Newport is a seaside city on Aquidneck Island in Newport County, Rhode Island, United States. It is located south of Providence, and south of Boston. Known as a New England summer resort and for the famous Newport Mansions, it is the home of Salve Regina University and Naval Station Newport which houses the United States Naval War College, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, and a major United States Navy training center. A major 18th-century port city, Newport now contains among the highest number of surviving colonial buildings of any city in the United States. The city is the county seat of Newport County (a county that no longer has any governmental functions other than court administrative and sheriff corrections boundaries). Newport was known for being the city of some of the "Summer White Houses" during the administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. The population was 24,672 at the 2010 census.
Newport was founded in 1639. Its eight founders and first officers were Nicholas Easton, William Coddington, John Clarke, John Coggeshall, William Brenton, Jeremy Clark, Thomas Hazard, and Henry Bull. They left Portsmouth, Rhode Island, after a political fallout with Anne Hutchinson and her followers. As part of the agreement, Coddington and his followers took control of the southern side of the island. They were soon joined by Nicholas Easton, who had recently been expelled from Massachusetts for holding heretical beliefs. The settlement soon grew to be the largest of the four original towns of Rhode Island. Many of the first colonists in Newport quickly became Baptists, and in 1640 the second Baptist congregation in Rhode Island was formed under the leadership of John Clarke.
Peace did not last long in Newport, as many did not like Coddington's autocratic style. As a result, by 1650 a counter–faction led by Nicholas Easton was formed. The Coddington/Easton divide would dominate Newport politics for much of the 17th century. Newport soon grew to become the most important port in colonial Rhode Island. A public school was established in 1640.
In 1658 a group of Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal were allowed to settle in Newport (Jews fleeing Brazil after defending Dutch interests there against the Portuguese were denied the right to stay in then-Dutch New York until governor Peter Stuyvesant finally relented in 1655; seeking asylum in Spain and Portugal was not an option). The Newport congregation, now referred to as Congregation Jeshuat Israel, is the second oldest Jewish congregation in the United States and meets in the oldest standing synagogue in the United States, Touro Synagogue.
In 1663 the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations received its Royal Charter and Benedict Arnold (1615–1678) was elected its first Governor at Newport. Upon its completion in 1741, the Old Colony House, at the head of what is now known as Washington Square, served as a seat of Rhode Island's government, until the current Rhode Island State House in Providence was completed in 1904 and Providence became the state's sole capital city.
The beginning of the commercial activity which raised Newport to its fame as a rich port was begun by a second wave of Portuguese Jews who settled there about the middle of the 18th century. They had been practicing Judaism in secret for three hundred years in Portugal, liable to torture and murder by the Inquisition if they were caught, and were attracted to Rhode Island because of the freedom of worship there. They brought with them commercial experience and connections, capital and a spirit of enterprise. Most prominent among those were Jacob Rodrigues Rivera (died 1789), who arrived in 1745, and Aaron Lopez, who came in 1750. The former introduced into America the manufacture of sperm oil, which became one of the leading industries and made Newport rich. Newport, whose inhabitants were engaged in whale fishing, developed 17 manufactories of oil and candles and enjoyed a practical monopoly of this trade down to the Revolution.
Aaron Lopez (died May 28, 1782), who fled to Newport from Lisbon in 1752, is credited with making Newport an important center of trade. "To him in a larger degree than to any one else was due the rapid commercial development which made Newport for a quarter of a century afterward the most formidable rival of New York." He induced 40 Portuguese Jewish families to settle there. Within fourteen years of Lopez’ activity, Newport had 150 vessels engaged in trade. Lopez was involved in the slave trade, manufactured spermaceti candles, ships, barrels, rum, chocolate, textiles, clothes, shoes, hats, and bottles. He became the wealthiest man in Newport, but was denied citizenship on religious grounds, even though British law protected the rights of Jews to become citizens. He appealed to the Rhode Island legislature for redress and was refused with this ruling: “Inasmuch as the said Aaron Lopez hath declared himself by religion a Jew, this Assembly doth not admit himself nor any other of that religion to the full freedom of this Colony. So that the said Aaron Lopez nor any other of said religion is not liable to be chosen into any office in this colony nor allowed to give vote as a free man in choosing others.” Lopez persisted by applying for citizenship in Massachusetts, where it was granted.
