The Evolution of Newport's Economy From the Colonial Era to Beyond the War of 1812

Kenneth M Walsh, Salve Regina University


Newport, Rhode Island, at the start of the reign of George III (1760) was one of the major international maritime trading centers on the eastern seaboard of British North America. Newport was expanding its maritime commerce. One hundred years later, Newport's maritime commerce had suffered a catastrophic loss and Aquidneck Island was becoming a summer vacation destination for the wealthy American industrialists. This dissertation seeks to explain the changes that occurred in Newport's economy in those years. Newport, Rhode Island was founded in 1639, and the Colony was chartered by King Charles II of England in 1663. Due to the efforts of the Rev. John Clarke and Roger Williams, the Colony became the first nonsectarian state of its time. Because of its religious freedom, Newport became home to a host of enterprising merchants such as Aaron Lopez, a Jew from Portugal, and Quaker Thomas Robinson. During the American Revolution Newport was occupied by the British (1776) and besieged by the Colonials and the French in August of 1778. The British destroyed much of the city's housing and caused a large depression in its economy. They left in 1779, taking a number of prominent Tory merchants with them to New York City. The French arrived in Newport in 1780, bringing hard currency with them, whereupon some of the Colonial merchants returned. Newport's economy then began to recover as the maritime merchants started to trade with the Baltic countries and China; however, the events leading up to the War of 1812 and the actions of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars again suppressed trade. The loss of the majority of the major maritime merchants through death or retirement, and other events related to the Industrial Revolution in Rhode Island, put Newport into a decline once again. With Providence flourishing as an industrial and trading center, Newport found itself unable to compete effectively. By the mid-nineteenth century, Newport was relying increasingly on tourism and manufacturing to survive. None of the literature reviewed to date has provided a comprehensive description of the economic structure of Newport and a detailed analysis of the various adverse impacts of events to say with certainty which factors caused Newport's maritime shipping economy to eventually decline. In most cases scholars pointed to the British occupation. There is enough information in the researched material, however, to demonstrate that this was not the case. An analysis of the events after the American Revolution indicates that Newport had fully recovered by 1800 and was doing a profitable maritime trade. This study made use of detailed tax records kept by the Newport Historical Society; Rhode Island census records; the Historic Newspaper Archives, which includes the Newport Mercury, Newport Gazette and the Providence Gazette; first-hand accounts of events in Newport during and after the Revolution; maps from the Clements Library at the University of Michigan and the British War Department; and land records at City Hall in Newport and Town Hall in Portsmouth. It also used Microsoft Excel and MATLAB to analyze the available data.

Subject Area

American history|Economic history

Recommended Citation

Walsh, Kenneth M, "The Evolution of Newport's Economy From the Colonial Era to Beyond the War of 1812" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations. AAI3560441.