“There is a hill about 7 miles from Newport, and on the Eastern side of this Island, called Quaker Hill, from whence there is a very fine view of all the N. part of the Island, and of the adjacent islands, and the Continent for many miles. The many fine and well cultivated islands, and the beautiful bays and inlets, with the distant view of towns, farms and cultivated lands intermixed with Woods, together with the many vies of the adjacent waters, contribute to make this (even at this bleak season of the year) the finest, most diversified, and extensive prospect I have seen in America…. In the beginning of Summer this must be a delightful vista, and I should think hardly to be equalled in America, or any other Country. Major Frederick Mackenzie, British Army occupying Aquidneck Island, 1778[i]
When we do not have the time for one of our favorite longer excursions on the beaches or wildlife refuges, we will walk to the bottom of Pine Tree Street and turn north on Middle Road past our bovine friends in the heifer pen at Escobar Farm. We turn back home after a mile or so at the Friends Evangelical Meeting House and old cemetery. The Friends Meeting House was founded in 1658, and the current building constructed in 1700. There is a small group of Quaker Friends who thankfully have been doing some meeting and renovating to this marvelous building.
We live on the back side of Quaker Hill and walk by most of it on the way to the Friends Meeting House. Unwavering men battled and died on Quaker Hill in the August 29th dénouement of the 1778 Battle of Rhode Island when an expeditionary force was sent from Fort Barton in Tiverton to free Newport from British occupation. Led by General John Sullivan, the Americans were forced finally to an orderly retreat. After a full-blown hurricane had devastated the allied French fleet that was to have aided the Americans, the better positioned and dug in British forces held the advantage.
Sullivan laid a trap for the British 22nd Regiment luring them with collapsing skirmish lines on the north end of Aquidneck Island, and after repeated assaults on Butt’s and Quaker Hills, the combined British and Hessian troops eventually deserted the field with heavy losses abandoning their dead and wounded. Major Samuel Ward commanded a division of black troops promised their freedom; they repulsed at least three desperate concentrated attacks by the much-feared Hessians, fighting bayonet to bayonet. Lafayette rode seventy miles in seven hours to Boston to convince the French Admiral d’Estaing to return to the battle, but to no avail. Without the French fleet to prevent British ships from cutting them off, General Sullivan had no option but to retreat to safe mainland positions lest they all be trapped. The only major battle of the Revolution in the state, it was one of the largest of the war. The Battle of Rhode Island saw 211 Americans killed or missing; 1,023 British and Hessian troops died or were captured.
Thus, Newport remained in British hands for another two years and through the terrible winter of 1778-1779 when Narraganset Bay froze over. Those that could fled to the mainland to avoid freezing and starvation. Many did not. The thousands of occupying British troops looted and destroyed homes, stealing firewood, livestock, vegetable stores, clothing, and furniture. They displaced occupants who had been generations in their homes and moved in. Burning about 300 cords of wood a day, not a tree remained standing within five miles of the harbor. No fence post or wooden grave marker escaped the campfires. Scarcely a tree survived on the entire island. Of the thousand or so buildings in the once prosperous trading city, about half were destroyed. Many invaluable books from the Redwood Library were brought to England. Occasionally, they forayed to the mainland and burned and ransacked the towns of Bristol and Warren. At the end of the war, when the Brits moved out two years later, they burned more buildings and filled the wells with dirt and garbage; they scuttled many of their own ships in the harbor to render it impassable and deny use of them to the remaining citizens. The Newporters who lost most of what they had built for 150 years, never lost their resolve to be free.
It took a hundred years for the once major city to begin to recover, and Newport never regained its former prominence in commerce or general prosperity, even with the famous mansions of out of towners on the southern end of the island.
“It only takes two facing mirrors to construct a labyrinth.” Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights, 1977
The Newporters were Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, Jews and even a few Papists. The first synagogue in America is still there. Newport’s founders fled the Puritan excesses of Massachusetts, and Newport was one of the first true hubs of religious freedom and tolerance. What they shared along with the writers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was a common understanding: that human beings found true happiness in and aspired to virtue and in a relationship with the transcendent Creator. However they varied in their specific interpretations from Deists like Thomas Jefferson to devout Christians like John Adams, all agreed that the democratic experiment was possible only with a people willing to sacrifice their own pleasure and prosperity for the good of all and to forgo immediate comfort for the future well-being, freedom and security of their children.
“No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and . . . . their minds are to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and to be deterred from those of vice . . . . These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure and order of government.” Thomas Jefferson
“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.” James Madison
“Human rights can only be assured among a virtuous people. The general government . . . can never be in danger of degenerating into a monarchy, an oligarchy, an aristocracy, or any despotic or oppressive form so long as there is any virtue in the body of the people.” George Washington
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” Benjamin Franklin
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” John Adams [i]
Yes, Jefferson and Washington were slave owners. John Adams was a poor father to his sons. Franklin was a libertine. All of them had quirks, foibles and flaws. Are we better prepared to address the new challenges that face us by ‘cancelling’ them or studying them in their complexity, both the good and the bad? How do we benefit from deconstructing and revising our history from the true with all its blemishes to the tokenism that mirrors current politics? What have we lost by dumping the objective reality of ‘the good, the true and the beautiful’ as ideals and ditching the pursuit of virtues like prudence, fortitude, temperance, and blind justice without grievance politics? How does splashing paint, burning books and tearing down monuments to saints elevate necessary conversation? And how do those things differ from the Taliban destroying ancient Buddhist monuments or brown shirts burning books in pre-war Germany when ideology overpowers reasoned thought?
As we walk along Quaker Hill, we reflect on our current state and wonder how our current citizens, bickering over trivial inconveniences like hunkering down a bit to protect one another’s health or grocery stores running out of toilet paper, would bear up to the deprivations of 1778. Mired in splintered ever shrinking groups, each with their own complaints real and imagined and self-serving remedies, is there still a cohesive vision for us as a society? [ii]Can a post-modern culture of entitlement, pleasure seeking, radical subjective individualism, shattered common truths, and abandoned moral guideposts hold together a still experimental project and vision called America? Does such a vision even still exist? Questions we and our children must ponder and resolve. Or not.
“Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Martin Luther
[i] Quote taken from Newport: A Lively Experiment 1639-1969, Rockwell Stensrud, © 2015 by Lively Experiment LLC and Rockwell Stensrud, D Giles Limited, London, in association with the Redwood Library and Athenaeum, Newport, RI
[ii] And many others, including those of luminaries of democracy in other countries:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”― Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their appetites; in proportion as their love of justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsel of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Edmund Burke