Paper Money in Rhode Island
John Fiske

The debates over paper money in the Rhode Island legislature began in 1785, but the advocates of a sound currency were victorious. These men were roundly abused in the newspapers, and in the next spring election most of them lost their seats. The legislature of 1786 showed an overwhelming majority in favor of paper money. The farmers from the inland towns were unanimous in supporting the measure. They could not see the difference between the state making a dollar out of paper and a dollar out of silver. The idea that the value did not lie in the government stamp they dismissed as an idle crotchet, a wire-drawn theory, worthy only of "literary fellows." What they could see was the glaring fact that they had no money, hard or soft; and they wanted something that would satisfy their creditors and buy new gowns for their wives, whose raiment was unquestionably the worse for wear.

On the other hand, the merchants from seaports like Providence, Newport, and Bristol understood the difference between real money and the promissory notes of a bankrupt government, but they were in a hopeless minority. Half a million dollars were issued in scrip, to be loaned to the farmers on a mortgage of their real estate. No one could obtain the scrip without giving a mortgage for twice the amount, and it was thought that this security would make it as good as gold. But the depreciation began instantly. When the worthy farmers went to the store for dry goods or sugar, and found the prices rising with dreadful rapidity, they were at first astonished, and then enraged. The trouble, as they truly said, was with the wicked merchants, who would not take the paper dollars at their face value. These men were thus thwarting the government, and must be punished. An act was accordingly hurried through the legislature, commanding every one to take paper as an equivalent for gold, under penalty of five hundred dollars fine and loss of the right of suffrage.

The merchants in the cities thereupon shut up their shops. During the summer of 1786 all business was at a standstill in Newport and Providence, except in the bar-rooms. There and about the market-places men spent their time angrily discussing politics, and scarcely a day passed without street-fights, which at time grew into riots. In the country, too, no less than in the cities, the goddess of discord reigned. The farmers determined to starve the city people into submission, and they entered into an agreement not to send any produce into the cities until the merchants should open their shops and begin selling their goods for paper at its face value. Not wishing to lose their pigs and butter and grain, they tried to dispose of them in Boston and New York, and in the coast towns of Connecticut. But in all these places their proceedings had awakened such lively disgust that placards were posted in the taverns warning purchasers against farm produce from Rhode Island. Disappointed in these quarters, the farmers threw away their milk, used their corn for fuel, and let their apples rot on the ground, rather than supply the detested merchants. Food grew scarce in Providence and Newport, and in the latter city a mob of sailors attempted unsuccessfully to storm the provision stores. The farmers were threatened with armed violence. Town-meetings were held all over the state, to discuss the situation, and how long they might have talked to no purpose none can say, when all at once the matter was brought into court.

A cabinet-maker in Newport named Trevett went into a meat-market kept by one John Weeden, and selecting a joint of meat, offered paper in payment. Weeden refused to take the paper except at a heavy discount. Trevett went to bed superless, and next morning informed against the obstinate butcher for disobedience to the forcing act. Should the court find him guilty, it would be a good speculation for Trevett, for half of the five hundred dollars fine was to go to the informer. Hard-money men feared lest the court might prove subservient to the legislature, since that body possessed the power of removing the five judges. The case was tried in Spetember amid furious excitement. huge crowds gathered about the court-house and far down the street, screaming and cheering like a crowd on the night of a presidential election. The judges were clear-headed men, not to be brownbeaten. They declared the forcing act unconstitutional, and dismissed the complaint. Popular wrath then turned upon them. A special session of the legislature was convened, four of the judges were removed, and a new forcing-act was prepared. This act provided that no man could vote at elections or hold any office without taking a test oath promising to receive paper money at par. But this was going too far. Many soft-money men were not wild enough to support such a measure; among the farmers there were some who had grown tired of seeing their produce spoiled on their hands; and many of the richest merchants had announced their intention of moving out of the state. The new forcing act accordingly failed to pass, and presently the old one was repealed. The paper dollar had been issued in May; in November it passed for sixteen cents.

These outrageous proceedings awakened disgust and alarm among sensible people in all the other states, and Rhode Island was everywhere reviled and made fun of. One clause of the forcing act had provided that if a debtor should offer paper to his creditor and the creditor should refuse to take it at par, the debtor might carry his rag money to court and deposit it with the judge; and the judge must thereupon issue a certificate discharging the debt. The form of certificate began with the words "Know Ye," and forthwith the unhappy little state was nicknamed Rogues' Island, the home of Know Ye men and Know Ye measures.


The Critical Period of American History 1783-1789 by John Fiske, pages 173-177
Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1888