Much of the commercial activity was centered on the area called Washington Square, which was once the center of both the commercial and civic life of the colonial city.
In the early 17th century, a large number of Quakers also settled in Newport. The evidence of this population can be seen today in the fact that many streets in the oldest part of town known as "The Point", are named after trees. The Quaker meetinghouse in Newport (1699) is the oldest house of worship in Rhode Island. In 1727, James Franklin (brother of Benjamin) was printing in Newport; in 1732, he published the first newspaper, the Rhode Island Gazette. In 1758, his son James founded the Mercury, a weekly paper. Throughout the 18th century the famous Goddard and Townsend furniture was made in Newport. Nowadays Newport continues to be famous for its 18th century "Newport Mansions". It is also known for its history of the tall ships and the tall ships racing in which teams from all over the country compete.
Throughout the 18th century, Newport suffered from an imbalance of trade with the largest colonial ports. As a result, Newport merchants were forced to develop alternatives to conventional exports.
Newport was also a major center of piracy during the late 17th and early 18th century. So many pirates used Newport as their base of operations that the London Board of Trade made an official complaint to the English government. The most famous pirate who made Newport his base was Thomas Tew. Tew was very popular with the locals; after one of his pirating voyages, it was reported that almost the whole town came out to greet him.
In the 1720s, colonial leaders, acting under pressure from the British government, arrested many pirates. Many were hanged in Newport and were buried on Goat Island.
During the colonial period, Newport was the center of the slave trade in New England. Newport was active in the “triangle trade”, in which slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean were carried to Rhode Island and distilled into rum, which was then carried to West Africa and exchanged for captives. In 1764, Rhode Island had about 30 rum distilleries, 22 in Newport alone. Many of the great fortunes made during this period were made in the slave trade. The Common Burial Ground on Farewell Street was where most of the slaves were buried. Sixty percent of slave trading voyages launched from North America— in some years more than 90%—issued from tiny Rhode Island, many from Newport. Almost half were trafficked illegally, breaking a 1787 state law prohibiting residents of the state from trading in slaves. Slave traders were also breaking federal statutes of 1794 and 1800 barring Americans from carrying slaves to ports outside the United States, and the 1807 Congressional act abolishing the transatlantic slave trade. A few Rhode Island families made substantial fortunes in the trade. William and Samuel Vernon, Newport merchants who later played an important role in financing the creation of the United States Navy, sponsored 30 African slaving ventures. However, it was the D’Wolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island, and most notably James De Wolf, who were the largest slave trading family in all of North America, mounting more than 80 transatlantic voyages, most of them illegal. The Rhode Island slave trade was broadly based. Seven hundred Rhode Islanders owned or captained slave ships, including most substantial merchants, and many ordinary shopkeepers and tradesmen, who purchased shares in slaving voyages.
American Revolutionary era
During the American Revolution, Newport was the scene of much activity. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, William Ellery, came from Newport. He later served on the Naval Committee.
In the winter of 1775 and 1776, the Rhode Island Legislature put militia General William West in charge of rooting out loyalists in Newport, and several notable individuals such as Joseph Wanton and Thomas Vernon were exiled to the northern part of the state. In the fall of 1776, the British, seeing that Newport could be used as a naval base to attack New York (which they had recently occupied), took over the city. The population of Newport had divided loyalties and many pro–independence "Patriots" left town while loyalist "Tories" remained. For the next three years Newport was a British stronghold.
