‘Rogue Island,’ the state almost taxed as a foreign nation

Providence, Rhode Island in colonial times

When the Constitutional Convention was held in 1787, delegates from Rhode Island were noticeably absent. The state – then nicknamed “Rogue Island” – had already gained a reputation for standing apart. As a colony, it was first to declare its independence from Great Britain, the first to ban slavery, and, later, it was the first to remove racial restrictions on voting rights. When ratifying the U.S. Constitution, however, Rhode Island was defiantly last.

Distrusting the idea of a powerful centralized government, most Rhode Islanders remained loyal to the Articles of Confederation, America’s original governing documents, which were adopted in 1777. Before any amendments could be made to the Articles, each state had to agree to the changes.

Exercising its right under the Articles of Confederation, America’s smallest state refused to ratify the new constitution 11 times in less than three years, but in the end, no one waited for Rhode Island. The First Congress of the United States convened in 1789 without the rogue state’s representatives, and it was not long before other states began calling for Rhode Island’s exports to be treated like those of a foreign nation. In May 1790, Congress passed an act which would restrict commercial trade with the last holdout.

Facing an impending embargo by its neighbors, Rhode Island’s state legislature finally ratified the Constitution by a narrow vote of 34 to 32 on May 29, 1790.