeWolf (at one time the second richest man in America) built on his career as Speaker of the Rhode Island House by becoming a U.S. Senator in 1821. In so many ways Bristol was crucial to America’s growth after the Revolution, and in every way it was tied to the slave trade.