In the summer of 1778, the Americans began the campaign known as the Battle of Rhode Island. This was the first joint operation between the Americans and the French after the signing of the Treaty of Alliance. The Americans based in Tiverton planned a formal siege of the town. However, the French (wanting a frontal assault) refused to take part in the siege. This weakened the American position and the British were able to expel the Americans from the island. The following year, the British, wanting to concentrate their forces in New York, abandoned Newport.
On July 10, 1780, a French expedition sent by King Louis XVI, commanded by Rochambeau, arrived with an army of 450 officers and 5,300 men in Narragansett Bay off Newport. For the rest of the war Newport was the base of the French forces in the United States. In July 1781, Rochambeau was finally able to leave Newport for Providence to begin the decisive march to Yorktown, Virginia, along with General George Washington. The first Catholic mass in Rhode Island was said in Newport during this time. Rochambeau Monument in Kings Park on Wellington Avenue along Newport Harbor commemorates Rochambeau's contributions to the Revolutionary War and to Newport's history.
By the time the war ended (1783) Newport's population had fallen from over 9,000 (according to the census of 1774) to fewer than 4,000. Over 200 abandoned buildings were torn down in the 1780s. Also, the war destroyed Newport's economic wealth, as years of military occupation closed the city to any form of trade. The Newport merchants moved away, some to Providence, others to Boston and New York.
Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, wealthy southern planters seeking to escape the heat began to build summer cottages on Bellevue Avenue such as Kingscote (1839). Around the middle of the century, wealthy Yankees such as the Wetmore family also began constructing larger mansions such as Chateau-sur-Mer (1852) nearby. Most of these early families made a substantial part of their fortunes in the Old China Trade.
By the turn of the 20th century, many of the nation's wealthiest families were summering in Newport, including the Vanderbilts, Astors, and the Widener family, who constructed the largest "cottages", such as The Breakers (1895) and Miramar. They resided for a brief social season in grand, gilded mansions with elaborate receiving, dining, music and ballrooms, but with few bedrooms, since the guests were expected to have "cottages" of their own. Many of the homes were designed by the New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, who himself kept a house in Newport.
The social scene at Newport is described in Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence. Wharton's own Newport "cottage" was called Land's End. Today, many mansions continue in private use. Hammersmith Farm, the mansion from which Jackie Kennedy was married, was open to tourists as a "house museum", but has been purchased and reconverted into a private residence. Many other mansions remain open to tourists. Still others were converted into academic buildings for Salve Regina College in the 1930s, when the owners could no longer afford their tax bills.
In the mid-19th century, a large number of Irish immigrants settled in Newport. The Fifth Ward of Newport (in the southern part of the city) became a staunch Irish neighborhood for many generations. To this day, St. Patrick's Day is an important day of pride and celebration in Newport, with a large parade going down Thames Street.
The oldest Catholic parish in Rhode Island, St. Mary's, is located on Spring Street, though the current building is not the original one.
Since the colonial era, Rhode Island did not have a fixed capital but rotated its legislative sessions among Providence, Newport, Bristol, East Greenwich and Kingston. In 1854 the sessions in the cities other than Providence and Newport were eliminated, and finally, in 1900, Newport was dropped. A constitutional amendment that year restricted the meetings of the legislature to Providence. Connecticut was the only other state to have more than one capital at one time.
Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower both made Newport the sites of their "Summer White Houses" during their years in office. Eisenhower stayed at Quarters A at the Naval War College and at what became known as the Eisenhower House, while Kennedy used Hammersmith Farm next door.
In the 20th century, immigrants from Portugal and the Caribbean began settling in Newport, adding to the diversity of the city.
The departure of the Cruiser-Destroyer fleet from Newport and the closure of nearby Naval Air Station Quonset Point in 1973 was devastating to the local economy. The population of Newport decreased, businesses closed, and property values plummeted. However, in the late 1960s, the city began revitalizing the downtown area with the construction of America's Cup Avenue, malls of stores and condominiums, and upscale hotels. Construction was completed on the Newport Bridge. The Preservation Society of Newport County began opening Newport's historic mansions to the public, and the tourist industry became Newport's primary commercial enterprise over the subsequent years.